Taoiseach to confront Sarkozy over 'Henry handball'

The deepening row over Ireland’s bitter World Cup defeat to France after the “Henry handball” scandal risked turning into a diplomatic dispute tonight.

As the Irish Government and football bosses sent demands for a rematch to Fifa, Taoiseach Brian Cowen said he would raise the controversy with President Nicolas Sarkozy at a European summit.

But with pressure mounting on football’s world governing body, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon then urged politicians not to interfere.

The cruel defeat in Paris was secured after Thierry Henry used an arm to control the ball and squared to team-mate William Gallas to score, denying Ireland a trip to South Africa.

“I think that fair play is a fundamental part of the game,” the Taoiseach said in Brussels.

The Football Association of Ireland asked the French FA to agree to a replay and urged other nations to pressurise Fifa as formal complaints and demands were sent.

Amid growing support, philosophical manager Giovanni Trapattoni conceded that pleas may fall on deaf ears, while FAI chief executive John Delaney said it was a matter of integrity.

“This was a defining game that the whole world was watching. If Fifa believe in fair play and integrity, this is their opportunity to step forward,” Mr Delaney said.

“It’s not about money. This is about supporting integrity.”

It is estimated that World Cup qualification would have been worth €30m to Irish football.

Justice Minister Dermot Ahern led the first demands for the rematch, in the interests of fair play, backed by assistant manager Liam Brady and followed later by the Taoiseach.

“All we want is fair play,” the minister said.

“Fifa are committed to the concept of fair play. Ironically, their Fair Play campaign was conceived as a direct result of the 1986 Hand of God goal by Maradona.”

The organisation’s website states that the campaign was a direct result of the English defeat at the Mexico World Cup at the hands of Argentina.

“We now have an equally controversial handball goal. Fifa need to show that they are not paying just lip service to fair play but want to act on it also,” the minister said.

Ireland’s cruel defeat came in extra time after Swedish referee and firefighter Martin Hansson failed to spot Henry illegally using an arm to control the ball.

Both Hansson and his officials missed an off-side in the same attack.

Henry appeared to clench his fist and run off behind the goal after the ball ended up in the net.

Ireland’s major winning golfer Padraig Harrington joined the mounting criticism: “The celebration of the cheating was particularly galling.”

The normally diplomatic pro added: “The celebration was pretty hard to look at.”

Irish football management had already been up in arms after Fifa changed world seedings in the run-up to the play-off draw, effectively lining Ireland up for a difficult tie with one of Europe’s bigger footballing nations.

But a determined FAI said there was precedent for the 2-1 aggregate result to be struck out.

In 2005, Fifa ordered Uzbekistan to replay Bahrain in a play-off for the World Cup in Germany after the referee made a mistake when a penalty had been awarded and a player was subsequently prevented from taking the spot kick.

Despite the FAI complaint and appeal, Trapattoni appeared resigned to his team’s fate and said a replay was unlikely.

“I know it is impossible to repeat the game,” he conceded in Dublin.

Leading French daily newspaper Le Monde ran an online poll – Does France deserve to be in South Africa?

An overwhelming number of voters said: “Non.”

The veteran Italian, who neatly sidestepped questions on how Ireland would have reacted if roles had been reversed, said it was a bitter defeat.

“For me, it’s bitter. There are many questions – they (Fifa) changed the rules about the seeded teams, then us playing away last,” he said.

“There are many doubts that have to be eliminated.

“Out of the non-seeded teams, we were the only ones to play the second game away – why?”

More than two million people tuned in to the match in Ireland alone – half the population.

The FAI said the massive worldwide interest in the match was more reason to arrange a rematch and demonstrate the need for fair play to a global audience.

“Conclusive video evidence of a deliberate handball by Thierry Henry, which led to France’s additional time goal, has been seen by millions of football fans worldwide,” the FAI said.

“The blatantly incorrect decision by the referee to award the goal has damaged the integrity of the sport and we now call on FIFA, as the world governing body for our sport, to organise for this match to be replayed.”

Trapattoni also backed calls for video refereeing to be introduced and extra time to be abolished in play-off games.

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