Thierry Henry handball: France vs Ireland World Cup 2010 play-off controversy explained

Thierry Henry handball France vs Ireland 2009 World Cup play-offGetty/GOAL composite

Ahead of the Euro 2024 qualifier between the Republic of Ireland and France in March 2023, Irish head coach Stephen Kenny revealed that his players had watched a number of historical meetings between the teams, including the infamous Thierry Henry handball incident.

While time may heal old wounds, moments such as Henry's handball nonetheless linger as scars on the psyche of Irish football, indelibly etched in the memory, much like Diego Maradona's infamous 'Hand of God' for England.

It happened over a decade ago in the pre-VAR age of football, but it remains fresh in the minds of some players who mourn what might have been and the fans who haven't found the capacity to forgive the French superstar. So what exactly was the Henry handball incident, when did it happen and what was the reaction? GOAL brings you all the details.

When was the Thierry Henry handball incident?

Date:November 18, 2009
Game:France 1-1 Ireland (2-1 agg)
Venue:Stade de France, Saint-Denis
Competition:World Cup 2010 play-off

The Henry handball incident happened during the second leg of the 2010 World Cup play-off between France and Ireland on November 18, 2009. Ireland were trailing in the tie, having lost 1-0 at home a four days earlier, and needed a victory or better result than France in the game to qualify for the World Cup.

Thierry Henry handball - what exactly happened?

A goal from Robbie Keane put Ireland 1-0 up in the second leg and forced the game into extra time. However, in the first half of the additional period, in the 103rd minute, a split-second hand-movement from Henry altered the course of the tie.

Florent Malouda's lofted free kick eluded everyone in the Irish box and bounced in front of Henry, who had managed to escape the attention of Paul McShane at the back post.

The pace of the ball and angle of the bounce made it difficult to control, but Henry stuck his hand out to prevent it from going out of play. He handled the ball twice to bring it back into his path and subsequently crossed it to William Gallas, who diverted it into the Irish net.

The Irish players reacted immediately to plead with the officials for a handball decision, with Shay Given, Paul McShane and Kevin Kilbane, who were closest to the incident, furiously remonstrating with referee Martin Hansson. Henry, meanwhile, wheeled away in elation, celebrating the goal on his own before joining his team-mates.

Ireland were unable to score in the remaining extra time and France thus won the tie 2-1 on aggregate, booking their place at the 2010 World Cup in the process.

What was the reaction to the Thierry Henry handball?

Understandably, the impact of Henry's handball was most keenly felt in Ireland. The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and a number of players were incensed, believing that the only way to correct the injustice was to re-play the game. The handball even drew commentary from Irish politicians, with Brian Cowen, who was then leader of the country, among those calling for a replay.

When it became clear that a replay would not be granted by FIFA, the FAI continued to make appeals to the world governing body. However, then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter provoked the ire of Irish officials when he disclosed that they had asked to be granted a place at the World Cup as the 33rd team.

"They have not asked for any sanctions to be given to any player or the referee, but they have asked, very humbly 'Can't we be team number 33 at the World Cup?' They have asked for that, really," Blatter revealed to a bemused audience at Soccerex. "I will bring it to the attention of the executive committee but if we do that, we will also have to bring in Costa Rica."

Overall, the response was one of anger in Ireland and embarrassment in France. Emmanuel Petit, who won the World Cup with France in 1998, said that French football felt "guilty and ashamed", while Bixente Lizarazu said it was not something to be proud of. However, Irish legend Roy Keane, who was manager of Ipswich Town at the time, showed little sympathy towards the FAI and expressed frustration with the defending.

"I've been amazed at the commotion," Keane told reporters when asked about the incident a few days later. "Of course he handled it, but I'd focus on why didn't they clear it? I'd be more annoyed with my defenders and my goalkeeper than Thierry Henry.

"How can you let a ball bounce in the six-yard box? How can you let Thierry Henry get goal side of you? And if the ball bounced in the six-yard box I'd be saying 'where the hell's my goalkeeper?'"

For some of the players who were involved, the pain of the moment has not left them. Shay Given told SportsJoe in 2023: "For me personally, and for the country, it was a difficult one to take. Time goes by, life goes on, there are more important things in life - but at the same time, in that moment, it was a tough one for us all to get our heads around."

Thierry Henry handball vs Ireland Shay Given Keith Andrews Kevin Kilbane Paul McShane 2009Getty

McShane, who was closest to Henry when he handled the ball, told Newstalk in 2022: "I don't think I can ever be over that to be honest with you. Especially for the night that was in it, to qualify for the World Cup... Even to hear his name sometimes, it brings back memories. It was a tough one to take."

Robbie Keane was the Ireland captain in the game and, while he was upset, the former Liverpool and Tottenham star says he bears no ill will against Henry.

"I'm not one of these [people] who holds grudges against people," Keane explained to the BBC a decade later. "It's football. We've been in the game long enough and I'm not interested. I like Thierry, he's a good lad and I've been in his company many times."

Interestingly, referee Martin Hansson later revealed that he cried in the aftermath of the game after realising the mistake that had been made by the officiating team.

Did Thierry Henry apologise for the handball?

Henry was quick to admit that he handled the ball and apologised, but the striker insisted that he was not a cheat, maintaining that it was not a deliberate action.

He told reporters after the game: "Yes, it was a handball. I know it's difficult to accept. The ball came to me and rebounded off my hand. Of course I passed the ball into the centre [for the goal]. Of course, when it comes down to it, I'm not the referee."

The legendary forward then elaborated on his comments in a statement, in which he suggested that the "fairest solution" would be for the game to be replayed. Henry said: "As a footballer you do not have the luxury of the television to slow the pace of the ball down 100 times to be able to make a conscious decision. People are viewing a slow motion version of what happened and not what I or any other footballer faces in the game. If people look at it in full speed you will see that it was an instinctive reaction.

"It is impossible to be anything other than that. I have never denied that the ball was controlled with my hand. I told the Irish players, the referee and the media this after the game.

"Naturally I feel embarrassed at the way that we won and feel extremely sorry for the Irish who definitely deserve to be in South Africa. There is little more I can do apart from admit that the ball had contact with my hand leading up to our equalising goal and I feel very sorry for the Irish."

The statement was welcomed by Ireland captain Robbie Keane, who agreed with the sentiment expressed by Henry that a replay would be a fair response.

Unfortunately for Keane and Ireland, however, no replay would be granted and France ultimately progressed to the World Cup in South Africa.

Les Bleus went on to endure a nightmare tournament, though. Amid a squad mutiny against manager Raymond Domenech, France picked up just one point en route to a group-stage exit.

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