Irish Eyes observe French opener

France's striker Thierry Henry (2ndR) argues with Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura (C) next to Uruguay's defender Diego Lugano (L) during the Group A first round 2010 World Cup football match Uruguay vs. France on June 11, 2010 at Green Point stadium in Cape Town.

John Doyle
The Globe and Mail
Published on Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sometimes, enjoying the World Cup is just about personal grudges, the whimsy of the moment and utterly illogical likes and dislikes. It just is. Me, I hate France and like Uruguay.

So, my neighbours on a downtown Toronto street should be glad that Thierry Henry did not protest an alleged handball by Uruguayan Mauricio Victorino in the late stages of France’s 0-0 draw with Uruguay.

The neighbours were oblivious, of course. But, if Henry had made a fuss, I’d have been shouting, aiming a long, loud and very Irish series of insults at the TV screen. At him, Henry, the French player who twice used his hands to score the goal that guided France to this World Cup, not Ireland.

Last November, Thierry Henry’s handball activity was, for a while, the biggest story in the world. It was any of the following: a disgrace, a shocking example of cheating, a slur on soccer, and a bitter pill for the Irish to swallow.

It certainly was the latter. Then I got over it. It was tough, but it helped that Roy Keane said, “Get over it.” I paid attention. Because Roy Keane is a god to me. Still, I watched France play Uruguay with the hope that France would be soundly beaten. No sign of that, just a scrappy game with several French players looking highly skilled but not terrifically interested in a solid win. That’s been France for years now, since Zinedine Zidane retired after head-butting that Italian guy.

It can’t just be me. Surely France is easy to hate. If the rumours are true – and some them are bound to be – the French team is a hotbed of whining, in-fighting and childish feuding. About half the players despise manager Raymond Domenech, apparently, and think of Henry as their real boss. Before this World Cup started there was scuttlebutt that several senior players disapproved of the selection of Sidney Govou and Yoann Gourcufffor the national team. Govou is seen as panicky when presented with scoring chances. Gourcuff has been called “the new Zidane” by many pundits, and the other players think that’s ridiculous. According to some reports in France, the other players had decided not to pass the ball to either of them. And then there’s Domnech himself, whose fondness for picking the team based on Zodiac signs is seen as, well, moronic, by experienced players.

Anyway, there was nothing to admire in the French performance. With Anelka isolated up front, and a packed midfield, it appeared that Domenech’s main purpose was to avoid defeat by smothering the Uruguayans and the game itself. There were instances of swift French counter-attacks but Fracnk Ribéry, Nicolas Anelka, Jérémy Toulalan and Govou all looked uncertain of how to proceed once in possession. Multiple attacks fizzled to nothing.

Eventually, Anelka was off and Henry came on a sub. Nothing happened then, either. Henry’s best chance came when the ball struck defender Victorino, accidentally, on the hand. I watched this intently. For a second, it looked like Henry and his colleagues were going to make all sorts of theatrical protests and demand a penalty. They thought the better of it. And a good thing, too. I didn’t need to start shouting.

As for Uruguay, well, it’s a pity that Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez gave the appearance of men who had just met and were unclear about whether they were actually playing on the same team. Multiple passes from Forlan to Suarez were inaccurate and Suarez was constantly caught offside. They need to have a meeting and discuss this issue before the next game, on Wednesday, against South Africa. The meeting would probably start like this – Suarez: “If would help if you kept an eye on my position and passed the ball to me, not six yards in front of me.” And Forlan might say “Who are you? Explain to me again who you are.” But, hopefully, it would get better from there.

And why do I like Uruguay? Totally personal reason. In all my travels, I’ve had very few encounters with top players. Hardly anybody does in the soccer-writing racket. But I have met Diego Forlan, and he was very polite and friendly. This happened a few years ago, when I was in Los Angeles, for the day job covering the TV racket. Manchester United, then Forlan’s employer, was on preseason tour of the United States and playing the Mexican team Club America in L.A. I went to the pre-game press conference and Man. Utd. manager Sir Alex Ferguson came, with Forlan at his side.

Forlan was obviously being trotted out to meet the Spanish-language local press. And looked vaguely terrified of Ferguson. He sat like a petrified schoolboy as Ferguson barked at the English reporters who were covering the preseason tour. When the opportunity came, I stepped up, shook hands with Forlan and, with the help of a Mexican reporter translating, had a chat about his family and the fact that his dad had played for Uruguay at the 1966 World Cup in England. He relaxed, talking about his dad, and had much to say about his dad’s stories of playing a World Cup in England.

Forlan was hustled away after a few minutes but he was still waving goodbye and thanking me as he disappeared into a limo with Ferguson. Nice fella. That’s why I like Uruguay. Totally personal prejudice, obviously. The anti-France thing is just as obvious.

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