| The Henry who dives appears less often, though, than the thespian inside Ruud van Nistelrooy
Before anyone jumps down Thierry Henry’s throat for diving, they ought to review the moment when the Footballer of the Year could have killed the FA Cup final to his own advantage when it was 20 seconds old. The moral ambiguity of Arsenal’s 1-0 victory over Southampton was that Henry stayed on his feet in the penalty area when he had the right to go down and later went down dishonestly when a defender had barely touched him.
‘Deception’ is the offence for which the season’s leading performer was cautioned 67 minutes into the friendly Cup final. Henry, that nonpareil in the art of running past defenders, surged into the Southampton area and saw Michael Svensson preparing to engage.
What Gunner No. 14 did next was go from the perpendicular to the horizontal as if auditioning for a part in a war film.
‘Simulation’ is the other official description. Out came Graham Barber’s yellow card and down went football’s stock of integrity. This was not one of those blatant mock deaths that make you want to start watching paper folding instead. But it belongs on a lengthening list of offences against the spirit of the game.
Diving is, from this vantage point, the most serious threat to football’s position as an activity that teaches us respect for rules. To pretend that an opponent has kicked or pulled you over can be translated as disrespect towards him and his team.
Assuming he has a conscience, which Henry plainly has, it leaves the beneficiary with the uncomfortable sense of having won something by nefarious means. What is a prize worth if you had to cheat to get it' Diving is an attack not on the hapless defender but sport itself.
This is not a rant specifically against Henry, who was later described by Svensson’s fellow centre-half, Claus Lundekvam, as “a very honest player”. Ironically it was Lundekvam’s own hand which provided the proof of Henry’s broadly good intentions. Almost the first scene in Saturday’s imbalanced match was Lundekvam grabbing a fistful of Henry’s jersey and being dragged along comically as the Arsenal striker bore down on goal. The clock had counted only 20 or so seconds.
There was not a soul among the 73,726 crowd in the Millennium Stadium who would have castigated Henry for hitting the deck. But by shaking off his assailant and continuing with his run he rescued both Lundekvam and an international spectacle.
Never mind the penalty. A red card for Henry’s uninvited passenger would have turned the 122nd Cup final into a fiasco: 10 versus 11 for 89 tedious minutes. Imagine Barber’s relief, then, when Arsenal’s leading scorer and matinee idol decided instead to go for goal (he missed, but that’s beside the point). Advantage was played. Numerical parity between the two sides was maintained. Sure, Lundekvam himself got off the hook for an offence which drives attackers potty (shirt-pulling is another dark art in need of exorcism). But most of us realised, in the end, that TV viewers in more than 100 countries had Henry to thank for the game not being turned into a travesty.
His decision to keep galloping was hardly the stuff of a Nobel Prize. It did, though, need to be set against the disappointment one felt when Henry tried to trick Barber and get Svensson into trouble at the other end. At Arsenal there appears to be a tolerance of simulation. Think back to Francis Jeffers collapsing in the penalty area against Liverpool, or the Robert Pires-Steve Lomas incident when West Ham came to Highbury.
Consider, also, Ashley Cole’s habit of exaggerating the impact of incoming tackles. In mitigation, since Arsenal play the Premiership’s most lustrous football, it stands to reason that Henry, Pires and Co. have to cope with the most suffocating and sometimes violent attention from defenders.
In those circumstances simulation can become a form of self-protection, an early warning system aimed at over-zealous stoppers. It also happens to be true that we expect higher standards of the authentically great players. We expect skill and probity in equal measure.
It has something to do with our habit of mistaking people who happen to be brilliant at something for gods. They’re not. In one sense Henry’s duty to respect the laws of the game is no more pronounced than it is for Hartlepool’s No. 9. We tell ourselves that with all that talent, “Henry shouldn’t have to do it”. Which is true. But then why do any one of us do things that ought to be beneath us' Because we’re human and to be human is to be imperfect.
The Henry who dives appears less often, it ought to be said, than the thespian inside Ruud van Nistelrooy, who has that single blemish on his exemplary goalscoring record. Van Nistelrooy, who is entitled to feel aggrieved at losing out to Henry in both the PFA and football writers’ awards, has developed the weakness of pretending to be the victim of a violent assault (usually an elbow). A good example was when he joined the amateur dramatic society after an innocuous clash with Claude Makelele of Real Madrid.
A fervent hope is that Sir Alex Ferguson persuades Van Nistelrooy to erase this stain on his otherwise fine reputation.
In society, value systems change by stealth. What might have seemed unconscionable 20 years ago is widely tolerated or even encouraged today.
This is the danger with diving, or deception: that one day it will come to be accepted as “part of the game”. No thanks. Not now, not ever.