Official denouncement

Lars Sivertsen examines the aftermath of the night which saw Chelsea defeated in the Champions League and a Noweigian referee abused

Didier Drogba was far from the only person to lose his cool as Chelsea’s elimination from this season’s Champions League was confirmed. The press-pack overlooked details like Chelsea having just 36 per cent of possession at home, being unable to defend a lead against a team down to ten men and Didier Drogba missing a number of chances – it was time for some referee-bashing.

“Norwegian referee Tom Henning Øvrebø, who turned down at least four decent penalty appeals… wrecked their dreams,” said Shaun Custis of the Sun while his colleague Ian McGarry reported that Chelsea players sensed a conspiracy: “The feeling was that UEFA did not want two English teams in their showpiece final for a second straight year.” The Mirror’s Oliver Holt criticised Drogba for a “pathetic foot-stamping, dummy-spitting tantrum” at the end of the match while in an adjacent column, John Terry defended his team-mate: “I’m fully behind Didier. You can see the passion he played with in the game and afterwards. But the fact is the referee is the one who should face the consequences.

In the Sky studio, an incandescent Jamie Redknapp denounced not only Øvrebø but the very notion of assigning referees from smaller countries to games of this magnitude. “Why can’t we have the best referee in Italy?” he demanded. Redknapp’s arguments are somewhat undermined by the fact that the 2008 and the 2009 Champions League finals were ably refereed by officials from the footballing hotbeds of Slovakia and Switzerland, and the fact that Italy’s top referee Roberto Rosetti had only the night before been widely panned in the British press for depriving Darren Fletcher of the chance to appear in a Champions League final for what was seen as a fair tackle. Øvrebø is no novice. Having taken charge of 22 Champions League games, a number of UEFA Cup games including a semi-final, two games in Euro 2008, two domestic cup finals and in excess of 200 games in the Norwegian Premier League, winning five Norwegian referee of the year awards, he has established 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 post-match fury was followed by the inevitable death-threats and Øvrebø being smuggled out of the country. “Official Flees Britain” declared the Sun – although there had never been a suggestion that he was contemplating a permanent move to the UK. Among the representatives of the British media awaiting Øvrebø’s arrival at Oslo’s Gardermoen airport was Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail. In a bizarre waste of expenses that puts Douglas Hogg’s moat-cleaning into perspective, the Mail felt it pertinent to send one of their men to one of Europe’s most expensive travel destinations in a feeble attempt to track down a man who won’t talk to them anyway, due to a gagging-order from UEFA. With Øvrebø sneaking out the back, leading Norwegian tabloid VG turned to Ashton for an interview. “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,” Ashton said, before going off to find out where Øvrebø lives, leaving a perplexed Norwegian press corps pondering how breaking a UEFA ban to talk to the Daily Mail could possibly improve matters for the beleaguered official.

In the Norwegian media there was sympathy for Øvrebø, if not support. His performance was criticised, but the real outrage was reserved for the Chelsea players. Stewards had to stop Drogba from attacking Øvrebø was the headline of Dagbladet’s online edition, whilst VG went in a similar vein with Chelsea players furious at Øvrebø. Opinion pieces by leading pundits the next day were unanimous: while Øvrebø had a bad night and got decisions wrong, the reactions from some of the Chelsea players were unacceptable. Dagbladet’s Esten O Sæther summed up the overriding emotion: “By losing their tempers both on and off the pitch the Chelsea players have gone a long way towards ruining their own case. UEFA cannot – and shall not – defend such physical and verbal attacks on their top referees.” With UEFA’s disciplinary proceedings against Chelsea well under way there is little to suggest that they will. When next season’s Champions League starts, Didier Drogba for one will surely have to watch the early rounds from the sidelines.

From WSC 269 July 2009