Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Un petit tricheur...

There's been an unusual silence from me in the seven days since the match last week largely because I have followed Virginia Woolf's
injunctive never to write when one is angry. While that anger has only subsided a little, there's little point in poring over the ashes of the
game, to glean either good or bad points - in any case, the whole match is by now, dominated by one bad point of monumental size. FIFA, though
they may be an organ of such corruption and rancidness capable of being matched only by a planeload of Third World kleptocrats touching down at Geneva International Airport, are correct not to order the match to be replayed. As egregious a wrong as Henry's handball was, FIFA cannot overrule referees, even if sometimes they wish they could have.

The French Football Federation though, had it in their gift to offer a
replay, and they might have felt it incumbent on them to do so, seeing
as so many of their countrymen were mortified at the way they qualified
for South Africa. It appears however Raymond Domenech put a spanner in
the works by refusing a rematch. To be honest, I think Jean-Pierre
Escalettes, the President of the FFF, is every bit as lacking in
backbone as his manager and nobody at 87, boulevard de Grenelle gave
serious thought to killing the golden goose they had almost given up for
dead. It's an ignoble dereliction of fair play but let's not be too
pious about it. France will trot out at the next World Cup in imposture
in the eyes of the world and many of their own supporters. And given
their usual form in tournaments this decade they will hardly do better
than Ally McLeod's Scotland who deprived Wales of a World Cup finals
spot in 1978 thanks to a Joe Jordan handball. The cosmic retribution
will be swift, just and probably underwhelming. A passionless French
team will limp from one uninspired draw to another before being soundly
beaten by a modest enough opponent - Denmark, Slovakia or Cameroon
perhaps. And Raymond Domenech will refuse to take any blame...

But what of the villain of the piece, a man who has, in the past week,
revealed himself to be of less than monumental proportions? Not so much
in the act of cheating he committed, though it was clearly an
intentional double-handball; any schoolboy who has ever juggled soccer
and Gaelic football over a season can train their instinct to wrap their
hand around the ball when playing the foreign game - highly-paid
footballers can do the same, without any excuses.

Since he handled the ball not once but twice before setting up William Gallas to score the goal that put Ireland out of the World Cup, Thierry Henry has done a lot of pleading. It started at the final whistle. By now settled down from his exuberent celebration of Gallas' goal, Henry consoled Richard Dunne and said 'it was handball but I'm not the ref'. One has to admire Richard Dunne's magnanimity that he didn't, as Eric Cantona suggested he should have, socked Henry one there and then. It continued the following day, with Henry sheepishly apologising via his Twitter feed, then he said he was not a cheat and called for the match to be replayed, after FIFA had already put his foot down. It was a communiqué delivered, crucially in English rather than French, aimed at touching up his tarnished image. Henry doesn't want to go down in history as a cheat - though there will be many who have followed his progress over the years who will say his cheating started neither last Wednesday nor the day before - so you have to question his motivation in blatantly cheating last week. If you can't do the time, don't do the crime. Then Henry said he felt all alone and considered quitting the French team, because the FFF, rather ungratefully did not give him more wholehearted support for his cheating.

Once again, I'm not going to be too pious about cheating. Everyone does it at some point in the game. And most of them are never noticed. Some do it in minor instances, and others, like Henry do it in, ahem, grander ones. Diego Maradona's 'Hand of God' goal is one of those grander instances. But where Diego differs from Thierry is not in the fact that El píbe scored a fantastic goal within moments of his moment of treachery, but because Maradona has never shirked the fact he cheated. From the very moment he coined the immortal phrase to his more recent likening it to 'pick-pocketing Prince Charles', Maradona has brazenly embraced his cheating. He knows it was important enough, and he, unlike Henry is not going to hide behind a referee's call. England fans may not take much comfort from that but Maradona is, in Graham Greene's words 'man enough to be damned'. Thierry Henry, fretful of his reputation having crossed over to the dark side, is not. He is milksop Jonathan Harker to Diego's Count Dracula. And it is this cravenness that makes Henry's behaviour all the more repulsive.

Anyway speaking of 'hiding behind a referee's call', here's the exemplary Thierry Henry in a 2006 Nike ad. Is he still talking to Cantona, I wonder? Or did he bottle out of talking to him that day, too?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Day of Reckoning

A quick note before I head off to the Stade de France for the second leg of the World Cup final play-off. I have to admit I'm being realistic about the chances for the Boys in Green. France are 65% there. If we play the same way we did in the second half on Saturday we can wave goodbye any chances of going to South Africa. The fact we haven't beaten a major nation away from home in competitive football in so long is also an ill boding. But on the upside, we have nothing to lose and a 1-0 lead is not impossible to overturn if we apply ourselves well.

France were not much better than us on Saturday and, for all their second-half possession, rarely troubled us. There is probably no home ground in international football with such a negligible determination on home advantage as the Stade de France - there are no visiting teams overawed by it and France regularly lose at home. There is also a huge over-confidence in the French public at the moment - former manager Michel Hidalgo told L'Équipe yesterday that he "wouldn't bet sixpence on Ireland". Such an attitude may not reign among the squad, but if the ugly behaviour of Lassana Diarra is anything to go by, there may be a hint of it. The French have a ridiculous sense that playing at the World Cup finals is their birthright. This despite the fact that they have failed to qualify for six finals in the past, as recently as 1994. And also despite the fact that, other than the Zidane-led revolt of 2006, they have brought nothing to any major finals since they won Euro 2000. It is this sense of complacency that could well undo France. And, of course, under Trapattoni, our best performances have been away from home.

But back to reality. There is a huge task ahead and conceding a goal first will probably finish us off. I have a worry that our lack of strength in depth (poor old Leon Best) and overly-negative tactics from the Italian will hamper us. We might have to settle for a valiant 0-0, that will put us out. But we'll still roar on the boys. It should be a great night, if not a great game.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Year of the French II

Ireland kick off against France at Croke Park tonight in the first leg of the World Cup play-offs. The game takes place against a backdrop of sometimes bizarre fervour, whipped up by both the Irish media and team over the past week. Richard Dunne started the mind games going by saying Raymond Domenech was a man who only seemed to know 'how to mess up' the talent at his disposal. Former Ireland manager Eoin Hand (who was pipped by les Bleus on goal difference for qualification for the 1982 World Cup) said that if Ireland were saddled with Domenech, they wouldn't have reached the play-offs. (I'm not a big fan of Domenech, though I don't really agree with that - even under the hapless Steven Staunton, second spot in an ordinary group was for long within our grasp). Tony Cascarino weighed in in his Times column and this was later relayed to the entire sporting press in France. Cazza had a successful spell in France in the mid-90s with Marseille and Nancy and the French media have an inordinately high opinion of him, no doubt because he scored 31 goals one year in the gentle confines of Ligue 2.

One wonders why the Irish are ganging up on Domenech like this, as it seems likely to only galvanize a French side whose unity is still in question. But the fact that Liam Brady himself said that Domenech doesn't always know what players to play suggests that such an approach has been officially sanctioned by Trapattoni himself. It's a risky approach to take as it deprives Ireland of their underdog status, which has served us so well in the past. But, as my father has suggested, maybe it's a strategy to build an arrogance with the aim not so much to intimidate the French, as to bolster the self-confidence of the Irish players. That doesn't seem unlikely. For all the poor performances in qualifying, coming through the group undefeated has raised the confidence of a mixed group of players. The occasional lapses in defence and some very poor ball retention in midfield fail to reassure those of us watching on the sidelines but if the team at least attacks the game knowing they are the equal of France (I think they are, more of which later), it can only be a good thing.

The French camp, Domenech included, has been rather reticent; the French coach was mouthy in the run-up to the Lansdowne Road game four years ago but he's a more embattled sort these days and imparts only sparse information to the media. He may also be cognisant of the silly furor he inadvertently sparked in Ireland with his 'England B-team' comments (which he never said but were mistranslated by the Irish media). The Irish press continue to breathe life into a non-existent verbal sparring match, with the Indo blowing up Éric Abidal's comments into something more confrontational than they were in an interview with L'Équipe Thursday. The French are relaxed enough; they will enter the game with a wary respect for the Irish but they do not fear them. Nor should they. The French media have, with a few exceptions, been building up the cauldron-like atmosphere their team can expect in Croke Park. Something that will come as a surprise to Irish football fans, as Croker has yet to seriously intimidate any visiting side. The distance of the pitch from the stands and a largely casual public, with many of them rugby fans twiddling their thumbs in indifference, render the atmosphere muted.

And even if the ambience is going to be more electric tonight, that's not going to unduly worry the French. Vikash Dhorasoo, who played in the 1-0 win at Lansdowne four years ago (and whose anti-climactic World Cup provided the basis for the wonderful documentary Substitute) said this week that the atmosphere, though formidable, is not terribly upsetting compared to Greece or Turkey. He's right about that, and a look at the welcome afforded the Algerian national team in Cairo Thursday makes the 'Croker roar' look like centre court at Wimbledon in comparison. Besides, France went to Serbia in September and outplayed the locals in front of a hostile crowd. And the weather, however miserable it might be, will not bother the French. They are professional footballers and they play outdoors all the time.

So what are our chances? Fairly high, I would say. Because the two teams are evenly matched. Not of course in terms of individual technique - the French are way ahead in that department. But Ireland are blessed with a stronger defence (with the exception of Kevin Kilbane) and a better goalkeeper than anything France have to offer. We are also better in the air and better at set-pieces. There is also a greater sense of self-belief among the Irish, though the French have been displaying a greater cohesion and team spirit of late. Their five qualifiers since August have seen improved performances even if three were against the exceptionally flimsy Faroe Islands and Austria, while draws were scrabbled impressively against Serbia and alarmingly against Romania. Brian Kerr, who observed them at close quarters in the two games as Faroes manager dismisses any talk of disarray in the French ranks. He should be heeded by the Irish, and I imagine he will be. It's hard to gauge their real level of form but if France put in a display like they did when down to ten men against Serbia, then Ireland could be in trouble. On the other hand, if France get shaken and disoriented early on they may be too mentally brittle to mount a meaningful recovery.

Ireland will be hoping to expose France's vulnerability at set-pieces; it's far from the only means of us scoring but that's where the French look dodgy. The French press are relying on Hugo Lloris, the 22-year-old Lyon keeper to command in the box. He is generally good at that and played well recently in the 2-1 win at Anfield but in a physical game he may be suspect. Added to that his positioning leaves a lot to be desired. That he was responsible for three of the five goals conceded in the 5-5 draw against Marseille last Sunday should give us encouragement. France have already been resigned to the loss of Franck Ribéry, the only player they possess who can win a match on his own - as he did twice against Lithuania - but the loss of Jérémie Toulalan deprives them of a defensive robustness in the middle of the park. They will instead field the two Diarras, formidable enough but unlikely to faze Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews. Instead it is Yoann Gourcuff who is the real danger man though he has not been his usual dazzling self since returning from injury last month. Interestingly Gourcuff and the entire French back-four are on yellow cards so they will have to be very careful not to further deplete the side for Wednesday's match. Ireland, on the other hand have only Andrews and Shay Given of the starters on a yellow.

I expect the Irish back-four to be exceptionally well-drilled for the game and slips will be few and far between. But the worry is that there will always be a slip, especially where Kilbane is concerned. If we concede a goal, even with a victory, the second leg will be very difficult. If we keep a clean sheet I think we will go through. A worrying thing is that we have kept only two clean sheets so far in the qualifiers, and two of those were against Montenegro. It doesn't bode well.

I'm reasonably optimistic, even if I don't like it that Trapattoni is describing this as 'our World Cup final'; it's not, it's a qualifying play-off. We've been at this stage often enough to expect qualification for a major finals every time they come around. We may have limited resources but so do most other countries, even a team like England, for all their rejuvenation under Fabio Capello, have a glaring lack of strength in depth that will hinder any hopes of lifting the World Cup next July. But by ten o'clock Irish time tonight we'll know what prospects Ireland have for the second leg. Best of luck, boys!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Raymond Domenech and the Irish

Reading in France Football today, I learned that French manager Raymond Domenech made his debut as a player for the national side against none other than Ireland. It was a World Cup qualifier at the Parc des Princes on 19th of May 1973. The match ended 1-1 and both sides failed to qualify for West Germany, the Soviet Union going through. The 21-year-old Domenech was given a torrid time by Miah Dennehy, of all people, though Raymond did get one strike on target late in the game. Ireland manager of the day Liam Tuohy wasn't too impressed, asking L'Équipe, 'was your number 2 picked just to give his best?' What are the chances of Raymond ending his international career against the same opposition he started it against?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

French Acting a Bit Irish

The estimable French football magazine So Foot tells me that the French Football Federation, sore at their Irish counterpart doing their own deal with M6, a French TV chain not partnered with the FFF, for the Dublin play-off game, are getting their revenge. They are demanding a minimum €1.5million for the rights from RTÉ (and I presume, TV3, if they're up for it) for the rights to broadcast the second-leg on November 18th. The offer tabled from the Irish side runs to only €600,000. I expect a deal will be hammered out in some fashion in the next couple of weeks but the behaviour of the French is shabby, to say the least. The amount offered by RTÉ is a little more than 10% of that demanded of M6 (the same amount, incidentally, that French broadcaster TF1 pays the FFF for every home match), perfectly fair considering the Irish TV market is approximately 5.5% that of the French one. I can understand how the French Federation were keen to avoid too many Irish fans seeing the match in the flesh on the 18th of November, but are they really determined to prevent them watching it back home too? Here's hoping they get their comeuppance and they'll be forced to undertake sponsorship tours to China next June to drum up revenue.

Yadda Yadda Yadda

I'm of the opinion, like many others, that those at the very top of the football-playing pyramid get paid rather obscenely inflated salaries. And, even if one can defend them on a market-based rationale, as folk like Simon Kuper and Joseph Stiglitz have done, one might expect the well-paid players to at least contribute their fair share in tax. Such is the thinking of the French government, which intends at the end of the season to do away with tax breaks tied to collective image rights, which limits greatly the amount of tax paid by wealthy footballers, basketball players and rugby players in France. The Spanish government has already moved to plug similar tax gaps, unsurprisingly given the shocking rise to 18% unemployment the country has experienced in the past year.

Of course, football clubs are up in arms about it, particularly as hefty salaries being paid by the big clubs are finally making French teams a force to be reckoned with in Europe, with Bordeaux and Lyon both qualified for the second-round of the Champions' League after four games and Marseille are still in with a chance of progressing. Secretary of State for Sport, Rama Yade has voiced her opposition to the measure, backing the clubs up saying it will make French clubs less competitive. Considering her immediate superior Roselyne Bachelot supports the move, it's not a smart move. And it's one that the young Yade made out of enthusiasm for her portfolio (I've read a number of interviews with her in the sporting press recently and she is rather to eager to please) rather than out of any strong point of principle. But she is bound to pay for her gaffe; Sarkozy has had it in for her ever since she refused to stand for the European elections. The junior sports portfolio was widely considered punishment and now even that is likely to be taken away from her. Le Monde says her days in Sarkozy's UMP are numbered, but it seems that the Socialist Party will intervene to save her from the dogs once she is thrown to them. The PS say they will put her at the top of the list in Hauts-de-Seine for next year's regional elections. I presume she would have to soften her opposition to tax cuts for millionaires first.

A French Paradox

Following on the controversy over the Toronto International Film Festival's showcasing Tel-Aviv a couple of months back, the roadshow moves on to Paris. Le Forum des Halles, the excellent municipal-run cinemathèque in the Les Halles shopping centre is hosting 'Tel-Aviv : le paradoxe', a season of films set and filmed in the Israeli city, which celebrates its centenary this year. The season, which started yesterday and runs until the 25th of November, contains a far wider range of films than were shown in Toronto, both contemporary and from the past, such as Ephraim Kishon's Arvinka (1967) and Avi Nesher's Dizengoff 99 (1979). Unlike Toronto it also looks likely to be a more self-critical look at the city (the title alone suggests that) with prominent leftist filmmakers Eytan Fox, Amos Gitaï and Ronit Elkabetz among others appearing as guests, a series of debates on Tel-Aviv's bubble-like status as a tolerant liberal haven strangely free of an Arab population, and there's even place for Hany Abu-Assad's Oscar-winning Palestinian film Paradise Now, which tells of two Palestinians' attempt at a suicide bombing in the city.

But not everyone's happy. There's nothing like the brouhaha that followed John Greyson's protest at Toronto, but prominent pro-Palestinian activist Michèle Sibony (who, for what it matters, is herself Jewish) has written a letter to the cinema directors decrying the decision to showcase Tel-Aviv only ten months after the murderous Gaza invasion. Her letter goes a bit like this:

"You have entitled your homage "Tel-Aviv - the paradox, wishing, no doubt to suggest an ambivalence or a certain ambiguity. Tel-Aviv is not a paradox, it is rather proof: a 'Capital of Segregation and Apartheid'. Constructed on the expulsion and destruction of Palestinian villages, it has completely rid itself of any Palestinian presence since the so-called 'Oslo peace process'. The bubble, as it likes to call it, is a city as white as Cape Town was during the Apartheid years."

Even for those of us sympathetic to the Palestinian cause it's a drearily familiar tread through the verbiage of official letter-writing. Not that Michèle Sibony isn't entitled to her stance but it is curious that the season has failed to stimulate much protest beyond this, and Paris is certainly not lacking militants for the Palestinian cause. Is it the Parisian cinephilia that allows one to dissassociate unpleasant acts and behaviour from enjoyment of good films, or do most people see the season as being far from a whitewash of Tel-Aviv? I suspect it might be the latter. As for  myself, I'll be staying away, less out of conviction, than simply due to the fact I have seen most of the contemporary films showing, including Raphaël Nadjari's excellent Avanim, Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz's To Take a Wife and Fox's Walk on Water. I have films to watch elsewhere, not to mention fences to tend to before sitting on.