French footballer admits illegal fumbling of the ball

PARIS: France''s tainted qualification for the World Cup football finals, won at Ireland''s expense thanks to a blatant handball, plunged an embarrassed country into a bout of anguished soul-searching Friday.

Striker Thierry Henry''s illegal fumbling of the ball, setting up an extra-time strike that saw his side through to next year''s competition, continued to dominate front pages and radio phone-in shows two days after the match.

Even the accused, Henry himself, admitted that "the fairest solution would be to replay the game", increasing pressure on the French football federation to call for a rematch to decide which side goes to South Africa.

France left the last World Cup in shame after then captain Zinedine Zidane felled an opponent with a head butt in the closing minutes of the final, and the team now seems likely to start the next one already tagged as cheats.

Struggling to read the national mood, President Nicolas Sarkozy''s government appeared divided over the issue, with some politicians calling for a rematch in the interests of fairness, and others defending the team.