Sunday, 19 January 2014

Conspiracy, bad luck or something in between?

A trip back through the archives to 2009 and one of Chelsea’s many controversial Champions League clashes with Barcelona. This was the one officiated by Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo. It was the one infamously described by Didier Drogba as “a f**king disgrace”…

Conspiracy theories are often fun, regularly intriguing, but mostly dismissed as the ramblings of the delusional. Even when rationally and compellingly presented, the majority of us – in the cold light of day – can’t quite bring ourselves to truly believe that Neil Armstrong was actually filmed bouncing around an American TV studio.

So in the interests of preserving any shred of respectability I may have, I’ll declare up front that I don’t believe the Chelsea – Barcelona Champions League fixture on 6 May 2009 was a straightforward fix. As effortless and fun as it is to suggest Michel Platini ordered a Barcelona victory, it’s almost impossible to believe he directly instructed referee Tom Henning Ovrebo to ensure Barcelona’s progression to the final.

For those (most people I assume) who can’t remember or can only vaguely recall this game, it was the second leg of a semi-final. The first leg at the Nou Camp had been drawn 0-0. The second leg finished 1-1; Andres Iniesta scored an injury time equaliser to cancel out Michel Essien’s first half volley, sending Barcelona through to the final on away goals. The game was dominated by controversy as Chelsea were denied several strong penalty appeals (I’ll get onto this…), which fanned the flames of an already strained relationship between both clubs.

Now I believe off-pitch lobbying, of some description, must have taken place in this fixture – even if it was only in the slightest manner. Watching the footage below (the first link runs through the main penalty appeals, the second is SkySports’ analysis of the four main incidents) nearly five years after the event with the burning anger at the time subsided (although not fully), it’s clear that there were some strange decisions in this game to say the least.

Put simply, there are four absolutely clear penalties that should have been awarded to Chelsea, possibly even five or six. And it becomes more farcical as the game progresses.

To briefly assess the primary four claims: the first challenge on Florent Malouda is patently inside the penalty area. There is contact before then, but Malouda is still in possession of the ball and progressing forward. No decision from Ovrebo is made at this point. He awards a foul once Malouda has stopped and been hauled over – inside the penalty area. But Ovrebo awards a free kick.

The second incident with Didier Drogba requires little description or reasoning. It’s a clear, obvious penalty.

The next incident – Nicolas Anelka and Gerard Pique’s handball is perhaps the most ludicrous of all. I appreciate my levels of wrath are rising and becoming more apparent as I type this, but it’s unfathomable how this penalty cannot be awarded. Plus, Pique should also be sent off, as he’s denying a goal scoring opportunity – if his hand does not stop the ball, Anelka is in front of goal with a clear shot. Likewise the previous incident with Drogba – Eric Abidal should be dismissed.

Jamie Redknapp, often maligned on these pages, actually makes a rather witty comment concerning Pique’s handball: “The only thing about this one is that it’s only one hand. It’s so blatant it’s incredible.”

The fourth incident occurs after Iniesta’s equaliser, which adds further intrigue. Despite waving away so many appeals, Ovrebo is almost given a get-out-jail-free card here. Iniesta scored in the 93rd minute, but there was still time for Chelsea to win a corner and for a shot at goal to be obviously blocked by Samuel Eto’o’s arm, which is raised above his head in an unnatural position. A clear handball offence. I cannot understand how this is not given, and Michael Ballack’s quite brilliant reaction is beside the point.

What you’ve also got to consider by this stage is the increased pressure, and awareness of possible mistakes earlier. Of course a penalty or major decision can never be justified by “you’ve turned down two now ref, so you’ve got to give us this one”. Each incident should be treated on merit.

But we all know that intensity can build in football, from players and the home crowd, and particularly in big, passionate games. Ovrebo must have been aware of the growing frustration and anger, and must have had an inclination that he’d potentially made mistakes. So once the Pique handball incident occurs in the second half – the most apparent penalty possible – it’s clear Ovrebo has become totally entrenched in a mind-set of “no penalties to Chelsea”. You can only feel at this stage that if Pique had walked over and punched Anelka in the face, Ovrebo would have waved play on.

Evidently it could be argued that Ovrebo had, by this stage, entered a state of paralysis – aware of previous errors but unable to make a proactive decision. He could have become blinded by pressure and fear. It’s a valid argument, but I just feel that an elite referee awarded a Champions League semi-final second leg should have the innate ability and experience to overcome mounting crowd displeasure and make decisions on merit.

This is where the conspiracy rears its head. Now as stated initially, I am not suggesting Ovrebo was given instructions. I’m absolutely not saying he was told to fix the game.

What I am insinuating is that a casual word may have passed someone’s lips.

“Would be great if Barcelona got the final, wouldn’t it?"

“Barcelona are just a brilliant side to watch – what a final it would be with them there”

"Chelsea are effective, but they don’t play like Barca. They could make the final a bit dull”

An off-hand remark here and there from a senior UEFA official may just stick in a referee’s head. It may, subconsciously even, have an impact on major decisions.  It might make him think twice about giving one team a helping hand…

What I am certain of is that no elite referee could make so many dreadful errors in one game without something having an influence. Maybe it was Ovrebo’s own preference – maybe he just enjoyed the way Barcelona played. 

Personally, I believe someone from UEFA had a casual word and it stuck. I think Ovrebo had been influenced before the game. Of course I have no proof of this – none whatsoever. It’s pure speculation. And I probably just sound like a madman with a conspiracy theory…


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