Monday, June 21, 2010

Irish Eyes are still not smiling.

One of the more controversial subplots of World Cup Qualifying and the subsequent 32-team field it produced was the way France snuck into the tournament or, more appropriately, the way Ireland was kept out of it. Back in November, France and Ireland met in a 2-leg playoff to decide one of the final four World Cup qualifiers out of UEFA . France won the first match, 1-0, in Dublin. Ireland was on its way to winning the second match by the same score when sportsmanship went out the window. International superstar Thierry Henry intentionally touched the ball with his hand in the goalie box which immediately led to the game-tying goal. The score gave France a 1-1 draw which was enough to avoid a shootout and advance to South Africa. The soccer world was outraged at Henry for the unsportsmanlike play and FIFA for not having an adequate system in place to prevent such blatant cheating.

As hard as it is to believe, amid all of the flopping and fake injuries in soccer exists a personal conduct code very similar to that of professional golf. Unlike the NBA or NFL where honesty is frowned upon in competition, the soccer community puts a great deal of emphasis on fair play which is why Henry was so roundly criticized for “getting away with” the infraction. An intentional handball is the cardinal sin in the world’s most popular sport. Not only should France’s goal not have counted but Henry should’ve been red carded and kicked out of the game. That would’ve given Ireland a tremendous opportunity to score again which would’ve sent it to the World Cup free and clear of having to win a shootout. At the very least, Ireland would’ve had the opportunity to advance via penalty kicks. Instead, Henry held on to his secret until after the game and France unjustifiably advanced to the World Cup.

Fast forward seven months to the opening Group stage of the 2010 World Cup and France is sticking it to Ireland yet again. I’m sure there are more than a few Irish lads who were rooting hard for France’s early demise but even the most bile-fueled fans cannot be happy with the way France has pissed away the bid it literally stole from Ireland. France began the tournament with an uninspiring 0-0 tie opposite Uruguay. The #9 team in the world followed that up with a 2-0 loss to Mexico. In just over three hours of soccer in this World Cup, France has netted zero goals. Unfortunately for the French, offensive futility is the least of its problems. “Les Bleus” are literally unraveling on the biggest of soccer stages. It all started when Nicolas Anelka—a striker for France—was booted from the tournament for a profane tirade directed at his coach. (In a twist of fate, Anelka is most responsible for France even being in the WC as he tallied the only goal in the first leg of the France/Ireland UEFA World Cup Qualifying Playoff in Dublin last November.) Anelka’s dismissal was just the beginning of what has become a total meltdown by France. In protest to their countryman’s treatment, the French team refused to practice on Sunday. That, in turn, led to the resignation of not only the team trainer but the team director. That was followed up by a meeting with the French Sports Minister who told the team that it faced a “moral disaster” and it had “tarnished France’s image.” So, the Irish are left to ponder the reality that France not only stole a World Cup bid from them but then promptly treated it with the significance of toilet paper. The country of Ireland surely wasn’t rooting for France to advance in the World Cup but never in its worst nightmares could it have imagined that France would treat the privilege with such disrespect. In a game built on sportsmanship, France may have found an even more egregious infraction than the handball that sent it to South Africa in the first place.

Surely, Ireland would’ve relished the opportunity to participate in what is perhaps the pinnacle of world sport competition. Ireland is a nation that does not have a rich tradition in the World Cup. In fact, it has only qualified for three World Cups in its 61 years of fielding a competitive soccer team. However, had Ireland made it to South Africa, it certainly wouldn’t have been as a “sacrificial lamb.” Despite such an unceremonious history, Ireland’s current team is no pushover. Sure its world ranking is an uninspiring 41st in the FIFA World Rankings but that seems to be more of a function of Ireland’s penchant to “not lose” rather than “win.” The FIFA World Ranking formula is not favorable to ties. The Irish are incredibly proficient at earning draws against quality teams. As a result, Ireland has only lost six of its last 36 matches. It boasts a 13-6-17 record over that span including wins over World Cup participants S. Africa, Paraguay, Algeria, Slovakia, and Denmark to go along with draws against France, Italy (2), Nigeria, Serbia, Germany and Slovakia all of which are in the 32-team World Cup field. Even Ireland’s losses have been impressive. Two were against the #1 team in the world (Brazil). In fact, in its last 36 matches, Ireland has lost just one game against teams ranked outside of the world top 40. Against teams inside the top 40, Ireland has played 22 contests over that span and lost just five. Ireland is certainly an accomplished and worthy team and would’ve been an uncomfortable sight for whatever group it would’ve been allocated to had it advanced to South Africa. The Emerald Isle undoubtedly deserves a fate far better than having its six million occupants nauseated by France’s indifference. If one thing is for sure, unlike France, Ireland would’ve come to play.

France is certainly a villain here but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the absurdity of not using modern technology to correct officiating errors. Just in the last year, we’ve seen Ireland denied a chance of making the World Cup on an intentional handball, Armando Galarraga denied of a Perfect Game on an umpire mistake, and the U.S. Soccer Team denied of a goal in the World Cup—and advancement to the knockout stage that likely would’ve come with it—as a result of a phantom call. These are just three extremely high profile injustices among many more that occur routinely in competitive sports. Anyone who feels that sports should be soiled by officiating errors rather than use advanced technology that could easily eliminate the vast majority of judgment mistakes has no business being in an authoritative position on a sporting governing body. Citing “integrity of the game” as a reason not to use video replay is just another way of saying, “We are incredibly lazy.”

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