Thierry Henry handball: The story behind Ireland’s 2010 World Cup heartbreak

When you think of famous handballs in football, it would take a brave person to say that there is one more famous than the ‘Hand of God’ in 1986. Of course, this one occurred against England by the now infamous Diego Maradona. However, if you ask a Frenchman or an Irishman, the answer would likely reference the Thierry Henry handball during the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup.

If this is somehow a brand new story for you, let us give you an overview…

Thierry Henry handball – the gist of what happened

Basically, neither team had earned automatic qualification through to the World Cup. So France found themselves in a playoff game against Ireland to even qualify – something that the French likely didn’t anticipate. Regardless, France managed to win the first game in Ireland to the tune of 1-0.

But there was a twist in the works, when the Irish led 1-0 in Paris during the second leg, before the big moment. Henry prevented the ball from going out for a goal kick and played through an assist for France to score, but he kept the ball in play with his hand in the build up – something that Maradona himself would’ve been quite proud of.

This goal then sent France through to the World Cup 2-1 on aggregate, while preventing Ireland from ending what has since turned into a current 22-year absence from the World Cup finals. As you’d expect, the Irish team and their fans were far from pleased about what had happened – which brings us onto the way in which this event changed the tournament as a whole.

thierry henry

The impact that the Thierry Henry handball had on the tournament and football

There was poetic justice in store, as France finished bottom of their group just four years after going the distance with Italy in their infamous Zidane-tainted 2006 final defeat, but this event had other consequences that people don’t always recognise.

A historical victory for Henry (of sorts)

Such is the tribal nature of football, ‘cheating' is subjective. Some would say that players diving on the floor following minimal contact is cheating, and that trying to injure a player prior to getting a shot away is also cheating. It happens, and even with VAR, it’s still not caught out all of the time.

But coming back to the Thierry Henry handball, the fact remains that he is the only man ever to have handled the ball twice and then created a goal. Physically, that beats even the famous Hand of God incident from Maradona, He has definitely gone down in the record books, so technically speaking, it’s a historical accolade.

Added pressure on international players to act ethically

The backlash following this incident was so brutal on Thierry Henry that he publicly stated that he was considering retiring from international football. Then again, he didn’t help himself by telling the Irish defenders after the game that yes, he did in fact handle the ball – twice. He was receiving all kinds of abuse from Irish football fans in the media, on social media outlets, and more.

It wasn’t just Henry feeling the heat either. Referee Martin Hansson was also considering retiring from his role given the huge mistake that was made, combined with the abuse coming in his direction. With this in mind, other players were able to get a direct view of the kind of impact that such actions had if they were caught out.

Another catalyst for VAR

As you are no doubt aware, this wasn’t the first major fail from referees in international football, especially at large competitions. And as it happens, it certainly wasn’t the last either – with England being denied a goal against Germany in the knockout stages of this very tournament, despite the ball being a good foot over the line.

Anyway, a failure of such proportion did actually prompt FIFA to hold an emergency meeting for the introduction of technology that would prevent such mistakes from happening. Sure, it didn’t happen immediately, but it certainly paved the way for the VAR technology that we see today.

(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images) – Photo by Icon sport


What would happen with the Thierry Henry handball these days?

We’ve mentioned VAR quite a few times now, and this is the main change that has resulted because of such incidents. Nowadays, the use of VAR should ensure that such major scandals do not happen again, and it certainly reveals the pressure on the referee and their assistants. So, what would happen if the Thierry Henry handball was to happen in this day and age? Well, for starters, the VAR assessment would catch Henry out for the handball and the goal would be denied. Of course, this would change the entire course of the game, and history could well be different if VAR was being used and caught the incident.

But it wouldn’t just result in the goal being denied – if you watch the replay of this incident it certainly seems that Henry handled the ball deliberately. Therefore, if he was to handle the ball deliberately in order to gain an advantage, he would no doubt be shown a card. The Irish team would then be awarded a freekick from within their own box and then play the ball back up the pitch with the score still being 1-0 to the Irish. Unfortunately, this is all ifs and maybes, and we certainly cannot change the course of history, no matter how many times we look back and think how things could have been different.

What if?

What if VAR had been around during this game, and France's goal was disallowed for Henry's handball? Ireland could have gone through to the World Cup instead of France, so how would they have fared in the group stage?

The Irish boasted some established Premier League players like John O'Shea, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, and would certainly have caused problems in the group stage. If directly taking France's place, their opponents would have been hosts South Africa, Uruguay and Mexico.

France's only point came against Uruguay – a 0-0 draw in their opener – and with Uruguay topping the group and reaching the semi-finals overall, it would have been tough for Ireland to better France's result.

Second was a 2-0 defeat to Mexico, who finished second but were knocked out in the round of 16 to Argentina. They boasted top attackers like Javier Hernandez, who would have caused Ireland problems, but their own attacking talent would have given them a chance.

The last group game for France was South Africa, who beat the then-ninth seeds 2-1 in a shock result. There is no doubt Ireland would have matched the host nation for quality, but it is always difficult to play against a team with the majority of the home crowd behind them.

Overall, Ireland may have struggled to progress from the group too, but it would not have been impossible. That said, it's safe to say that any journey beyond the last 16 would have been very unlikely.

Gavin is a full-time copywriter based in the UK and has developed in-depth knowledge of the igaming world by working in the betting industry for over five years. During this time, he has written thousands of articles covering various topics, including bookmaker reviews, ‘how to’ guides, bonus comparisons and much more.