PARIS (Reuters) - Thierry Henry was compared to the great Diego Maradona, although not the way he may have wished, and coach Raymond Domenech faced further criticism after France controversially scraped past Ireland to make the World Cup.
While Ireland were understandably devastated, France were far from praised in the local media after captain Henry controversially handled the ball in the build-up to a late William Gallas goal that gave his side the edge on Wednesday.
“The hand of God,” screamed a headline on the front page of French sports daily L‘Equipe after France drew 1-1 with a brave Ireland side at Stade de France for a 2-1 aggregate playoff win.
The reference to Maradona’s infamous hand-made goal in a 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England came after Henry controlled the ball with his hand in a crowded penalty area and crossed for Gallas to bundle home the decider on 103 minutes.
France, who had beaten Ireland 1-0 at Croke Park on Saturday, clearly struggled before their fans and Ireland were the better side.
“France have qualified for the 2010 World Cup, that’s for sure, but the result, the most essential thing in sport after all, is not enough to erase the uneasy feeling we had last night,” L‘Equipe wrote.
Domenech, under fire since he was left in charge after France’s Euro 2008 flop, was far from apologetic after the game.
“I don’t see what we could have done better,” he told reporters after a dismal performance. “We needed to qualify and we did that, even if it was painful. Victories like this one, at the end of a difficult campaign, give this side heart and soul.”
French media, who have never left Domenech alone, criticizing his tactics and attitude, were not convinced by his statements.
“The question of whether the coach should stay in charge remains legitimate,” L‘Equipe wrote. “Raymond Domenech managed to qualify the team but, on what they showed last night, is he the man able to make that team improve in seven months?”
While Henry admitted he had handled the ball, adding he was not the referee, Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni was graceful in defeat, quietly blaming a “great mistake” by Swedish referee Martin Hansson.
Henry’s admission and the fact that he praised Ireland for their spirited performance was of little comfort for Richard Dunne.
“He told us we deserved to win. How is that supposed to make me feel?,” the Ireland defender was quoted as saying in the Independent.
“It makes me feel worse. He’s admitted he cheated. We should have won. He just said, ‘That’s it’. He just said he handled it, he didn’t mean it. Looking at it, it’s quite obvious he did mean it. It’s there for everyone to see and they’re not going to change it now. So what can we do? They’re going to the World Cup and we’re not. That’s it.”
The mood in Ireland was definitely gloomy, with Prime Minister Brian Cowen trying his best to ease the suffering.
“Taoiseach (prime minister) congratulated the Irish Team on a most courageous performance, he complimented the players on a heroic effort to secure a place in the finals of the next World Cup,” a statement from Cowen’s office said.
“The team’s efforts kept the nation enthralled for 120 minutes of football. To a man, they did Ireland proud.”
Irish newspapers were not as diplomatic, with the Irish Independent summing up the atmosphere by writing: “Thierry Henry’s ‘le Hand of God’ shatters our World Cup dream.”
Other headlines included “Le Cheat,” “The Hand of Frog” and “Daylight Robbery.”
Domenech could have won money had he bet on the result, saying after the game: “I never doubted, I was always convinced we would make it and the result would be a 1-1 draw.”
Many Irish fans were not that wise with their predictions but at least some will get their money back.
Bookmakers William Hill said in a statement they would refund stake money to all punters who backed Ireland to qualify to be “as fair as possible to everyone.”
Editing by Alison Wildey