Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fair Play

The world of soccer was shaken this week by an incredible incident in the World Cup qualifying match between Ireland and France. Only one of the teams would go through to the field of 32, and France was heavily favored. Ireland played brilliantly, surviving regular time and most of an overtime period. With 17 minutes left before the match would have been decided by penalty kicks, France scored a goal that has left Ireland bereft.

French striker Thierry Henry was behind the Irish defense at the moment of a free kick deep in Irish territory. For the uninitiated, that act constitutes "offsides" in soccer, and play should have stopped. But no whistle sounded, and play continued. Henry couldn't quite catch up to the ball which was headed out of bounds, and so he reached out with his hand, pulled the ball back in front of his feet, and then passed to an onrushing teammate who headed the ball in for the winning goal. Like the "offsides" that wasn't whistled, a "handball" should have been called, and the ball awarded to Ireland. All 11 Irish players, and their fans as well, shouted in appeal. Unbelievably, the referee signaled the goal and the end of the game. France will make their customary appearance in the World Cup, and Ireland is left to struggle with another indignity.

I visited my brother Tom and his wife Debbie a couple weeks ago in Westfield, Indiana. In the midst of our flurry of reminiscences, Tom talked about our neighborhood sports activities as kids. My brothers and I were the organizers and central figures in sandlot games of all sorts - bicycle racing, football, softball, and basketball among them. As Tom rightly recalled, one of the amazing features of our "league" was that players called fouls and violations on themselves. Winning was nice, but the joy of competition and a standard of fair play was even more important.

Thierry Henry has admitted his handball and expressed sympathy for Ireland, going so far as to endorse an additional playoff game... a do-over if you will. The world soccer governing body, FIFA, has staunchly refused, saying that the referee's (non)decision was final. Henry's handball will live on in infamy, tainting an otherwise wonderful career. I think the taint is deserved. Though he admitted his flagrant violation after the fact, had he grown up in my neighborhood, he would have immediately gone to the referee to say, "I'm sorry, I cheated. Let's play on."

It isn't to be. Winning is so much more important than fair play.

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