November 22, 2009

Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien

Sinner or sinned against. Which would you prefer?

I watched the furore around 'l'affaire Henry' from the vantage-point of our Franco-Irish household (where my French wife Christine and au pair Marie were vigorously flying the other tricolour in the lead-up to the game) with a certain bemusement.

Christine summed it up best in the immediate aftershock of the match,"What a terrible way to lose. But what an even more terrible way to win."

When I was growing up, news of a teenage death on our roads would immediately prompt my own mother to commiserate with that other mother who had received the dreaded knock on the door that same morning. Then she would say, "I know this sounds awful, but I'd much prefer to be the mother of the victim rather than the mother of the drunk-driver at the wheel."

Thanks, mother, I think. But even from an early age, I knew what she meant, and I heard the same regret from Christine, Marie and the countless others who sent their expressions of shame and embarrassment to notice-boards and chat-forums in the days after the match.

It may be only a game but now, thanks to a simple sleight-of-hand that took scarcely a split-second, it stands for so much more in the popular imagination. It invites us to ask what it means to play fair, to take advantage, to stand up for what's right and, of course, what it means to be Irish and to be French.

But as an Irish football fan, I prefer to view Henry's as the fickle hand of fate (in other circumstances, it might well have been an Irish hand), and look instead to what the Irish team stood for on Wednesday night. Remember, that in the days before the game, this team had been pilloried as largely talentless donkeys, destined to play also-rans to the footballing thoroughbreds of France. Even those who didn't use such dismissive language damned the boys in green with faint praise and held out little hope of an upset.

Instead, the Irish players put on a courageous and frequently skilful display that lacked only a killer touch in front of goal. Robbie Keane's strike may have stunned the French team but for the remainder of the game a succession of squeamish Irish players failed to apply the coup de grace. Their failure to finish off the game offered a hostage to fortune and, as is her inclination, she took it.

In the aftermath of the match, I struggled to rouse myself to righteous anger or even indignation. Like my mother, it seems I'm hard-wired to prefer honourable defeat to shameful victory.

From the reactions of my countrymen, it appears that they too prefer to be on the side of the sinned against rather than the sinner. But there's a danger that we use our sense of being wronged (and how we love to store up those wrongs) as an excuse not to hold our own hands up to our failure to put the game beyond the French team when we had the opportunity.

For if fortune is to favour the brave, she at least expects her champion to have the good sense to seal the deal when given the chance.

Our players may have given it everything on Wednesday. But they might have given even more. And denied Henry the chance to play the villain's role.

If I regret anything, it's that in the aftermath of the game, I saw little evidence of any steely intent from our players to make sure that we never offer such hostages to fortune again.

Over To You: Which do you prefer: Sinned against or sinner?

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