Harry Ritchie: Henry didn't handle the ball, he chanced his arm. They all do

A dive here, a blood capsule there... everyone cheats to some extent in sport. So thank goodness for the moral and ethical high ground that is golf

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First he reached out his arm and kept the ball in play with a firm pat. Then his hand gave the ball another flick before passing, controversially with his foot, to William Gallas to score the extra-time goal that put France into the World Cup finals and knocked out the Republic of Ireland.

As moral issues go, Henrygate seems quite straightforward. The result could hardly be less deserving – the republic should have been two or three up and coasting to South Africa. The perpetrator couldn't have been more respected or revered – Thierry Henry, the sophisticated, articulate, gorgeous prince of football, one of the closely shaved faces of the Gillette adverts, where he is one of a sporting trinity alongside Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. And the intent couldn't have been clearer if he'd caught the damned ball and thrown it in the net.

"I didn't mean to," Henry stated afterwards. So that makes him first a cheat and then a liar. Oh, Thierry, Thierry. Fated to end an up-until-Wednesday-night-glorious career in disgrace, just like Zinedine Zidane after his World Cup final head-butt. How could it come to this?

Because he's a footballer, is one short answer. Instructively, for all the howls of outrage, from the Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen to the Dubliner interviewed on a TV vox pop who said he couldn't face eating a croissant, the one place where Henry hasn't found vilification, condemnation, and hatred but generous-hearted understanding and sympathy is from his fellow professional footballers.

Ex-Arsenal teammate Lee Dixon did say Thierry's conduct was "slightly disappointing" – but that's about as round as condemnation has come from within the game where even his opponents have refused to cast a single aspersion. "I want to make it clear that it's not Henry's fault," stated Ireland's manager Giovanni Trapattoni. The Irish players Sean St Ledger, Kevin Doyle and Damien Duff all agreed. "You can't blame him," said Duff. "If it had been down the other end, I would have chanced my arm."

So whose fault was it? The Irish players and Thierry Henry himself are unanimous – the person to blame was the referee for not spotting the offence. Ethically, this is, of course, silly. It's like a victim blaming not the burglar but the police for not having prepared an ambush in the front garden. But apart from the daft, dark mutterings of several in the Irish party about conspiracies involving Uefa, Fifa and the World Cup sponsors Adidas, blaming the ref is the only option left for players who play in a moral vacuum and customarily devote great skill and energy into trying to con the officials.

Traditionally, football's divers and cheats have been compared and contrasted with their moral superiors in the more gentlemanly (i.e. middle-class and public-school) sports of cricket and rugby, with their respective traditions of batsmen giving themselves out and schoolboy-to-headmaster respect for the referee.

Well, yes, but that is to ignore a couple of harsh realities. In cricket, the truth is that the vast majority of batsmen don't walk off the moment they realise they're out but steadfastly rely on the verdict of the umpire. And, granted, rugby players don't gang up on the referee like a bunch of muggers steaming a victim on a Tube train, as has recently been the wont of, to pluck two football teams not quite at random, Chelsea and Manchester United. But obeying the ref is the only obvious moral virtue of a sport which otherwise sanctions all manner of eye- gouging, testicle-scrunching and ear-munching.

And, alas, both cricket and rugby have recently tumbled quite a distance down from the moral high ground with ball-tampering scandals in Test cricket and in rugby the extraordinary case of "Bloodgate" – when Harlequins cheated in the most comprehensive and premeditated manner, supplying Tom Williams with a blood capsule and instructing him to chew on it so that he could be replaced, and then having the club doctor cut his lip to make the pretence more credible. With professionalism, rugby has had to learn a painful lesson – if the stakes are high enough, as they were in that Heineken Cup quarter-final when Harlequins enacted their bloody outrage, even chaps cheat.

Drug-addled athletes, amphetamine-crazed cyclists, deliberately crashing racing-drivers, homicidal ice-skaters – is there no sport free of dishonesty and amoral ghastliness? Actually, there is one place where moral rectitude and integrity are absolute and unswerving – professional golf. This may indeed seem counter-intuitive, not to say preposterous, to ordinary, everyday participants who know that hitting a golf ball involves an ethical bypass – the air shots that somehow don't count, those little nudges of the ball out of the rough, the balls that are picked out of impossible lies and quietly replaced on springy, level turf, those heinous lies on the scorecard ....

Yes, but at its highest professional level, golf is a moral beacon in a very naughty sporting world, a game where only the highest and purest moral behaviour is acceptable. There are a handful of cases of cheating in professional golf, the most notorious of them being David Robertson, who was seen moving his ball closer to the hole in a qualifying round for the British Open and who was banned from the game – for 20 years.

Robertson remains the sport's only true villain. Early in his career, Vijay Singh did collect a two-year ban for changing a one-above-par to a one-below par on his scorecard – but it's a murky case, with Singh maintaining his innocence and persuasively blaming corrupt and/or inept officials. There was an attempt at a golfing scandal in 2005, when Michelle Wie, then the 16-year-old prodigy who was supposed to be the future of the game, was disqualified from her first professional tournament for dropping her ball nearer the hole. The scandal fizzled out when it transpired that Wie had made a genuine and tiny mistake unnoticed by everyone bar a journalist from Sports Illustrated eager to manufacture a scoop.

Golf's other "cheats" turn out to be moral paragons. There are the humbling examples of David Toms, who disqualified himself from the British Open after his ball moved as he putted it, unnoticed by everyone but himself, or Paula Creamer, who disqualified herself from a tournament and handed back her $11,859 prize money after only she realised that she had made a minor transgression by changing her clubs mid-round. Or Colin Montgomerie, who was officially cleared of dropped-ball allegations in 2005 but who gave his prize money to the Asian tsunami fund anyway: "The respect of my peers and the rules of the game are extremely important to me," he explained, in words that Thierry Henry and, let's be candid about this, every other professional footballer in the world, will never be able to say.

One salient difference is the importance of the event. Montgomerie had disqualified himself from a fourth-place finish in the Enjoy Jakarta Standard Chartered Indonesia Open, which isn't quite on a par with a do-or-die World Cup qualifier. And his €34,708 prize money was loose change to a man who later that same year would become the first golfer to have won €20m on the European Tour. But let that pass – Montgomerie was clearly impelled by a very evident anxiety to be seen to be doing the right thing.

Football, however, is a game with exactly the opposite moral dynamic. At its least accomplished level, kickabouts have to be policed by the players themselves and even Hackney Marshes level games that benefit from a referee don't often have linesmen so decisions about throw-ins, corners and offsides have to be, somehow or other, consensually accepted. Besides, it usually takes a real degree of skill to execute a penalty-winning dive that won't make the diver a laughing stock.

Whereas David Robertson stands in splendid isolation as professional golf's one cheat, the examples of footballers actually behaving well and morally during a game are as rare as sales of Henry replica shirts in Dublin. There was Paolo di Canio catching the ball when he had the chance to score against Everton, whose goalkeeper had just fallen down injured. There was Robbie Fowler protesting to the referee that the Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman hadn't touched him when he fell in the box. (Worth bearing in mind, though, the manager Harry Redknapp's consternation at di Canio's gesture, di Canio's subsequent Nazi salute to fascist Lazio fans and Robbie Fowler picking himself up to score that unfairly awarded penalty).

Casting desperately around for other, more conclusive examples, I find myself going back to 1971 and Steve Kember's alleged goal for Crystal Palace against Nottingham Forest when the ball actually hit the side-netting. In the ensuing chaos, the game was held up for five minutes and Kember finally confessed that he'd missed – to the howling dismay of many Palace players and supporters.

The very few exceptions highlight the rule of professional football's utter abnegation of personal moral responsibility. Hence Maradona's unabashed explanation that his goal against England had been scored by the hand of God. Hence, as Tom Stoppard pointed out in his 1977 TV play, Professional Foul, the unswerving practice of footballers appealing for a throw-in when they know full well they touched the ball last.

But like Damien Duff, I find myself unable to cast judgement. Because I once found myself in a position similar to Thierry Henry's when I scored my first and only rugby try, in a school fourth XV practice game, when I tried to catch a high ball twice and failed twice, patting the ball forward twice in two blatant knock-ons which the maths teacher missed.

"What the fuck is this?" asked an outraged opponent. "Basketball?" I replied with a slightly sheepish grin and trotted back to celebrating teammates. David Toms would have been aghast. But Thierry Henry would have understood.

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