On 18 November 2009, with 17 minutes left of extra time in a play-off FIFA World Cup game between the Republic of Ireland and France, Thierry Henry, France’s striker, handled the ball in the in-goal area, deflecting it to William Gallas who headed it into the back of the net. The goal allowed France to draw the game and win the play-off series of two games by two goals to one, which meant they qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa while the Republic of Ireland did not.

Henry’s handball, I argue in a new paper with María Santana-Gallego, added close to R1 billion to the South African economy in tourism expenditure. Had Ireland qualified, far fewer tourists would have visited South Africa, as Ireland is a much smaller country (5 million vs France’s 66 million inhabitants). We use a gravity model to run counterfactual results: what would have happened had Ireland qualified instead of France?

France’s participation meant that 36,482 additional French tourists visited South Africa in 2010. In contrast, had Ireland qualified, our model predicts that only 8,234 additional Irish tourists would have arrived. The difference of 28,248 means that the ‘hand of Henry’ added R333 million in tourism expenditure during 2010 alone. The legacy effect is equally large: in the three years following the event, an additional 60,960 French tourists came to South Africa, whereas only 14,784 Irish tourists would have come had Ireland qualified for the finals. This means that tourism expenditure in South Africa during the three years following the World Cup was R545 million more because France qualified. In total, the ‘hand of Henry’ increased tourism expenditure in South Africa by an astonishing R878 million, or, using the shorthand of 12 additional tourists for each extra job, provided 6,202 more jobs.

The R1 billion touch... Thierry Henry in action against Ireland.

The R1 billion touch… Thierry Henry in action against Ireland.

The aim of our paper is to show that the tourism impact of mega-sport events like the FIFA World Cup is highly unpredictable, as it depends to a large extend on the which 32 countries qualify. Had Russia qualified instead of tiny Slovenia, or Egypt qualified instead of Algeria (both were involved in play-off games against the other), our model predicts that the South African economy would have benefited significantly more.

This, of course, is not directly useful information for tourism managers, as they cannot engineer such incidents, or influence the outcome of a play-off. But they could gear their expectations of tourist arrivals to the results of the qualification rounds. What is clear is that much of the economic impact of a mega-event like the World Cup can be determined by the random outcome of a single play-off game – or even, as in the ‘hand of Henry’ case, the ‘butterfly effect’ of a single incident.

Perhaps there’s a reason that Henry is considered a demi-god by Arsenal fans: It’s not every man that can create 6000 jobs in a split second. And do so by simply touching a ball (illegally) with his left hand.