Jim White

A replay is the only way

Jim White

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Now it has become political. Ireland's Prime Minister Brian Cowen has asked President Nicolas Sarkozy to step in to insist the World Cup qualifier between their two nations be replayed.

Mr Cowen has talked of the moral imperative, of the need to demonstrate the primacy of the rule book, of showing young people around the world that cheats do not prosper. And, though such a decision really should be nothing to do with him, Sarkozy probably agrees. Replaying the match would benefit everyone. Most French people of my acquaintance, already depressed by the decline in their national team, feel sullied and compromised by the manner of their qualification. They would welcome the chance to do it properly. Not just to win without recourse to a bit of ball-juggling, but to win in style, in the French way, the proper way.

How too would the referee benefit from the game being replayed. Poor Martin Hansson actually had a very good match on Wednesday, getting every decision right. Except the crucial one. He must have gone back to his hotel room after the game, run through the video of the decisive moment and immediately felt like someone who has just handed over their bank account details to an emailer from Nigeria who has been in touch promising to deposit therein several million quid. He was conned. And now his reputation is a joke. To erase this game from the record books is the only way he can be returned to the top table of officials.

Indeed, even Thierry Henry himself would be better off with a replay. Sure, his actions have projected his country to the finals, an outcome that seemed highly unlikely as they laboured against Ireland's spirited opposition. But the pay-off is, his carefully cultivated, hugely lucrative reputation is now terminally sullied. This wasn't Nicolas Anelka handling the ball, then admitting he knew what he was doing but didn't really care because as the ref didn't see it effectively it didn't happen. This was Thierry Henry, the clean cut promoter of clean cut razor blades. Hearing him deliver such a cynical view of his misdemeanour was a bit like hearing Sir Bobby Charlton outing himself as Belle de Jour.

Diego Maradona enjoyed a wonderful career, achieving the ultimate when he captained his country to World Cup triumph. But his wider renown has never fully escaped the shadow of his actions in the quarter final at Mexico '86. Even those who propose him as the finest player ever to play the game always have to add the caveat of his flagrant cheating that day against England. And such equivocation about his place in the pantheon is not just confined to England, where there is an obvious added reason not to forget.

What was the headline the French newspaper l'Equipe chose for its front page the day after the infamous game? "La main de Dieu". The Hand of God, a reference 23 years on to the Argentine's notoriety. Now, after the events in the Stade de France, Henry is forever linked with the cheat Maradona. Even if he were to lead his team to victory in Johannesburg next July, scoring a hat trick of beautiful goals in the final and then donating his winner's cheque to the local Aids foundation, the hand that lifts the cup will be forever regarded as tainted. A replay, however, especially if he himself proposed one, would go a long way to erasing such a stain on his character.

Plus there is precedent. And it involves a Frenchman. It happened in 1999 when Arsenal won a FA Cup tie against Sheffield United with a goal from Kanu which flouted the convention that a side cedes possession when the ball is put of play following an injury. Arsene Wenger graciously offered Sheffield a replay. Which Arsenal subsequently won, this time in far more satisfactory circumstances.

All this suggests a replay is not only essential, but practical and of enormous, cathartic benefit. But of course it is not going to happen. The machinery of the game has moved on, Fifa say there is no time to insert it into the calendar. And besides, the outcome is not one they regret. So France - shame-faced and embarrassed - will be in the draw on December 4. Henry will be booed every time he kicks the ball. Hansson can forget ever officiating in a big game again. The entire nation of Ireland will now be wound up in righteous indignation for the immediate future. But Fifa will be fine. Because for them, apparently, it never happened.

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