What if Henry had done the decent thing?

The French captain's handball that cost Ireland a place in the World Cup finals has sparked an almighty row. But would the rest of us have owned up to the crime?

A wave of indignation and recrimination swept across the Irish Sea towards Paris yesterday after France's controversial passage to the World Cup finals via the outstretched left hand of Thierry Henry provoked an official demand from Dublin for a re-match and raised questions about the ethical obligations of multimillionaire footballers.

The defeat of the Republic of Ireland in Wednesday night's play-off for one of the last places in South Africa 2010 became a diplomatic and sporting battleground as the Irish justice minister said the game had reinforced the view that "if you cheat, you will win", and disgruntled fans rewrote Wikipedia pages about the French captain, hitherto considered one of the beautiful game's great purists.

Henry, the Barcelona striker who gained recognition as one of the most elegant players to have graced the Premier League during his eight years at Arsenal, helped his side to a bitterly-disputed 2-1 victory over two legs when he twice handled the ball in the Irish penalty area before passing it to a teammate to score the winning goal at the Stade de France.

After the final whistle he admitted he had committed a foul, but insisted it was up to the Swedish referee to punish any infringement. "The ball hit my hand and I will be honest, it was a hand ball. But I am not the referee. I played it, the ref allowed it."

In the absence of an immediate offer from the French footballing authorities to replay the game – the only mechanism available to allow a re-match – Fifa was bombarded with calls from Ireland, who had led Wednesday night's match 1-0 until extra time, to not allow the result to stand in the spirit of fair play.

Dermot Ahern, Dublin's justice minister, said the treatment of the Irish by world football's governing body, which drew criticism in September when it ruled that the World Cup play offs would be seeded and therefore avoid a tie between leading sides such as France and Portugal, reinforced the perception that big teams were being allowed to dominate the sport.

Demanding a replay from Fifa, Mr Ahern said: "They probably won't grant it as we are minnows in world football but let's put them on the spot. It's the least we owe the thousands of devastated young fans around the country. Otherwise, if that result remains, it reinforces the view that if you cheat, you will win.

"Thierry Henry has admitted handling the ball, claims he told the ref he handled it. Millions of people worldwide saw it was a blatant double handball – not to mention a double offside – and we should put the powers that be in the cosy world of Fifa on the spot and demand a replay."

The message was reinforced by the Football Association of Ireland, which lodged an official complaint with Fifa. Liam Brady, the Republic's assistant manager, said a rematch was necessary for the "dignity and integrity of football".

The intervention by Henry, which sparked immediate comparisons with Diego Maradonna's notorious "Hand of God" goal in 1986, sparked a multi-media assault on the Frenchman's reputation with unflattering alterations to his Facebook entry and Wikipedia entries.

One short-lived addition to the Wikipedia page on cheating sport said: "The single biggest most obvious example of cheating in the history of soccer took place in Stade de France on 18 November 2009 during the Ireland versus France play-off for qualification to the 2010 World Cup."

The bookmaker William Hill said it was repaying the bets of all punters who had backed the Republic to qualify and Alastair Campbell, the former Downing Street spin doctor, called for an immediate boycott of Gillette razors, which are advertised by Henry. The American company, which said it had picked Henry in 2007 for his £5m-a-year advertising contract because he embodied "true sporting values", said it was standing by the Frenchman.

But with queasiness at the manner of victory spreading as far as France – an online poll by Le Monde found 88 per cent agreeing that the Irish had deserved the World Cup spot and the French had been saved by the referee – leading philosophers said top-flight players were not absolved of their obligation to admit wrongdoing.

Roger Scruton, the philosopher and author, said: "I am not a football fan, but am of the view that one of the major justifications of sport in all its forms is that it teaches the virtues of fair play, and shows the ability of human beings to resolve conflict through the honest confrontation with failure. "Victory achieved by cheating leaves a foul taste in the mouth of the defeated team, and also of its supporters, and makes the whole thing as pointless to them as it is to someone like me who has never quite experienced the allure of the game."

Other senior figures suggested that the actions of Henry made it imperative that a regulatory body like Fifa introduced a mechanism to at least punish actions that were wrong but missed at the time by the match officials.

Professor Mike McNamee, an expert on ethics in sport at Swansea University and founder of the British Philosophy of Sport Association, said: "What Henry did was obviously wrong. The issue is whether justice was served and clearly it was not. In that case, there should be some form of restorative justice which Fifa is prepared to use, such as ordering the game to be replayed, with or without Henry, and at a neutral venue.

"We must also be careful about the message this sends to wider society. Shakespeare said 'lillies that fester, smell far worse than weeds'. Thierry Henry is one of the most graceful players to have lived and a role model to millions of people around the world. We should be calling a spade a spade – these players have an obligation to honesty that over-rides their self-serving commitments."

Even the finest French minds found Henry's actions difficult to stomach. Alain Finkielkraut, one of France's leading media-savvy intellectuals, told the Europe 1 radio station: "There was cheating. We are faced with a real matter of conscience. From the moral point of view I would almost have preferred a defeat to victory in these conditions. We certainly have nothing to be proud of."

A video replay system to instantly scrutinise controversial incidents during games, which could have spotted Henry's double foul, has long been demanded by fans' groups and some club executives but has been resisted by Fifa and Uefa, who say it would introduce unnecessary delay to the game.

Danny Jordaan, the organiser of South Africa 2010, said he remained opposed to the move and that disputed decisions should be considered part of football.

The debate will nonetheless seem sterile to the faithful followers of the Republic of Ireland.

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