Remembering Thierry Henry's 2009 handball in Ireland versus France
Nearly seven years after one of the most difficult moments in Irish football history, Wes Hoolahan is in the Lille mixed zone and puts it rather simply. "We owe France one," the midfielder says to ESPN FC with a knowing smile.
What that "one" is, ahead of the Euro 2016 last-16 meeting between Ireland and the hosts on Sunday, comes from one of the most notorious incidents in modern football. At the Stade de France in the second leg of the World Cup playoff on Nov. 18, 2009, the Irish had come back from losing their home game 1-0 to brilliantly equalise on aggregate through Robbie Keane. Giovanni Trapattoni's side had been the better team going into extra-time -- until Thierry Henry got so desperate he was forced into doing something extra himself. He blatantly used his hand to set up William Gallas for the winning goal, in a moment that has since hung over the great forward's entire legacy. It now hangs over this last-16 game at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon.
Kevin Kilbane played in that game, and actually set up Keane's goal. Swedish referee Martin Hansson and his officials totally missed the act of cheating, but Kilbane didn't.
"I knew straight away," Kilbane tells ESPN FC. "I was playing left-back that night, so I was looking right across the line. I saw it clearly. My initial reaction was to look behind me because I knew the linesman was at the far side, thinking he would have a clear view looking across the pitch, but he obviously hadn't seen it."
So, Kilbane went to see Hansson at half-time of extra-time, and that was when his and Ireland's amazement started to transform into anger.
"I said 'look, you've got this massively wrong. Hugely wrong here.' And he said: 'I'm 100 percent right on this,' and I said, 'I'm telling you now, when you watch this back, you'll be amazed at it, how you and your officials have missed this' and he said basically 'get out of me face now, walk away, I'm 100 percent right', and he reiterated that back to me again. I said 'alright,' walked away but, honestly, when someone is so defiant and someone is so arrogant like that towards us, there's nothing you can do about it.
"Going back to the dressing room, it was almost that rage that come about. It was just something that happened that was just such a bad decision that we couldn't overturn that. That was the overriding emotion from it. I don't think it was even towards Henry. To me personally, it was more towards the referee because he said that to me.
"That was more in my head as well."
Something else sticks in Kilbane's head from that night, and it is the same thing for pretty much every Irish person who was in the stadium.
"Yeah, 'I Gotta Feeling' by the Black Eyed Peas. I always remember that song coming on at full-time and, the thing was, it was almost like they turned it up to bloody super strength as well.
"We used to play it in the build-up to games, too. Paul McShane used to run the music so we'd kind of moved on from all the years of playing U2 songs. Paul had it on the iPod, so it was one we used to play in the dressing room. Now, every time I hear that song, I don't think about having a laugh in the dressing room. I think about it being played at the Stade de France. That's what's in my head when I hear it."
As all this was happening -- and will.i.am and Fergie were warbling -- Henry had actually sat down beside Irish centre-half Richard Dunne, in another part of the night that has only added to its notoriety.
"He was saying to Dunny at the time, it was instinct, he didn't mean for it to happen," Kilbane explains. "That was, I suppose, the message he wanted Dunny to relay back to us but, although we had seen it, you still didn't get a true feel for it until you'd watched it back on the video.
"It obviously wasn't shown on the big screen in the stadium so we had to wait until we got back in the dressing room before we could see it clearly and you know it was one of them, obviously he did mean it!"
By the time the players left the stunned dressing room, the Irish management team of Trapattoni and his assistants Liam Brady and Marco Tardelli were already venting with the media and discussing dark theories.
"You saw the goal and that's enough said," Brady said. "It's a bad day for football. When it comes to the crunch, the big teams always seem to go through."
That passed into something else, as Kilbane explains.
"I think that was the initial anger that started coming out but, over time, once it started to digest, it was sadness really. We still may have gone out on penalties, but we never had that chance to get a second goal ourselves in the game to win the tie."
That is the other aspect to the game, and may actually be more relevant to this modern rematch. The injustice was not just at the decision; Ireland had deserved the win from what was yet another hugely spirited performance that had become almost unique to them. Trapattoni's side dominated France, continuing a trend in big games against big teams that followed on from their Roy Keane-inspired 1-0 win over Netherlands in 2001, and was given new life by October's 1-0 victory over world champions Germany and Wednesday's unexpected defeat of Italy.
Ireland have rarely had world-class individuals, but they have almost always had a resilience beyond other sides. In that sense, they may be exactly the type of side France don't want to play for more reasons than the shadow of Henry's hand. They are combative.
"That's just the character of the side," Kilbane says, and Martin O'Neill has further honed it. Will O'Neill use the memory of Henry to fire the team further?
Only five players involved in that 2009 game are actually in the Euro 2016 Irish squad and, publicly, many in the camp are playing down the references to history. Assistant manager Keane said on Friday that "revenge doesn't come to it." Privately, however, sources say it is a different matter. Kilbane concurs.
"It will be mentioned. No matter what is said, it will be mentioned. It won't be one of those overriding factors, but it will be used as a tool, just one or two comments, and they won't be loosely said. It'll be 'look lads, we owe these guys one'."
That, too, has already been said. It's now time for Ireland to act on the memory.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.