John Lichfield: The hand of Dieu – but with heads hung

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Jubilation struggled with embarrassment in France after Thierry Henry's "main de Dieu" qualified les Bleus for the World Cup finals. On the whole, embarrassment won.

Jubilant football fans crammed the Champs Elysées on Wednesday night after their team won through to South Africa. But these were not fans of France, even if most of them were probably French. They were wildly celebrating Algeria's victory over Egypt earlier in the evening.

There were a few desultory celebrations by France fans later in the night, but there were no scenes of unbridled joy. France may not be famous for its sense of "fair play" but the flagrancy of Thierry Henry's foul – more a question of a "hand-dribble" than a simple handball, according to one French television commentator – left the country feeling vaguely ashamed.

The Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, commenting on the match for TF1 television, said he had a sense of "malaise" about France's qualification: in other words, a sense of unease or distaste. Bixente Lizarazu, the former France full-back, said: "We've nothing to be proud of. The Irish... were robbed. They played a fantastic match. We may be going to the World Cup but we are going back to the dressing room hanging our heads."

The daily sports newspaper L'Equipe covered its entire broadsheet front page with the headline "La main de Dieu" (the hand of God) and a picture of Thierry Henry practically holding the ball before crossing for his childhood friend William Gallas to score.

In a front-page editorial, L'Equipe also used the word "malaise" about France's qualification. The newspaper, the daily bible of sports coverage in France, came close to calling for the sacking of the France coach, Raymond Domenech. Under Domenech, the newspaper said, France were "not a great team and scarcely even a team".

France players were more philosophical about their tainted triumph. Thierry Henry admitted that he had touched the ball "accidentally" but said that he was "not the referee" and had the right to play on. The central defender Sébastien Squillaci said wrong decisions were "part of the game" and France had received a "helping hand from destiny".

Other French newspapers were torn between relief and distaste. The front-page headline in the tabloid daily Le Parisien was "Miraculeux" – "miraculous". The newspaper compared Thierry Henry's foul to Diego Maradona's handball goal against England in the World Cup finals in 1986. The newspaper's reporter had no doubt that Henry's action was deliberate. Harold Marchetti described it as a "coup de malice" by the France captain – a "nasty act".

Henry's hand even caused a row within the ranks of the French government. The health minister, Roselyne Bachelot, said France had only qualified because of an "absurd refereeing error". The sports minister, Rama Yade, defended Thierry Henry. "Only he can say whether it was deliberate or not," she said. "I don't believe that a player of his calibre... and his love for the game would deliberately commit an unsporting action."