Controversy mars France’s World Cup berth

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Controversy mars France’s World Cup berth

PARIS - Superstar Thierry Henry was at the centre of a sensational cheating storm on Wednesday as France reached the World Cup finals along with Portugal, Greece and Slovenia.

France, the 1998 champions and 2006 runners-up, drew 1-1 with Ireland at the Stade de France in the second leg of their play-off for a 2-1 aggregate win. But the extra-time triumph came in controversial circumstances when French skipper Henry appeared to control the ball with his hand before his angled pass allowed William Gallas to head in the crucial 103rd-minute goal.

“Yes, there was a hand, but I’m not the referee,” said Henry. “Of course, I kept playing. The referee didn’t whistle for handball. I was behind two Irish players, the ball bounced and it hit my hand.” The Barcelona star insisted that the controversy, which prompted Irish players to declare they were robbed of a World Cup finals place, would not take the gloss off his team’s qualification. “No, no. We have qualified.”

In Zenica, a 56th-minute strike by Raul Meireles was enough to break Bosnian hearts and send 2006 semi-finalists Portugal through to the finals. The Portuguese, once again without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, had won a hard-fought first leg 1-0 courtesy of a close-range header by Bruno Alves on Saturday. Meireles took a pass from Manchester United star Nani and slipped a low, precise shot past Kenan Hasagic in the Bosnian goal to settle the tie.

“These marathons are only over after the final whistle and I want to thank my players for showing such spirit,” said a Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz.

Guus Hiddink, who famously took South Korea to the 2002 semi-finals, will be missing from South Africa after Slovenia beat his Russian side 1-0 in Maribor to qualify on the away goals rule. Russia had won the first leg 2-1 in Moscow on Saturday, but Nejc Pecnik’s goal two minutes from time gave Slovenia hope for Wednesday’s return leg.

In total, 13 European nations will play in the 32-team World Cup finals with the draw set for Cape Town on Dec. 4.

Netherlands, England, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Serbia, champions Italy, Switzerland, Slovakia, Greece, Slovenia, Portugal and France make up Europe’s representation.

South Korea, North Korea, Japan and Australia have qualified from the Asia region. Host country South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria and Algeria will represent Africa. Honduras, Mexico and the U.S. have qualified from the Concacaf region. Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay will represent South America. New Zealand is the lone representative from the Oceania region. AFP
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