Thief of Saint Denis makes off with Irish dreams
Sometimes football can be a cruel game. In Paris on Wednesday night, there was evidence of that as France qualified for the World Cup ahead of Republic of Ireland despite being second best.
Not for the first time in their history, Ireland produced a memorable performance that wasn't quite enough as they slipped to a 2-1 aggregate play-off defeat. But even more hurtful was the way in which the French scored the winning goal.
A clear handball by Thierry Henry in the build-up to William Gallas' goal was ignored by Swedish referee Martin Hansson. The appeals from the Irish players were waved away and Les Bleus had done enough to secure their passage to South Africa.
"We feel as though we have been let down by the officials," left-back Kevin Kilbane said after the game. "In extra-time, we get done by a terrible decision. I spoke to Thierry Henry and he said it just hit him, but it didn't look that way to me. The officials should have seen it."
After losing the first leg last week, not many football 'experts' gave Giovanni Trapattoni's team a chance of winning in the Stade de France. But a composed, unified display from the Irish put them within minutes of dumping the former world champions out.
A superb goal from Robbie Keane on 33 minutes put the tie back on level terms. Ireland were playing well and everything was going according to plan, but disaster struck in extra-time when the 'Thief of St Denis' got away red-handed with a crime that will be talked about for years to come in footballing circles.
As the clock ticked onto the 13th minute of extra-time, a free-kick from Florent Malouda was floated into the Irish penalty area. Paul McShane, on as a substitute for the injured John O'Shea, failed to deal with the danger and then Henry controlled it with his arm before setting up Gallas to finish from close range.
It was obvious to everyone except for the match officials that Henry had handled the ball, yet the goal stood. Injustice was served and France marched on to their fourth World Cup finals in a row.
"We feel cheated. We were the better team over the two legs. Every football fan in the stadium will say we were the better team," defender Sean St Ledger said. "It's cost a lot of us our dreams. As a boy, I used to dream of playing in the World Cup, and now I'm not."
So close, yet not close enough. As the calls for the introduction of video technology dominate the stories in the Irish media, solace should be found in the analysis of a performance that is one of the best ever produced by the national team - especially away from home.
Rather than relying on a lucky goal and then hanging on in the hope that they would get through the storm, Ireland bossed this encounter. They dictated the tempo, created the majority of chances on goal and played with confidence.
From the aggressive style of Keith Andrews in midfield to the well-timed interceptions of Richard Dunne in defence, everything worked for Trapattoni's men. They finally looked like the team that they were threatening to morph into over the course of qualifying.
However, there were moments of panic to deal with - mostly coming from Nicolas Anelka - but Shay Given was never forced into making a top-class save. Ireland kept playmaker Yoann Gourcuff quiet, nullified the threat of Patrice Evra on the left and dealt with almost every ball played into their box. Whenever the French attacked, they responded with brave defending.
And there were plenty of opportunities too with Keane, O'Shea, Kevin Doyle, and Damien Duff all coming close, but only one strike hit the back of the net from their numerous efforts. Again Hugo Lloris made superb saves, although those missed chances ultimately came back to haunt Ireland as they were undone by one set-piece late in the game.
Despite sitting on an away-goal lead, France struggled to cope with the tenacity and work-rate of their visitors. In fact, Raymond Domenech's side rarely looked like the heavyweight contenders that they were supposed to be.
Undoubtedly, there are problems with this French team that need to be addressed. The absence of both Franck Ribery and Jeremy Toulalan was quite noticeable over both legs, but so was the lack of fludity to their play, the poor communication among the players, and the mysterious whereabouts of a structured gameplan.
For Ireland, it will take some time for the bitterness of this defeat to disappear, but they can take a lot of positives from how they played in Paris as well as over the course of the qualifying campaign.
Trapattoni's arrival has truly reignited belief that they can compete against the best nations on the international stage. But sadly they won't be involved in next summer's World Cup - even if they did deserve to win their play-off.
Gareth Maher covers Irish football for ESPN Soccernet. Check out his website www.garethmaher.com to read more of his writing.