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Reflecting on Thierry Henry's "hand of God" goal and the morality of soccer

Thierry Henry's "hand of god goal" in November points out the peculiar place that the handball has in the morality of soccer.

I was turning my mind back to the “Thierry Henry affair” and wondering why the hand ball is such a terrible “crime” in soccer.

For those of you who somehow missed the storm which arose over this incident this is the long and the short of it. Ireland played France in November in a game which would determine which team went to South Africa for the World Cup. In extra time of the game, Thierry Henry, one of soccer’s great players, deliberately handled the ball in the process of creating the deciding goal. The referee and the assistant referee missed the call and Ireland was eliminated. This has raised some really interesting questions about the moral ambiguity of football.

(By the way, if you’re a Roy Keane follower you will want to see his interview on the subject.)

This incident got me to thinking about why the hand ball is the most unforgiveable way of cheating in soccer. If you know soccer’s history, you can never forget Diego Maradona’s famous “hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup.

Maradona’s reputation will be forever associated—for some tarnished, for some celebrated—by his performance in this game. Part of the legend is of course that this famous piece of “cheating” was followed soon after by what is sometimes regarded as the greatest goal ever scored.

But the question I ponder is why the hand ball is given this peculiar place in the hierarchy of cheating in soccer. There are many equally or more serious examples of “cheating” in soccer which do not make the headlines. For example, I’ll never forget Michael Ballack’s goal for Germany against Portugal in Euro 2008. In order to score the goal, Ballack coolly and cynically pushed the Portuguese defender out of the way before heading the goal calmly into the net. Ballack’s push created nothing like the frenzy of Henry’s handball or Maradona’s "hand of God" goal.

Or even worse, soccer players at the professional level know how to injure each other, and from time to time deliberately do so. One of the more famous examples is Roy Keane’s cynical tackle which ended the soccer career of Alf Inge Haaland.

When I look at these examples, it seems that the extent of Henry’s “crime” is exaggerated. I suppose the reason that the handball gets such disproportionate attention is because it goes against the fundamental tenet of the game.

One of the important issues which this also raises is the influence of the professional game on amateur and youth soccer. That’s a topic I want to take up in future.

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