Thursday, November 19, 2009

Henry's Handball & the Moral Ambiguity of Football

The ball rebounded to Thierry Henry's hand, first once and then again. He scooped it gently, and let it fall to his feet. He made a controlled pass to his teammate William Gallas, who scored a much-needed goal against Ireland.  The referee didn't call the handballs (clearly visible in recordings of the match). Henry didn't ask him to. And Ireland are out of the World Cup.

The LA Times is running a poll, asking readers what they think FIFA should 'do' about Henry's handball.  It's a somewhat typical response: there must be one agent responsible for evil, a clear solution to a problem. Lambert is responsible for shaming the women's game (and not the referee, coaches, and the players on the field whose passivity allowed all that to happen); Thierry Henry is a "cheat." The demand for Henry's head - or for his hand - makes for good copy.

For something a little more complex, see The Guardian's interview with Irish sports journalist Barry Glendenning (one of a slew of articles on this subject, representing a range of perspectives). Of course "we were robbed by France," in a move that "would be illegal even in basketball," he comments. (Is he referring to the double-dribble?)  Henry is shown describing the handball frankly in a post-game interview (transcribed in French here). Where the American press casts his statements as "unapologetic" European journalists see it more nearly as "frank" and "honest."  Of Domenech's support for Henry, Glendenning says "If any Irish player had done the same, I'd fully expect the nation to be 100% behind him." He also points out that Henry's image has already been so compromised by his "previous chicanery" that this incident can hardly be said to be all that damaging to the star's reputation.

"Cheating" is an art in this sport. Everyone is of course remembering Maradona's "Hand of God" goal.  Maradona discussed it in an interview for the BBC: "This is something that happens...I have scored goals in Argentina with my hand." He goes on to explain exactly what he did, and how he "sold" the goal to the linesman. (The Guardian's Richard Williams minimizes Maradona's intentionality by calling it a "street kid's instinct" in his column chastising Henry from whom he expects better given his relative "sophistication": This is wildly classist - a fantasy of a pan-Latin 'favela' - and totally ignorant.) There are myriads of smaller incidents - daily actions in which players exploit the deeply subjective nature of some of soccer's most fundamental rules. Handballs, offside calls, the identification of goals and the discounting of goals, calls for aggressive tackles and diving  - all are made by referees without the help of video replay, and are vulnerable to human error and players know it - and the most competitive exploit this.  It becomes part of your game.

The French press sees the handball as representing a larger crisis on the squad stemming from the limits of Raymond Domenech's stewardship.  (For a taste of the mood regarding the national squad, see this match report - "Voyage au bout de la nuit" - from So Foot. It opens with "Blood on the dance floor. 5 minutes of play and the face of Julien Escudé, taking the place of Eric Abidal, is already cut open after a run-in with...Patrice Evra. The tone of the match is set. The Irish have already invaded the French camp.") The European press (and the soccer-blogging community) wonders why on earth France holds onto Domenech. France has at its disposal one of the most talented populations of players on earth - French athletes are stars in squads of stars, playing for the best clubs in the world.  And yet as a national team they limp along and seem increasingly disaffected. If the French public turns against Henry (and it has, again and again), it's out of a broader disappointment with a side whose fate turns on such an ugly incident.  Who wants to win this way? Well, the people who want your money.

Eduardo Galeano described 'the history of soccer' as a 'sad voyage from beauty to duty.' That 'duty' is paid to the sports 'telecracy,' which demands that its 'functionaries specialize in avoiding defeat.'  If Thierry Henry didn't, say, clear the ball from the goal (which would have been so chivalrous as to be completely scandalous), if he played the ball to his feet and passed to Gallas, he was being a good employee.  And it is ridiculous for us to expect anything different - if you want an honorable game, you are far far more likely to find it in a neighborhood park than you are on your favorite sports channel.

This morning a friend reminded me of Albert Camus's famous assertion: "Ce que je sais de la morale, c'est au football que je le dois." ("What I know of morality, I owe to football.")  This statement has been interpreted differently by sports writers - to suggest the clarity of moral obligations within a team, or to suggest the moral ambiguity of football.

How we read that statement depends on what and whose football we are talking about - just as how we think and feel about Henry's handball says a lot about what game it is we want. Are we talking about football played for beauty and pleasure? Or football played for work and profit? How can we keep the appetites of one from spoiling the joys of the other?


  1. I take as one way to read your piece that line up the opinions that the handball is part of the game with a sense that the game is one of work and profit, contra the opinion that the handball ruins the game with the desire for a game of beauty and pleasure. I’m not so sure that things can be correlated in such a way, because it excludes the possibility of that a handball is part of the game with the idea that these actions can be what makes soccer “sublime".

    We can take Maradona's handball as perhaps the prime example of the sublime in soccer, and why the goal merits its nickname. It evidences a singular destructive potential that exceeds an otherwise beautiful and precise game of passing and teamwork – but also what elevates it to being something more. It is why the young (real) Ronaldo was fascinating when he unstoppably ran at whole defenses, or why Ronaldinho's tricks and passing seem to make the actual type of game being played shift before our eyes. It is even the red mist that descends before Rooney’s eyes, and our realization that this fire is always in him. After all, isn’t there something of the same Henry that was capable of absolutely dicing up defenses in the crafty Henry that slyly bats a ball down?

    Capoeira has a term “malandragem” or trickery (that might be applied to soccer as well) to describe the central theme of the art. It is not in the smooth flow and graceful moves that people normally associate with Capoeira that are the core of the game, rather it is the sudden sweep of the foot of the opponent, or the out of sync movement that results in a crunching kick. Capoiera, like soccer, is not some reified object outside of life – its magic is our reflection of our lives within the game. It is this cut, the stain, and the unpredictability, where as a matter of the sudden interjection of a “divine hand” things can turn in an instant: this is what gives shape to the whole, and gives us a game to love.

  2. Fabulous. You just explained in very eloquent terms why that Williams 'street kid' remark about Maradona bugs me. I'm a fan of the theatrics of the game, too - it's one of the reasons why I love Brazil's women's side (it's a joy to see women play both that good, and that 'dirty'!).

    I think the French perspective on this does indict his action as more administrative than sublime. Let's remember that Maradona also scored one of the most beautiful goals ever in that same match - we don't have anything quite so elegant to balance out Henry's cynical play.

    I tried to leave things a little open in my last line...but perhaps not open enough. Thanks for your lovely remarks!

  3. It's easy to criticize the referees but at first glance I can see how the referees can miss it. The hand was pretty slight but enough to do the "damage" it needed to be done. The AR could not see it as I can see how either a player or even the goal post could have blocked that view. The referee depending on where he was at the time could have easily missed it since the incident was between the offender and goal line.
    However, FIFA would be looking at this and probably just eliminated this referee's chance of officiating in the World Cup final.

  4. weirder still is that it looks like 2 french players were offside on the free kick...there's a really good discussion here, including a critique of how the irish players failed to react to the offside positions... this is a lot of hair-splitting, but it's a good conversation....

  5. A player's business (or pleasure) on the field is to play the game to the best of her (or his) ability within the laws of the game. In a perfect world a player would never knowingly break the rules, and if she broke them inadvertently would call her own fouls.

    We know that doesn't happen, even in recreational football. Add the pressures of money and national pride, and the possibility that a player will own up to a foul like this one is nil. So whether the player is playing for pleasure or for business, the question isn't so much of morality but of practicality.

    We don't trust people to police their own driving - that's why traffic cops. We don't expect people to police their own grades - hence teachers and proctors.

    Henry cheated. That's pretty simple. The officials didn't catch him. That's pretty simple, too. The only real question at this point is; what does FIFA do.

    I'll tell you what they'll do: nothing. And THAT is the real moral dilemma. The Irish were robbed. The goal should be disallowed and the result changed. At the very least, the game should be replayed, or perhaps just the last few minutes, from the moment of the foul.

    THAT's where the nasty business of business comes in. FIFA will choose the least moral, most expedient course and let the game stand rather than do anything.

    Henry did what a player in his position would try and do: win. It wasn't very sporting, but that's the nature of competition. The officials failed in their job - that's also the nature of competition. The only real dilemma is FIFA's, and they will fail, because money and status is more important to them than the sport. And that IS a moral problem.

  6. The other questions, to my mind, are:

    1) Why did FIFA decide to seed the eight UEFA playoff teams with two games to go in the qualifying, when no such process had been outlined from the start (given that the initial groupings for UEFA are arrived at by a free draw);

    2) Why will FIFA use the fourth ref to send off a player for violent conduct but apparently not for a red card offense, such as Henry's handball?

    I suppose it's possible that ref, linesman, fourth ref, and fifth ref (if there was one for this match) would all have missed the foul, but it's a stretch. At this point it seems the pursuit of soccer has become a matter of how deep one's bag of tricks is, and how skillfully one can break the rules... because FIFA has demonstrated umpteen times over the years that it's not willing to sanction players for this kind of offense after the fact.

    FIFA has installed, unwittingly, I'm sure, a reward system for skirting the rules. It's a difficult game to ref, granted, but coursing through the entire culture of the sport now is a dubious ethos that threatens to make honest play a bit of a fuddy-duddy anachronism. With proper reffing and governing, this kind of incident does not need to happen. This is one area where soccer could look to rugby for guidance.

  7. Jennifer spot on - i hate the Maradonna-Henry double standard based on class. This is condescending towards working class individuals and the opposite of empowerment. It also relies on anglo perceptions and assumptions about individuals based on nationality (Henry is French and therefore a "connoisseur").

  8. Williams' comment isn't addressing Maradona's intentionality so much as his culpability, a specious point poisonous because of its extra sludgy layer of classism (though still not necessarily nationalism) and deleterious to soccer by the tacit implication that we should shrug when rules play out as malleable for cheats and thugs... which really is a perverted kind of double standard.

    Although Williams makes a pretty clumsy blunder here, there has to be some room to compare players (who inescapably will have different nationalities/backgrounds) or events from soccer history without an a priori assumption of subtextual racism or ethnocentrism. Is this really an instance of an Anglophilic (if so, counterintuitively simultaneously Francophilic) set of cultural stereotypes, or is it a struggle to explain disappointment at a very bad moment for a stand-up human being and soccer player? To test this, I ask myself how I would describe my disappointment at both Maradona's action and Henry's. It can be tricky to avoid everything that can *sound like* a bias. There are players from whom I expect a higher level of conduct, for a variety of reasons, and I don't see that this extends to prove an underlying social/political/class judgement.

    I once read a very good critical theory book that introduced me to the phrase "a small thing that covers". These handballs feel like that to me - not that uncommon, none of us will live or die by them, and yet they have an effect on the minds of almost all soccer-concerned people that's far bigger than the incident, the laws, the governing body, or even the game... and I guess that's what this blog is about. So thank you for the article!

    A related irony, referring back to my prior post: Maradona was also a victim of FIFA changing rules capriciously. In 2000 FIFA ran an Internet poll to determine and award the "Player of the Century". Maradona won convincingly (53% to runner-up 18%) but shortly before the ceremony FIFA changed the rules and announced co-winners, Maradona and Pele. Fertile ground for a for a similar discussion to the above.

  9. Hang on a minute... "anglo perceptions and assumptions about individuals based on nationality"... if we're going to castigate a journalist for a fallacy of induction, we should be careful about committing one ourselves in the very same breath.

    My inkling is to be a little more forgiving to Richard Williams for this article. There's a dissonance he's trying to resolve after the fact - his expectation of honesty from one player and expectation of dishonesty from another. Entirely fair? Probably not, but the article seems to me largely an effort to avoid class prejudice in terms of character and conduct, though he does eventually step in a bear-trap that he inadvertently lays for himself.

    It's a little tangled to say he's guilty of a double standard based on class: Henry and Maradona are both from tough areas so class isn't really the argument's inflection point - a double standard would be to hold "street kids" and "rich kids" to different expectations of conduct. Also, Williams' estimations/expectations for them were different, so it's not really blanket condescension. If having different expectations of people with clashing personal histories of conduct (who might/might not have similar upbringings) is in and of itself offensive, then it's hard to find terms for any comparison.

    I think the contention that Williams is in the thrall of a pan-Latin favela fantasy because of his use of the term "street-kid" borders on demagogic and is a little misleading - the assumption that a so-called street kid's instinct is to cheat and that a civilizing force is needed to overcome it is clearly classist, but not really related to nationality any more than incidentally. I wouldn't say Williams is laboring under a pan-Mersey scally-nobility fantasy. I recognize that these small fissures in people's writing can reveal deep and dark psychological territory, but sometimes they're just unwitting sloppiness

  10. Since Suarez's hand ball, it took me two weeks
    of heated debates until I was finally able to
    figure out why I was so pissed. I cannot accept
    a "deliberate" hand ball as being part of the
    game... EVER. I don't generally write about
    the politics of soccer (as you said, I'm more
    of a grassroots type blogger) but on this
    particular subject, I couldn't help
    Suarez: Professional Foul or Loophole
    Kelly Arias


Feedback? Let me know what you think. Just an FYI: all comments posted to this blog are recorded, whether I publish them or not. I do not publish generally hateful comments - whether they be directed at me or at players and teams or other readers. I appreciate reader feedback, especially from those whose contributions add nuance and complexity to the story.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...