30 November 2009

Scarred for Life by a Moment's Folly

Reputation, like credibility, is something that is earned over time. It does not come with the job or title. It is built, day by day, brick by brick. Yet a moment's folly can bring down a lifetime's work.

Just ask Thierry Henry. A professional soccer player, and the most capped and highest scorer in French history, Henry knows just how much it's taken to put together a 15-year body of work that's brought him away from a childhood of poverty to his stratospheric standing - as of last month -- at the pinnacle of soccer immortality.

But that edifice was dealt a severe body blow just over a week ago during a critical World Cup second leg qualifying match against Ireland. With the aggregate score tied at 1-1 and the game in injury time, Henry handled the ball twice with his hand before delivering a cross to William Gallas to score the winning goal for France and send Ireland tumbling out of the World Cup finals in 2010.

Was it an instinctive, accidental handball? Probably. No less a soccer legend than Pele has come out to publicly defend Henry. And the man did lobby for the match to be replayed -- albeit a day later. But all this is scant consolation for the Irish -- some of whose players have lost their only reasonable chance of playing in a World Cup finals.

What Henry should have done -- and what he'll regret not doing for the rest of his life -- is stop the match and overrule the referee. There's been ample precedence in the annals of sport.

In Mats Wilander's very first semi-final appearance in a Grand Slam tennis event (the 1982 French Open), Wilander overruled the chair in a call on match point, giving another lease of life to Jose Luis Clerc. Interviewed after the match (which he eventually claimed), he said, "I didn't want to win like that." For the record, Wilander went on to the win the event, the first of his 7 Grand Slams.

Thierry Henry's personal brand took a severe beating that fateful day -- one from which he may never recover. Instead of Kaka and Messi, his name is going to be more linked with Maradona, the original 'hand of God' perpetrator whose disputed goal helped Argentina beat England 2-1 in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final.

Great brands -- corporate and personal -- hold themselves to high(er) standards. They know that faith is hard won, but easily lost. In a Premier Leage match between West Ham and Everton in 2000, Everton goalie Paul Gerrard went down injured in the penalty box in the dying minutes of the game. Unfortunately, play went on, and the ball got crossed to West Ham's Paulo Di Canio in front of an open goal. Instead of tapping it in, Di Canio caught the ball, and signalled that Gerrard needed attention. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

We should all be so blessed to have the same presence of mind in such a defining moment.

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