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Is Thierry Henry a cheat?

Or was he simply acting according to the ethics of modern sportsmanship?

"As cynical and repugnant a piece of cheating as you will ever witness" – so wrote Matthew Norman in the Evening Standard of Thierry Henry’s handball in the build-up to William Gallas’s goal that took France to the World Cup finals at Ireland’s expense.

Now if ever there was an argument for the use of TV replays to assist officials, this was it - particularly coming as it does in the wake of the officials’ errors in the Chelsea Manchester United and Liverpool Birmingham City games this month. The purpose of this article is to look not at the officials but at Thierry Henry’s actions.

Henry’s account of the incident is a little confused. In the after match TV interview he said: "Yes it was hand". Asked to describe his part in the goal, he said: "It was hand but I am not the referee...I was behind two Irish players. The ball rebounded and touched my hand. The referee did not whistle. I continued to play but of course it was hand". He was then asked: Does that not affect your enjoyment of it? He replied, "No. No, we have qualified [for the World Cup finals]".

Kevin Kilbane, one of the Irish team said that he asked Thierry immediately after the incident, "Did you handle it?" and that Henry replied "Yes, but I did not mean to".

Henry’s "last word" on the incident was made through Twitter: "I'm not the referee...but if I hurt someone I'm sorry". Is that an apology? The TV replay on the other hand shows Henry move his hand not once but twice to control the ball before setting up Gallas to score. He knew what he was doing. There have been copious reactions from everyone from the French and Irish Governments down. Matt Dawson - Rugby World Cup winner with England - said on BBC Radio Five Live that Henry had done “what any professional sportsperson would have done in his position”.

That reminded me of 2002 Heineken Cup Final. With Leicester holding a 15-9 lead in the dying minutes but Munster have a 5 metre scrum in front of the posts. As Munster scrum half, Peter Stringer, is about to put the ball into the scrum, Leicester Flanker Neil Back illegally knocks the ball out of Stinger’s hand and back on the Leicester side of the scrum. The referee is unsighted. The ball is cleared and Leicester have won the Heineken Cup. After the game, Neil Back says, “I did what I had to do”.

I found myself debating that incident on BBC Five-Live's Drive programme on the Monday after the game ex-England hooker, Brian Moore said that you could play fair but you would lose. He argued that if you want to win rugby matches against New Zealand or South Africa you had to do what it took. In other words Neil Back – and presumably Thierry Henry - were right.

So did Henry cheat or did he simply act according to the ethos of the modern professional sport? Brian Moore and Matt Dawson would tell towards the latter view. On the other hand

Former Irish international, Tony Cascarino, writing in The Times has no doubt; "He [Henry] speaks so eloquently, but to me now he’ll always be insincere, a faker, someone who cares only about himself".

(For a fascinating account of how some infringements of the laws of sport are seen as cheating while others are just part of the game, see What Sport tells us about Life by Ed Smith, Penguin, 2008. Chapter 10: "When is cheating really cheating?") Where does all this leave Thierry Henry’s reputation? I thought of that quote from Tom Brown’s Schooldays – a hugely influential book in the Muscular Christianity movement -: "A character for steadiness once gone is not easily recovered as Tom found".

I rather feel that Henry will find that his reputation as an honest player, having been shot to pieces, will not easily be recovered.

There is an irony that on Twitter Henry appears to follow four people – one of them Diego Maradona. I always think it is such a great tragedy that Maradona, once the greatest player on the planet is remembered more for his "Hand of God" cheated goal in the 1986 World Cup than for his brilliance as a footballer. I fear that Henry too will be remembered more for this incident that his brilliance as a player. I can fully understand that in the heat of the moment, almost instinctively, the hand moves to control the ball. But imagine what a reputation for integrity and sportsmanship Thierry Henry would have gained, had he immediately come clean and helped the referee to make the right decision. He would have gained in stature but, of course, missed out on the World Cup. What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole World Cup and lose his soul?

The FIFA Fair Play code states "Winning is without value if victory has been achieved unfairly or dishonestly...Playing fair requires courage and character...Games are pointless unless played fairly." From his joy at winning, it is unlikely that Henry would agree.

Robert Butcher and Angela Schneider have argued that any deliberate cheating diminishes the game ("Fair Play as respect for the Game" in Ethics in Sport, William J Morgan, Klaus V Meier, Angela J Schneider (Editors). Human Kinetics 2001). Thierry Henry showed a profound disregard for the game of football, which has made him the man he is today.

When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he replied, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.' (Matthew 22:37-39). And again he said: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12). Imagine if sport was played with that attitude. If we tried to love [play fairly against, respect, honour] our opponent, sport would be played in a different spirit. The criteria of only treating people - teammates, opponents, officials - as we would want to be treated would revolutionize how sport is played.

My conclusion is that the great game of football has been tarnished by Thierry Henry's action. Henry's own reputation has been damaged beyond repair. I would love to see FIFA for once act decisively and ban Thierry Henry for the 2010 World Cup. But I am not prepared to see cheating as the only way to play. I give the last word to Sharon Stoll who writes in the introduction to the book Who says This is Cheating?: "We, as former coaches and athletes, actually believe in the proposition that sport can be ethical". Amen to that.

This article first appeared in The Times-on-line in November 2009

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