Two Ways of Looking at a Handball - NBC New York

Two Ways of Looking at a Handball

World Cup qualification relies on blown call



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    While watching the highlights of the end of the France-Ireland World Cup play-in game on Wednesday night, I was shocked to see Thierry Henry blatantly use his hand to pass the ball to a teammate who headed in a goal that sent the French team to next summer's tournament in South Africa. It was so obvious and so egregious an error that my immediate thought was that the referee should probably be barred from officiating another soccer match between six-year-olds, let alone one of this importance.

    Perusing international takes on the incident, though, makes it clear that this American sports fan has little in common with his fellow enthusiasts across the Atlantic. Henry has been pilloried for admittingusing his hand but saying that it is up to the referee to make the correct call, his countrymen are accusing him of embarrassing France and he's being calleda cheater or a thief by just about everyone who follows soccer. The most shocking claim is that Henry should have told the ref that he used his hand and asking him to disallow the goal.   

    It's a pretty glaring difference of opinion that makes you wonder if there aren't deeply felt differences about the way we watch sports in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

    The idea that Henry cheated never crossed my mind. Did he break the rules? Obviously, and he may have meant to break the rules but, for better or for worse, we're pretty conditioned to that in the U.S. The next time you hear an offensive lineman who grabs the jersey of a blitzing linebacker called a cheater will be the first time. It may just be semantics and it's certainly lamentable behavior, but cheating seems a fairly craven description of something that can and should be easily stopped. 

    The notion that he should have just stood up and called the foul on himself is another one that would be out of place in American sports. Think back to the baseball playoffs when a ball fell fair in front of Yankee outfielder Melky Cabrera but was called foul by an inept umpire. Cabrera might have received some praise as a sportsman if he'd corrected the umpire, but there would have been plenty of others who excoriated him for hurting his team. The same is true of a basketball player who called himself out for taking an extra step or a hockey forward who made it known that he was offside before scoring a goal.

    Again, it comes down to the idea that referees exist to make sure that infractions of the rules aren't permitted and are punished when they occur. We're also a lot keener on the idea of video replay over here, even with all its flaws, than our European counterparts. This would seem to be a tipping point, but the prevailing thought remains that the only guy to blame for this is the dastardly and unsportsmanlike Henry.

    Ultimately, the difference seems to boil down to completely opposite views on who is to blame when there's a miscarriage of sports justice. The take in Europe is that you blame the guy trying to win the game, while here we're more apt to blame the guy whose job it is to make sure that miscarriages don't happen. Maybe they're right or maybe we are, but it might help explain why soccer hasn't caught on in the United States.

    Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City and is a contributor to and in addition to his duties for