Ireland are minutes away from a penalty shoot-out that will decide if their long World Cup qualifying campaign will end in success; and a place at the biggest sporting event on the planet.
But they have to be cautious because a world class striker is still lurking up front for their opponents France, a nation who have won the World Cup and been to another final in the last three tournaments.
Then a ball into the box cuts out the Irish defence and falls to Thierry Henry, his normally exquisite control is lacking after nearly two hours of football and instead he scoops the ball towards the goal-line with his hand, cuts the ball to the back post and creates the goal that eliminates Ireland and puts France into the finals.
The uproar surrounding that handball has now reached ridiculous levels and I won’t rehash the arguments here. But I do want to talk about how such occurrences and the reaction to them affects youth soccer players and how, as coaches, we can manage cheating.
My personal feelings about the Henry handball are mixed: I have Irish grandparents, believe that Ireland played well enough throughout qualifying and in the playoffs to deserve a place at the finals and feel that the tournament would have benefited from the presence of the Irish fans.
But I’m also glad that the World Cup will have brilliant players like Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema and, yes, Thierry Henry – the best striker I’ve ever seen play in England.
I got into football after watching Romario and Baggio light up the 1994 World Cup; the tournament lives and dies by the performance of its star players and I want a new generation of young people to be inspired to get out and play football by South Africa 2010. Having the best players at the tournament will only benefit grassroots football.
Cheating in the Professional Game
But herein lies the problem for youth coaches.
Young soccer players do imitate the professional game, so what is the message that young soccer players are getting when they see a foul, and almost certainly a deliberate foul, being rewarded so handsomely as with a place at the World Cup Finals?
Surely the only expectation can be that our players will find cheating more acceptable and that not only the amount of cheating, but the tolerance of it will increase in the grassroots game.
But I don’t think this has to be the case.
The extrinsic motivations of professional footballers – especially at the International level – are different in every respect to the motivations of a grassroots footballer.
Firstly the amount of money which hinges on the result of every game changes the dynamic of the competition. Whilst we’d love to believe that the beautiful game is played in the Corinthian spirit, we know that this simply isn’t true. Competing for the sake of pride and glory alone is inevitably different from competing for pride, glory and millions of pounds. Footballers have built such an extravagant lifestyle on the back of Sky Sports’ and other TV deals’ money that they literally cannot afford to be part of an unsuccessful team.
The same principle applies for football’s national bodies. Failing to qualify for a major tournament means missing out on a large cash injection, an injection that rival Football Associations receive instead and can use to invest in better infrastructure, better coaching and better facilities.
As qualifying teams become more relatively advanced than non-qualifying teams, and as qualifying for future major tournaments is seeded, it becomes harder and harder for different teams to break into the World Cup and European Championship finals. This is evident as, of the 39 slots that UEFA nations have been allocated in the World Cup group stages since 2002, 29 have been taken by just 12 nations.
Professional footballers are also hounded by the press, knocked down when they’re successful and set-upon when they’re not. I can remember vividly the back-pages on the days after England were knocked out of the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, and failed to qualify for the 2008 European Championships. In every instance an individual was picked out and subjected to ruthless abuse by the writers inside.
Clearly the media don’t believe that the shame of losing is punishment enough in these situations. Why do they believe that pride should be any more of a motivator?
The reality is that the emphasis on the result is far greater in professional football than it has any business being in the grassroots game.
With such external pressure on the players it is entirely rational for them to do anything they can get away with to win the game for their team. Yes I’d love to see the referee make the correct call in the first place, and I’d like to see video assistance implemented to help with the call.
But on Wednesday night the referee didn’t blow, and so Thierry Henry would be absolutely insane to stop in the position he was in – we coach even our youngest players to play to the whistle. In fact, Henry was more honest than most players you’ll see on Match of the Day this year in even admitting he handled the ball.
Teaching Young Players About Cheating
Grassroots football suffers many of the same follies as the professional game – we will all have witnessed young soccer players diving, rolling around in ‘agony’ and arguing with the referee. All of these elements are no doubt partly informed by the idols on TV.
But these ridiculous examples of cheating are also a product of a focus on results. A focus I believe is unrealistic given how different the motivations in the grassroots game are from those in the professional one.
As coaches we have the influence and the ability to shape our players’ beliefs on this subject.
When a player believes that the result of their game is more important than the way that they play football, cheating to win is justified and even logical.
By rewarding a win with an extraordinary treat such as a fun session (or as one coach I know has promised – a theme park visit!) a coach imprints the belief that the final score of a match is by far the most important thing to that coach. Similarly, players forced to run endless laps because of a defeat the weekend before might feel the same way.
As I have written before, the result of a match is open to a lot of variables and we should concentrate on the factors we can control. By holding our focus always on player development and enjoyment we can legitimately tell our players that cheating has no place in our game – cheating makes the game less fun for teammates and less satisfying for individuals.
If you as a coach care about the result more than teaching the game then you have to condone cheating because it can ultimately be effective.
If instead you concentrate on getting the best out of your players – both in performance and in spirit – then I firmly believe that results will look after themselves. Even in the professional game it is the most skillful and creative teams which are always more successful than teams who get by with surreptitious tactics.
Thierry Henry has played some of the most exhilarating football that fans in this country have ever seen. His legacy should not be tarnished as a cheat who snook France into a World Cup. His legacy should be in inspiring a generation of players who want to imitate the free-flowing attacking football of the best-ever Arsenal and the best-ever Barcelona teams.
With these positive inspirations, grassroots coaches have the power to ensure the future of the professional game is a fairer, more beautiful game.