Image, substance, celebrity and infamy become desperately confused in football. Legends and folklore are contrived, reputations rebuilt and deeds embellished as time passes. Fact and fiction are blurred and, eventually, we can't tell the hero from the villain. While we try to work out and drill Wikipedia, the soccer circus moves on. After "the hand of Gaul", the footballing legend of Thierry Henry will be forever examined, assessed and blamed for epoch-making Irish sporting heartbreak for years to come.
There is no room for scruples in such a high-stakes sport, we've been told. Business is business. What professional would not do as much as they can get away with? But think of this. What would have happened if, as captain of the French side, he had gone to the referee and confessed to handling the ball. It sounds daftly naïve, and quite possibly the quickest way imaginable to fall out with team-mates and lose out on a money-spinning World Cup.
But it would be one of sport's biggest game-changers. He would now be lauded as a true sportsman, not the ersatz sort who thinks a handshake after a professional foul is the height of decency. In marketing terms, his value, globally, would have soared, into the billions. Can you picture the chaos if he had made the call? Not often graced with wit or wisdom, a footballer's career is short, and missing out on the world's greatest tournament automatically suppresses any sense of sporting decency. If the roles were reversed, the Irish players would, without doubt, have followed the same path as Henry.
In life, everyday folk can be propelled into the limelight overnight and become front-page wonders. Rebecca Loos, Jon and Lorena Bobbitt, Claire Swire, Monica Lewinsky, John Darwin, Erica Rowe, Divine Brown, Susan Boyle, Jedward, James Hewitt – even Stuart Tinner, who last week kicked a rugby ball against the crossbar and won £250,000. But these are flights of fancy. We need platinum-plated heroes whose deeds are elevated above those of mere earthlings.
If quantum physics is to be believed, there is quite possibly an alternate Thierry Henry in a parallel universe who has just become a sporting god thanks to 'fessing up to handling the ball. Heralded as one of the greatest publicity stunts of all time, it would nonetheless change the life of the footballer into that of the fairplay god, the one who rewrote the sporting commandments. Fifa would be shamed into rewarding honesty, not the reverse.
Groomed by a bevy of spin merchants, he could have transcended sport and become a spellbinding raconteur gracing state occasions, a sporting Obama, the true Corinthian. A global audience could have adored, loved and cherished his example, could have attempted to emulate his selfless action. He could have transcended everything.
He could have become a peacemaker, could have brought warring nations and clans together. Religious zealots could have been neutered and the healing hands of Thierry could have become a symbol of power, of truth, of justice. Alas, he would probably have buckled under the pressure, been forced to retreat behind a curtain of privacy, rarely appearing in public and having little to say when he did. In his final days his last words would have essayed a modest man who genuinely believed he had done the right thing at the right time. On his deathbed he would have wondered what all the fuss was about, modestly belittling his achievements and his reputation.
"I cared not for goal and the trophies – I just wanted a good life, one I could live to the fullest. I am sorry for the team-mates who thought it was sacrilege, even betrayal. I couldn't ask to have lived a better life."
But he didn't. He handled the ball and remains just another player in the Fifa machine. Do you think the dream's over? It is now.