James Lawton: Henry is a cheat – and a replay could have proved it on Wednesday night

Click to follow

We can appraise however we like the moral strength of Thierry Henry's belated statement that it really would be quite a good idea to replay the World Cup match he distorted so profoundly. However, we cannot hope to be within a long throw of the central issue.

Henry can beat his breast a thousand times. He can even robe himself in sackcloth for the journey to South Africa. He might even be applauded as a man who eventually made contact with his conscience. What he can't do, this side of an amazing volte-face by Fifa, is right a grievous wrong – and you certainly don't have to be choking with cynicism to suspect that he might have been aware of this when he made his headline grabbing act of contrition yesterday.

Again though, we are straying from the killer point. What Henry couldn't do, not after he avoided telling the referee, while it had practical value, that he had indeed handled the ball before crossing for the goal that broke Irish hearts, was something that could have been achieved in seconds by some bog-standard television equipment.

It means that those who have long believed that the delay in imposing technological assistance to match officials has represented almost surreal neglect by the authorities need not take a stride away from the Henry incident in any search for absolute vindication.

If Henry had placed the ball on a silver platter before nudging it to the head of William Gallas he could not have formulated a more powerful case for football's need to embrace the 21st century.

In that moment which decided the fates of two World Cup contenders the arguments against technology shrivelled to nothing. They were shown to be precisely what they are, a perverse, Luddite obstruction dumped into the middle of a game which largely lives by television but doesn't begin to recognise the damage to its image the paymaster so often commits when he reaches for the re-run button.

On Wednesday the world knew almost instantly that a terrible mistake had been made by an otherwise exemplary Swedish referee. How is it that the official could not be guided away from something that will presumably haunt him as much as the Irish team and their fans – and which could so easily have been avoided by the intervention of a fourth official acting on evidence which was so irrefutable and available in every house and sports bar across Europe? It is because of a dumb refusal to accept the reality that the greatest scourge of modern football, a culture of cheating which sometimes seems to know no bounds, can only be seriously tackled by the laser eye of the television camera.

Henry's former manager, Arsène Wenger, whose view on such problems as simulation, it has to be said, has been as equivocal as anyone's at times, surely demanded everyone's attention when he put on a football statesman's clothes yesterday.

Saddened both as a Frenchman and as a coach who is responsible for producing some of the purest football ever seen at any level, Wenger said, "I saw the referee giving a goal knowing something was wrong and that is really sad. We cannot accept this in our sport and you have to do something about it. The referee didn't see it, I can understand that, the linesman didn't see it, but they couldn't get any help. For the sense of justice it is quite embarrassing to see."

Support for Wenger's position was strong yesterday, especially from the players' union chief Gordon Taylor and the hammer of the referees, Sir Alex Ferguson. It encouraged the belief that perhaps football finally understands that it cannot any longer dally with the myth that somehow the game will come striding out of its moral maze ready to adhere to some of the more basic demands of sportsmanship. Football cannot be trusted to do this, it is simply too compromised, too far gone in the belief that to forswear the most blatant cheating is not so much noble as self-defeating.

When Henry, such an attractive figure in so many ways, such a thrillingly talented exponent of a beautiful game, emerged yesterday he could only compound the sense of a game that, under present circumstances, will continue to grope its way forward without the help of a moral compass.

"There is little more I can do apart from admit that the ball had contact with my hand leading up to our equalising goal and I feel sorry for the Irish. I'm not a cheat, I have never been," Henry said.

This declaration followed a brief lesson in football physics, an explanation that the speed of action involved cannot really be understood by someone sprawled across a sofa. This is another problem, this separation of a football superstar from some basic common sense. No doubt Henry's action was instinctive, but this is not the point. Where he errs, and insults the intelligence, is in suggesting that the significance of what he did – how long did he really need to conclude that he had indeed broken one of the most fundamental laws of football? – required nearly two days to properly percolate.

Inevitably Wednesday's incident has thrown up a pigeon flock of non sequiturs. Ireland would have done the same in similar circumstances. Everybody cheats. David Beckham, who once preened himself on deliberately earning a yellow card so as to draw a suspension at a time most convenient for himself and his team, weighed in with a vote of sympathy for Henry. He explained that the Frenchman didn't mean to cheat. He just reacted.

Roy Keane gave us more rancid evidence of his inability to bury a grudge, even against the land of his birth. He said that the Irish team were responsible for their own downfall, that paltry defence was the cause of defeat not the chicanery of Henry. This is from a man who once used to lead invasions of referees at a mere hint of grievance.

So where does any of this lead us? Up an alley where football can pick and choose the most convenient bits of what passes for a code of conduct.

The beauty of technology is that it can cut through such artifice. It can take us to the heart of the kind of matter which sent reverberations into every corner of the football world this week.

Henry's declaration that he is not a cheat and has never been one is unfortunately not true. Television nailed him three years ago when he committed arguably the most egregious deceit of a World Cup studded with diving and grappling. He threw himself to the floor after a brush with Carles Puyol, holding his head in agony, and winning a free-kick that carried France on their way to the final in Berlin. Television was explicit in a way that only it can be. It said that there had been no significant contact.

Of course Henry's reputation was just a run or two away from rehabilitation and would have been at an all-time high if, a week or so later, he and his team-mates had overcome the handicap of losing Zinedine Zidane for a head-butt which was totally missed by the referee and was widely believed to have been registered by a fourth official armed with television evidence.

Now some will argue, perhaps legitimately, that Henry was yesterday doing more than some artful retouching of his behaviour at the Stade de France. They will see this man of intelligence and charm as someone coming from a dark place of doubt and self-examination, someone who had wrestled through a great crisis of his life and his career and had elected to do a noble thing. Others will see football's gesture politics at its most extreme, and gratuitous.

It is an argument not so easily resolved and perhaps it is not really worth the trouble. Better, perhaps, to welcome the surge of support for technology that has come in the wake of the night when much of the world was repulsed by what it saw as the most wrenching of injustice.

What may be happening is that football is being obliged to face the reality that it can no longer afford to trust itself. Against this fear, the small adjustments required in installing a proper system of TV monitoring, one that can kill at source the worst examples of cheating, surely come at an irresistible price. What they offer most compellingly is the possibility that football need never again be dragged as low as it was last Wednesday night.