Saturday 9 May ~
Chelsea play Barcelona, Scandinavian referee receives death threats. The Champions League is getting awfully repetitive isn't it? However, Tom-Henning Øvrebø is an altogether more durable character than Anders Frisk, and these gross overreactions from the more Neanderthal element of Chelsea's fanbase aren't likely to force him into any kind of retirement. "I can at least inform you that I'm neither shocked nor at a secret address, and I'm ready to referee next weekend," Øvrebø told Norwegian broadcaster NRK in a text message, one of the very few public statements the referee has made after UEFA advised him to stay quiet.
Regardless of what John Terry may think, Øvrebø is no novice. With 22 Champions League games, a number of UEFA cup games including a semi-final, two games in Euro 2008, two domestic cup finals, five Norwegian referee of the year awards and in excess of 200 games in the Norwegian premier league (the Tippeligaen) to his name, Øvrebø was starting to establish himself as one of UEFA's elite referees. In Norway he is generally well regarded, though he has had his run-ins with certain players and managers, with some accusing him of having a swollen ego.
The Norwegian population follows football more closely and passionately than any other sport, so it's a big story when a Norwegian referee is selected for a big Champions League game. Imagine then the reaction when that referee becomes the biggest sports story on the planet. The online edition of every major Norwegian newspaper made Øvrebø their top story for that night and the following day, relegating the recession, swine flu and other worldly matters to slots further down their front page.
Headlines chronicled how Øvrebø was smuggled out of England, how he had to sneak out the back way at Oslo Airport, and a wholly disproportionate amount of attention was paid to the fact that Øvrebø was getting hammered by the British press. There was a general sense of acknowledgment and even a hint of embarrassment over the fact that Øvrebø had got it badly wrong on such a big occasion, but the main focus was very much on Chelsea's furious reaction. Sports commentator Esten O Sæther from Dagbladet, one of Norway's two dominant dailies, wrote in his column that "by losing their tempers both on and off the pitch the Chelsea players have gone a long way towards ruining their own case. UEFA can not - and shall not - defend such physical and verbal attacks on their top referees". Øvrebø himself told the media that "because of circumstances after the game UEFA have asked us not to talk to the press".
That gagging order from UEFA didn't stop some of the British dailies from sending reporters, presumably on expenses, to one of the most expensive travel destinations in Europe. At Oslo airport these were met by a confused Norwegian press corps, all fearing for their jobs after recent cutbacks and all mystified as to how British newspapers can afford to send people abroad chasing a person who won't talk to them anyway. Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail was interviewed by VG, the other dominant Norwegian daily: "We don't want to hound him, we don't want to follow him around his country, it's not about that. I think the sooner he puts this to bed the better for him and the sooner he explains it the better." Just how Øvrebø defying UEFA and explaining his reasoning to the Daily Mail would put the matter to bed or indeed make it better remained unclear.
The dust is now settling and Tom-Henning Øvrebø is scheduled to be back in action on May 16, taking charge of a game between SK Brann and IK Start. It could be a feisty encounter, but one imagines that after his Stamford Bridge ordeal nothing the Norwegian league can throw at him will worry Tom-Henning Øvrebø that much. Lars Sivertsen