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Handy history lesson for France

Memories of Thierry Henry's 2009 handball play sidekick to confident buildup as Les Bleus prepare to face Ukraine.

Last updated: 13 Nov 2013 19:33
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J'accuse: Ireland's players were livid when Henry's handball ended their playoff hopes in 2009 [Reuters]

France could do with a hand from Thierry Henry in the next week.

It was the striker's use of an extremity forbidden by the laws of football in the World Cup playoffs on November 18, 2009, that saw Les Bleus beat Ireland and secure a place in South Africa.

The Irish were furious after the former Arsenal player kept the ball in play manually before crossing for William Gallas to score the winner at the Stade de France.

The moment was recalled by French sports paper L'Équipe on Wednesday with a cartoon on their back page. Under the title of 'football archeology', a giant hand is shown imprinted on the grass of a hillside, with a group of blue-clad footballers gazing at it and one of them saying, "With the humidity of November, the marks of the past return…".

While it was not one of France's proudest moments (although worse was to follow), they would probably be happy for history to repeat itself almost exactly four years later against Ukraine on Friday, in Kiev, or on Tuesday next week in Paris.

Wednesday was Jour J (D-Day) minus two for the French press as they prepared for their scrutiny of Didier Deschamps and his squad.

An account of bonhomie in the French camp at Clairefontaine on Tuesday was followed the next day by a ringing endorsement of the team's chances by players in Ligue 1 canvassed by L'Équipe.

"For me, all the big teams should play at the World Cup, so I find it difficult to imagine a finals without France," said Paris Saint-Germain's Brazil defender Thiago Silva.

"Frankly, if it was another opponent than Ukraine I might say something different but...", began defender Sylvain Armand of Rennes, without needing to finish.

And from Hervé Renard, the former Zambia coach now of Sochaux: "I know that we'll get there. I've already booked my ticket."

Ribery on fire

The red-hot form of Franck Ribery, who won the Champions League with Bayern Munich this year and who said on Monday that he was at the summit of his game, is being seen as a force to take the 1998 world champions to a higher level, while a few players spoke of the admirable collective qualities of the Ukrainians.

But only one struck a note of caution, harking back to a time when the French were equally confident of progress.

Fomenko doesn't want his Ukraine players to be boning up on any history before the match [EPA]

"I can't see France not going to the World Cup, it would be a tragedy like in 1994," said Nantes midfielder Lucas Deaux, recalling the time when France needed two points to qualify from their last two home games in 1993.

They lost the first to Israel before the second match against Bulgaria – 20 years ago on November 17 – saw them lose in the last seconds and miss the boat to USA '94.

Which brings us back to Henry, who averted that tragedy in 2009 and brought it instead upon the heads of the Irish.

Now playing his football at the age of 36 for the New York Red Bulls, the fallout from the handball gave France's top-scorer in history a sour end to his international career.

He was widely derided for the handball and given little support by teammates. He apologised for his "instinctive" action, offered, futilely, to replay the match, and then had a bit-part role in France's two defeats and a draw in South Africa.

The world and European champion ended his time with France as a beaten substitute after scoring 51 goals in 123 games. A shame for a top player who is still entertaining after nearly 20 years as a professional.

Whatever happens to France against Ukraine, it can't get much worse than that.

But if any of it can provide a lesson to the 2013 Bleus, their rivals in blue and yellow feel themselves best kept away from old war stories.

Ukraine have been beaten in each of their last seven meetings with France – who finished second in qualifying Group I, three points behind world and European champions Spain – and have lost their three previous attempts at qualifying for the World Cup via the playoffs.

"We are trying to keep our players away from the past," said their coach Mykhaylo Fomenko, who guided the team to second place and a point behind England in Group H.

"To know the reasons for those failures, you had to be there."

On Friday and Tuesday, they will be.

Paul Rhys is a sports correspondent and presenter writing for Al Jazeera from Paris. Follow him on @PaulRhys_Sport or go to paulrhys.com.

Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of external websites.

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