Will Hungary face the Topknot of God?
Background image: Colin Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0
November 18 2009, Stade de France, 104th minute:
As Florent Malouda lined up the free-kick from 45 yards, centre-half Sebastien Squillaci hustled into the Ireland box. Referee Martin Hansson blew the whistle to resume play. Malouda’s delivery caromed to Thierry Henry at the far post.
The awkward bounce hits his forearm. That may have been unintentional, but the second contact is deliberate, knocking the ball down so he can sidekick a short cross for William Gallas to nod into the gaping goal.
Four days earlier in Dublin, Nicolas Anelka put France in the driver’s seat in this World Cup playoff qualifier. The winner went to South Africa. The loser stayed home. Robbie Keane levelled terms on 33 minutes in Paris. The scoreline held, forcing extra time.
When Gallas headed the ball over the line, Henry peeled off for the corner flag in jubilation. Ireland keeper Shay Given erupted from his net, screaming at referee Hansson, his left hand pointing to his upraised right. The Swede waved off all protests. He did not consult VAR. The process wasn’t born yet although many consider this the moment of its inception.
One non-call put France in the World Cup and made Hansson the bitter enemy of an entire country. Although he and Henry both considered retirement due to the abuse rained on them following the incident, Hansson continued to referee matches for another four years before changing to a much safer career, firefighting. Henry immediately chose Major League Soccer as his hiding place.
Ten years and a day later, another critical qualifier takes place between a Gaelic nation and one from mainland Europe.
Hungary are not on France’s level, whether we are discussing the current World Champions or Raymond Domenech’s dysfunctional squad who parked the bus in Knysna on the Western Cape. That mutiny rose from incidents pitting Anelka and Patrice Evra against coaches. It led to Domenech’s ouster and bans for virtually the entire squad.
It was the first turn in a downward spiral that continued when new boss Laurent Blanc clumsily suggested that the Clairfontaine national youth academy’s emphasis on athleticism favoured black players over white. Then Karim Benzema wittingly or unwittingly, depending on one's credulity, aided a friend in a blackmail scheme targeting teammate Mathieu Valbuena, dissolving their friendship and leaving the Real Madrid striker permanently exiled from Les Bleus despite a court of law deciding it could not prove his intent.
For a nation founded on idealism, it wasn’t a proud era. Regardless, from a footballing perspective, the Magyars find themselves looking up at that group and, in terms of the Euro2020 Qualifying Group E table, Ryan Giggs’ Dragons gaze up at them. A point behind with only this contest remaining to award a berth in this summer's European Championship, Wales need a victory.
Among the players staring impassively at their opponents just before kickoff will be Gareth Bale, the Welsh version of Thierry Henry. Their two careers follow remarkably similar paths. Each moved from a North London Derby club to a Clasico outfit. Both lead their nations in scoring and, while Henry still holds a sizeable advantage in goals [51:33] and caps [123:81], they share an identical 0.41 goals per 90 scoring rate. On the negative side, injuries and perceptions regarding their personas leave many fans thinking the pair could or could have given us so much more.
Just by playing in this match and the one last week against Azerbaijan, Bale stirred up yet another controversy. He hasn’t played for Real Madrid since 5 October when he went off injured in the 84th minute after notching an assist in the eventual 4-2 victory over Granada at the Bernabeu.
His willingness to play for his country in two fixtures critical to their Euro2020 hopes while not at all match fit rankles Madridistas. Blithely ignoring their overwhelmingly abusive treatment of him, they can’t understand why he is so eager to give his all for supporters who understand and love him. Why doesn’t he demonstrate such loyalty and sacrifice to Zinedine Zidane, the manager who spent the summer telling every reporter in earshot he hoped to soon be rid of a player whose a] goals and assists were key to all three Champions League trophies that had minted his status as an elite coach, b] production in Europe easily eclipses his own, not to mention every other Real Madrid legend save Cristiano Ronaldo and c] agreed-upon transfer to the Chinese Super League was cancelled at the last minute when the coach realised he didn't have another star who could match Bale's talent and professionalism? Why, indeed. It's a mystery.
Whatever opinion the Bernabeu mob holds regarding their brittle but dynamic winger, this is a match demanding a vintage Gareth Bale performance. Unlike a decade ago, VAR does exist. It is in play. Bale won’t be able to sneak in a handball to carry Wales into the Euros. He must produce a moment of magic like the bending, twisting set pieces that left Loris Karius and Joe Hart’s careers in tatters or the bicycle kick that sealed a fourth Champions League in five seasons. Ryan Giggs says both Bale and Aaron Ramsey will start but you have to think the former must pull the rabbit out of his topknot early given his poor fitness.
His time in the Spanish capital is ending and he knows it. The last thing Gareth Bale cares about is offending Los Blancos supporters. The first thing is showing other clubs he can still make a difference.