France 1-1 Ireland (AET; France wi: In which the author is unable to bring himself to complete that scoreline
Image by toksuede on Flickr; spotted at / robbed from You'll Never Win Anything With Kids.
Secondly: the Thierry Henry thing. I'm going to steer clear of the tabs for the next few days, while judiciously picking my way through the broadsheets and having my finger poised by my radio's volume dial. (Can you imagine what Liveline will be like if they start on this topic? Kill me. Kill me now.) There is going to be such a lot of hysterical nonsense emitted about Henry's deed. We are firmly within the English football sphere of influence, for good and ill. It'll still be a shame if we replicate the worst, unbecoming, Fleet-Streety aspects of that culture, Henry's handball taking its place alongside Cristiano Ronaldo's wink.
Of course, Ronaldo's wink was utterly irrelevant to Wayne Rooney's red card (not that the message has got through to everybody). Henry's handball counted. Sweet Jesus, did it ever. But here's the dealio, campers, something you should have figured out a long time ago: this type of shit happens a lot — a lot — in sport. Sport disguises itself as life honed and concentrated, as a palace of justice in Lego, all instant judgements and inevitable punishments. It dissembles its true nature: that it's just like the rest of the universe. As a matter of course, players will skirt the fringes of legality, and will sometimes cross the line: our guys, their guys, everydamnone's eyes. You just have to hope that the arbiters can do their best. What Henry did was wrong. But to pick on this one incident as being somehow especially contemptible is to be wilfully blind to all the sport you've ever seen. And if we're to demand Henry's head on a spike, shouldn't we have done the same for, say, Damien Duff for his dive against Spain in 2002? (That Ian Harte missed the subsequent penalty is irrelevant, of course.) Remember Alan McLoughlin's guilty look towards the linesman in Cagliari in 1990?
While we're at it, a request: can we leave Platini and Blatter out of this? Blatter is everyone's favourite punchbag, usually with due cause. Platini also deserves some of the criticism he gets, though he has preposterously been turned into a Napoleonic bogeyman for our time by many in English football. The seeding issue stank somewhat, but bear in mind that the refereeing in both legs was consistently excellent and fair. From neither performance could a sane mind deduce interference from on high. Any fears of homerism in the second leg were unfounded. I did feel that more could have been done to curb the excessive physicality of Gallas' and, especially, Squillaci's aerial challenges. But a ref bent on nudging the big team towards victory would have given Anelka a penalty. (Not that I'm saying the ref was wrong, but did anyone else spot Given's right hand making contact with Anelka's shin?)
The anger is understandable. That doesn't mean it's right.
(And to those who are shocked that their favouritest player could have stooped so low: are we to think that his soul was pure just because his game was so enchanting at Arsenal? Give me a break.)
What should keep us awake at night are the chances. I struggle to recall them all right now without recourse to video; trauma has mushed the immediate memory of this game into two hours of terror, mixed with optimistic dread and that unclassifiable feeling you get when the other lot score. But there were chances, that much I do remember, and if you don't take your chances, blah blah fucking blah. If we need an emblem for the defeat part of this defeat, let it be that.
Because the defeat was not just a defeat. If we'd let ourselves admit it more often, we'd realise that the brutal frankness of the scoreline is rarely all there is to sport. Take Giovanni Trapattoni. I hesitate to say that the nature of the defeat — and the fact that he got us this close at all — are a vindication of his management; not because I think he has failed, but because it asks the question from a false basis. Far too often, we go in for the adversarial system in sport, with the incumbent as perpetual defendant. More often than not, a straight guilty or not guilty verdict is unsatisfactory. Some of the coverage of Trap since his arrival has been odd to say the least. Denis Walsh of the Sunday Times — a fine writer, mind you — lamented the absence of romance in Ireland's style a couple of weekends ago. A writer for another Sunday paper, who shall remain anonymous on the principle that it is wrong to kick a man while he's stupid, has wailed on that baby for what seems like forever. One wonders whether they remember the history of this team. When has it ever been about even tipping a wink towards the, *cough*, beautiful game?
One wonders whether some even remember two years ago, how godawful things were in the freefalling Staunton era. Memories can be short in sport, but some of the criticism of Trapattoni has foolishly neglected to bear in mind his greatest achievement: giving the players their belief back. I reckon that some of this renewal has come from within the players themselves; despite the sniping aimed in their direction amid the rubble of Nicosia and Serravalle, they've always come across as a proud lot. But Trapattoni's role in this should not be downplayed. The methods by which he chose to do this may have displeased many, but how was this supposed to be easy? What the team needed was someone to take control, to systematically give them new life.
Systematic need not always mean boring. Sometimes, though, it, um, does; Ireland have been that at times. Some of this has been exaggerated in the retelling. One feels that had Trapattoni not come from Italy, he might have been cut more slack. Some have tried to classify Ireland's system as catenaccio, which is patently false. Indeed, Trap has consistently fielded four attacking players: not exactly the epitome of derring-do, but not the most negative of mindsets. However, there have been times, especially when defending a lead, that timorousness has overtaken the team, the midfield retreating glacially until they are almost duplicating the roles of the backline. This backfired away to Bulgaria (though what mainly backfired was the concept of Kevin Kilbane, left-full).
I myself have been sucked into believing in Trap's innate suffocating negativity. I imagined that Ireland would try to lock the first leg down to prevent the concession of the away goal. Yet Ireland went for it, in a way. They didn't go about things with reckless abandon, exactly, but not was it as negative a display as characterised. It was honest if unsuccessful toil for two-thirds of the game, fatigued chasing for the rest
In the main, Trap's ways have worked. Again, remember how recently it was that we were talking of the worst performances in the team's history. To get so close, so soon, is remarkable. Maybe if, say, Andy Reid were in the team, it would have made the difference. I have my doubts, though I can't disprove it. Thing is, you can't prove it, either. It's certainly not the cut-and-dried situation many believe it to be.
But then, what is? Not this match, not this sport. I don't want to go too far down the road of declaring moral victory. I don't quite believe in the sainthood of Roy Keane, but he was pretty much spot on in Amsterdam in 2000, declaring himself mightily unsatisfied. But the emotion one feels in the wake of last night is not neat despair. Another consequence of being a subset of English football is that while technique is not prized as it ought to be, fight is. In England, they are going through a difficult phase in which they try to reconcile themselves with the notion that most of the rest of the footballing world has different priorities (how this goes is one of the most fascinating issues in the sport today). The old gung-ho attitude is becoming gauche. But it should be remembered that it is not an inherently undesirable quality; in fact, it is enviable, and this need not be a philistine position to adopt. Would that Ireland could even play like Croatia, a country with a similar population. But we can't, not right now. We've had to make the most of what we have, and with determination and organisation, that's what we've done.
Or have we? That's one of sport's eternal questions, I'm afraid. Sport's a fucker. That's what we take away from this game: a nagging sense of opportunity missed coupled with a great pride in how we've gone about things which, in this writer, has at least pushed against the squeamishness he feels about the idea of national-team-as-proxy-nation. We're proud, but it's not as simple as that. We lost, but it's not as simple as that.
There is so, so much more to say about last night, but I'll leave you with this thought: everyone who has ever mocked Richard Dunne can fuck off.