Thierry Henry’s handball gets a big thumbs-down in Europe

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Oddly, festive car horns echoed through the city even during the first half of the France-Ireland soccer melodrama Wednesday night.

More muted came the sounds later in the evening when France advanced to next year’s World Cup, but then this morning came the sound that figures to hover around Europe rather durably: heavy chatter about the startling act of cheating in the 103rd minute that won France passage to South Africa 2010.

Mouths on TV, typists on the Internet and people holding actual human conversations combined for quite a blare over Thierry Henry’s double handball that set up the goal that rescued France and, more delicately, how it might taint a realized, idealized career.

Entering this second leg of the France-Ireland playoff, Henry stirred mostly sentiment as a popular 32-year-old craving maybe one last World Cup go while pristine enough to appear in shaving ads with Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Exiting it, a single moment seemed bound for eternal notoriety while the qualification of the 1998 World Cup titlist and 2006 finalist seemed a fast triviality.

Videotape had helped millions see repeatedly what the referee didn’t, and Henry’s yes-I-did-it-but-I’m-not-the-referee confession didn’t help.

The sports daily L’Equipe utilized a back-page headline, “Hand of God,” a reference to Diego Maradona’s characterization of his infamous, cheating handball goal for Argentina against England in the 1986 World Cup. Le Parisien: “Henry Saves France With His Hand.” Le Figaro: “Henry: ‘I Am Not the Referee’.”

On the TV channel TF1, Henry’s former France teammate Bixente Lizarazu caught the guilty vibe with his overall assessment: “It was not something to be proud of. I’m not going to party.”

Up in Sweden, the newspaper Aftonbladet sympathized both with Irish fans and with referee Martin Hansson, a Swedish firefighter, and his two Swedish assistants, all of whom missed Henry’s stunt, but the newspaper assumed “that Team Hansson has also forfeited its right to continue to take charge of major international matches. Anything else would be a further insult to the Irish nation.”

Over in Ireland, seething held sway, from assistant coach Liam Brady’s noting of “a shameful day for football,” to calls for a replay which the governing body FIFA already refused, to defender Richard Dunne’s report that Henry confessed and said Ireland deserved to win when they sat together on the pitch afterward, to captain Robbie Keane’s satire that Henry “almost caught it and walked into the net with it.”

In the Irish Times, Mark Lawrenson wrote, “The man cheated. He controlled the ball with the second handball. It is a Maradona moment.” On BBC Radio -- famously, by now -- Ireland captain Robbie Keane speculated that football honchos such as Michael Platini (UEFA president) and Sepp Blatter (FIFA president) would be “probably clapping hands, Platini sitting up there on the phone to Sepp Blatter, probably texting each other, delighted with the result,” because a big-market country had advanced.

Most central to Henry’s reputation, though, might be the epicenter of soccer gab, London, where Henry honed his image from 1999 to 2007 at the North London club Arsenal.

The Sun: “Le Hand of God: Cheat Theirry Does A Maradona.” The Mirror: “French Nickers.” The Independent: “Hand Gaul!” A Daily Mail survey of readers: “Have you lost all respect for Thierry Henry?”

Some defended it as a reflex or a common act, but opinion hovered closer to an Arsenal fan who wrote, “I watched this man in the stands at Highbury throughout his career at the club. I now regret doing so. He had a rare opportunity to prove he was above the norm. He will not regret it and will be remembered much as Ben Johnson and Maradona. . . . He is a cheat.”

Tony Cascarino, who played for five British and two French clubs, wrote in the Times of London, “He speaks so eloquently, but to me now he’ll always be insincere, a faker, someone who cares only about himself.” An esteemed columnist, Richard Williams in the Guardian, found it worse than Maradona’s act because one entailed “a street kid’s instinct” while Henry’s, “a sophisticated man, and a much-decorated one.” A retired referee, Graham Poll, writing in the Daily Mail, forgave the referee and called it “disgraceful.”

And Mark Ogden in the Telegraph found it galling that Henry “has ruined -- perhaps even ended -- the career of an honest man in order to book his ticket to South Africa.”

“Take a look at his post-match ‘confession,’ ” Ogden wrote. “Henry said, ‘I will be honest, it was a hand ball. But I’m not the referee. I played it, the referee allowed it. That’s a question you should ask him.’ Well done, Thierry. Not only do you bend the rules to breaking point, you then blame somebody else for letting you get away with it!”

As Henry began a potentially loud and uncomfortable second life, he told reporters after the game: “Obviously I would have preferred that things panned out differently but I am not the official. I do not think we have stolen qualification.”

He might just have to repeat that a few times from here.