The events of 18th November 2009 are well known to those who consider themselves fans of the French or, more pertinently, the Republic of Ireland national team.
Sunday’s rematch between these two sides in the second round of the European Championships has been billed in most quarters as a chance for the Irish to finally exact their revenge upon their Gallic neighbours.
“We will go to play the French without a fear in the world and we have a little bit of history with them to feed off. We owe them one,” said Richard Dunne on ITV, understandably still hurting from the Thierry Henry handball that deprived him from playing in a major tournament at the peak of his career. The beneficiary of the 103rd minute handball, William Gallas, has had his say too.
“This team will want revenge,” the ex-Chelsea defender told L’Équipe (via the Irish Times), warning the French side that Irish coach Martin O’Neill will be reminding his troops about the incident in the build-up to the game.
In fact, O’Neill and the Ireland squad have downplayed the impact of 2009, with the Derry man stressing that the main driving force behind his players is their love for their country.
“It’s forgotten about now. We were obviously devastated at the time because it cost us a place in the World Cup finals but we are playing a very good French team now and we feel that we can cause a bit of an upset.
“When it comes to the Thierry Henry handball, it’s not even in our minds,” emphasised Shane Long when facing the media on Friday morning (via RTÉ).
It’s impossible to know what is being said behind closed doors, but the Irish starting eleven keeping their emotions in check will be crucial in Lyon. Some of Ireland’s more yellow card-prone players – James McClean to single out one example – will need little motivation ahead of a game of this magnitude, and constant urges to avenge Henry’s ‘Hand of Frog’ may result in the underdogs playing a portion of the game with a numerical disadvantage to add to the discrepancies that already exist thanks to France’s home advantage and significant pool of talent.
In any case, Ireland’s sense of injustice was arguably overblown in the aftermath of the 2010 World Cup qualifier. While complaints levelled at UEFA for their last-minute decision to seed four of the eight teams involved in the play-offs were justified, Ireland could easily have avoided a situation where an extra-time handball denied them of the chance of only a fourth-ever World Cup finals place. Drawn in Group 9 of the UEFA qualifiers with Italy, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Montenegro and Georgia, Ireland, then under Giovanni Trapattoni’s supervision, could only manage to win a meagre four of their ten qualifiers, with two of those coming against bottom seeds Georgia.
A 0-0 draw in Podgorica in September 2008 was markedly unimpressive, as was the late concession of a Kevin Kilbane own goal in the home game against an average Bulgarian side to throw away a 1-0 lead that Ireland had held since the first minute at Croke Park six months later.
Italy, then world champions, appeared a formidable prospect in Bari days later, but upon reflection, their side bears resemblance to the side that Ireland beat on Wednesday night: an impressive, if ageing, defence of Gianluca Zambrotta, Fabio Cannavaro, Giorgio Chiellini and Fabio Grosso in front of Gianluigi Buffon provided the bedrock to a front six that, Daniele de Rossi and Andrea Pirlo aside, were rather average.
And when Giampaolo Pazzini was harshly sent off just three minutes into his first international start, Trapattoni’s men should have taken control. Instead, they went behind to a Vincenzo Iaquinta goal and then spent 80 minutes in search of an equaliser. When it eventually arrived from Robbie Keane, it felt like a win – but in reality, it was a huge opportunity lost to take control of the group.
After a decent point away to Bulgaria (where the Italians also drew) and a home victory over bogey side Cyprus, the return against Italy looked to be heading Ireland’s way after Glenn Whelan and Mauro Camoranesi had traded early goals. Seán St. Ledger bundled home his first international goal with just three minutes to spare, leaving Ireland just a point behind their manager’s homeland with just one game to go.
However, Alberto Gilardino snatched a point moments later to ensure the Italians topped the group and he went on to score an incredible late hat-trick as his side came from 2-0 down to beat Cyprus in Parma. Meanwhile, Ireland were drawing 0-0 at home to Montenegro as they faced the prospect of the play-offs. As evidenced by the their two showings against Ireland, that Italian side, world champions or not, were no great shakes – they drew with both Paraguay and New Zealand before losing 3-2 to Slovakia to crash out at the first hurdle at the finals in South Africa.
After a flat performance in the first leg at Croke Park, when a deflected Nicolas Anelka effort was the only goal of the game, Ireland were excellent in the game at the Stade de France. Such was the extent of their dominance, the Irish should have been long out of sight by the time extra-time came around and gave Henry and Gallas the opportunity to break hearts across the country.
John O’Shea and Damien Duff were particularly guilty of spurning clear-cut chances as the visitors battered their hosts in the best performance of Trapattoni’s reign. Even allowing for Henry’s act of foul play, the goal Ireland conceded was eminently preventable. Paul McShane, on for the injured O’Shea, lost the flight of Florent Malouda’s free-kick from deep while Shay Given, always more proficient when shot-stopping than commanding his area stayed rooted to his line and failed to stop the ball travelling across his goalmouth.
The injustice was not in doubt – but Ireland could probably have done more to ensure that they were never in that position in the first place. The desperate appeals in the aftermath of the tie for a replay or for Ireland to be entered as a 33rd team in the World Cup reportedly left the FAI as the subject of laughter from the FIFA executive committee.
Talk of revenge amongst the squad in the dressing room before Sunday’s last sixteen clash in Lyon is likely to be muted because of the presence of Roy Keane in O’Neill’s backroom team. As Ipswich manager at the time of the incident, Keane criticised the FAI for their reaction to the handball, pointing to the dubious penalty awarded to Ireland in the qualifier against Georgia as an example of how these things happen in football.
Keane also questioned the defence and goalkeeper for allowing the ball to bounce in the six-yard box after travelling such a distance, famously saying (via The Guardian):
“They can complain all they want but France are going to the World Cup – get over it.”
The revenge aspect will be further dampened by the fact that four Ireland players involved back in 2009 – O’Shea, Whelan, Robbie Keane and Aiden McGeady – are all likely to begin the game at the Stade des Lumières on the bench, should O’Neill keep faith in the team that defeated Italy on Wednesday. France on the other hand will probably field Hugo Lloris, Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna, all of whom featured seven years ago.
France have flattered to deceive in their group games, requiring late winners to overturn both Romania and Albania before playing out a 0-0 draw in a game with little riding on it against Switzerland. The manner in which those sides approached their matches against the French is something O’Neill will surely have noted – keep compact, maintain discipline and exploit the weaknesses that this side have.
Romania looked extremely threatening from set-pieces in the tournament’s opener, a prospect that will have the likes of Shane Duffy, should he retain his place, licking his lips. Albania were dangerous on the counter-attack despite essentially fielding four full-backs in their starting eleven and managed to restrict France to having their first shot on target in the 89th minute of the game.
That said, it only took one such shot on target for Antoine Griezmann to break the deadlock and a second for Dimitri Payet to add some gloss to the scoreline. This French side are dangerous and possess extremely talented players, but the consensus is that Didier Deschamps has thus far failed to stumble upon his best team.
The rumour goes that the 1998 World Cup winner will revert to the starting eleven that began the tournament, meaning a return to a 4-3-3 system with Griezmann playing from the right, Payet from the left and Olivier Giroud leading the line.
While the ‘revenge mission’ tag is inescapable, the fundamental fact remains that Ireland have a tangible, if slim, chance of overcoming the hosts on Sunday.
Should they avoid being drawn into the emotions of tackling the ghosts of 2009 and focus on combining the positive elements of the Italy win with the manner by which Romania and Albania ran France so close, a second historic day for Irish sport becomes a little more discernible.
David Kennedy, Pundit Arena
Read More About: 2010 world cup, didier deschamps, Euro 2016, France, Ireland, ireland international football, irish football, Irish football news, Martin O'Neill, Republic of Ireland, Revenge, richard dunne, robbie keane, roy keane, shane long, shay given, Thierry Henry, world cup qualifiers