Terrific lot of fuss about Thierry Henry’s handball, wasn’t there? The interesting thing for me was the fact that he was actually able to handle it so quickly and so skilfully.
There are a thousand incidents of cheating in any football match, but there are also different categories of cheating. This is tied to the strange internal moralities of sport, but also to what we might call, until I can think of something better, a sport’s ‘frame of reference.’
If you’ve played football you’ll know that deliberate handballs are very rare. Players who will happily cheat in other ways – such as shirt-pulling or kicking a tricky little bastard’s legs away – won’t dream of handballing. This is because when playing football your whole frame of reference is based on touching the ball with any part of your body except your hand. It’s actually very difficult to commit a handball, because your instincts are trained not to. Whereas shirt-pulling and kicking legs are just natural extensions of the physical side of the game, handball goes against the very Platonic (!) ‘footballiness’ of football.
Or to put it another way, kicking someone is a hot foul – an extension of passion and aggression - whereas handballing is a cold foul, a professional one.
Perhaps this is why there was so much fuss, and why we still resent Maradona’s Hand of God incident. Had Henry or Maradona scored critical goals by cheating in more ‘normal’ ways, such as pushing a defender in the back to win the ball, we’d just let it go.
In the split second between the decision and the action falls the shadow. Henry mastered that split second for dark and dastardly purposes. This is cold and clever and uncanny - and we don’t like it.