VAR, the marmite of football. Some fans absolutely detest the idea of it, and others give it a raving review. The rulings have changed about a hundred times since its implementation in 2018, yet no real progress has been made. The issue with VAR has never actually been the technology itself, it’s the inconsistencies of those operating it that’ll continue to tarnish its reputation.
I can’t remember the last time I fully celebrated a goal without looking at the linesman and then the referee for confirmation. That being said, I can also vividly remember numerous occasions where a VAR-less referee has cost a team a goal, or in some cases the game. I mean that’s the whole reason it was introduced in the first place, right?
Thierry Henry’s volleyball impression against Ireland, Frank Lampard’s ghost goal at the 2010 World Cup, and Josip Simunic’s three yellow cards were all costly mistakes that could have been easily prevented by VAR. It’s not unusual for referees to make a mistake every so often, they are only human after all. Although, to make several mistakes in a singular game raises lots of questions, questions that after 13 years Chelsea fans still don’t have the answer for.
Chelsea’s Champions League Semi-Final second leg against Barcelona in 2009 will undoubtedly go down in the history books as one of the most dramatic games ever televised. One man grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, changing Barcelona’s fortunes for the better. We have become accustomed to that man being Lionel Messi, but unfortunately for UEFA, on this occasion it was Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo.
In a game which featured two world-class long-range screamers, it was Ovrebo’s hall of shame refereeing display that grabbed all the headlines. Oh, and Didier Drogba’s post-game meltdown.
“Are you watching this? It’s a disgrace! It’s a disgrace! It’s a f*****g disgrace!”
The infamous tirade, which was captured live on Sky Sports, pretty much summed up the game perfectly from a Chelsea perspective. Guus Hiddink has been involved in football for over 40 years, and still to this day describes it as the worst refereeing performance he has ever seen. Even I was slightly angered as a neutral, to get that many decisions wrong in the space of 90 minutes reeks of corruption.
This piece will tell the story of Ovrebo’s horror show in the 2009 Champions League Semi-Final.
The Perfect Start
After holding Barcelona to a tense 0-0 draw in the first leg, all was to play for in the return leg at Stamford Bridge. Not often that you come away from the Camp Nou with a draw and feel slightly hard done by, but Hiddink’s side had some excellent opportunities to score that all-important away goal.
Pep Guardiola would have to search for his away goal without former Arsenal forward Thierry Henry, who was ruled out of the match after picking up a knee injury just days before. A massive blow for the Catalan giants, with the Frenchman’s previous goalscoring record against the Blues almost guaranteeing him a goal. Eight goals in 12 Premier League games against Chelsea is a phenomenal record, and I’m sure Henry would have been in Guardiola’s starting lineup had he been fit.
Chelsea on the other hand had a clean bill of health, fielding a full-strength side including their dynamic strike duo, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka. Knowing that they needed to score on the night, Hiddink’s line-up was very attack-minded, and unsurprisingly the Blues started the game on the front foot. Chelsea broke the deadlock in the ninth minute of the game, putting them in the ascendency. With all that firepower on the pitch, it was Michael Essien who provided them with the advantage, and what a goal it was!
After Frank Lampard’s pass was cleared to the edge of the box, many thought the danger had gone. Not exactly renowned for his long-range strikes, nor his left foot, to be honest, Essien combined the pair to strike a thunderous volley past a helpless Victor Valdes. There is something so aesthetically pleasing about a volley hitting the crossbar and going in, almost Tony Yeboah-esque. The technique on the volley, the crowd’s roar when it went in, and the Ghanaian’s rather shell-shocked celebration, everything about it was satisfying.
Unfortunately for the Chelsea fans, this was as good as it got, as Ovrebo took centre stage.
Drogba’s Penalty Appeal
When Tom Henning Ovrebo was announced as the referee of the Champions League Semi-Final, many of us had the same reaction. Who the hell is that guy? Not a household refereeing name in UEFA competitions, Ovrebo only made his major tournament debut at Euro 2008. Other than the two group games he refereed in Austria, all his officiating experience had come in his native Norway. No offence to any Norwegians reading this, but there is a stark difference between the Eliteserien and the Champions League.
As the first half played out, his lack of experience in big-game situations stood out like a sore thumb. A trademark dribble down the left wing from Florence Malouda saw Dani Alves commit himself and block the Frenchman off. Positioned directly on the line of the 18-yard box, Ovrebo was forced into his first big call of the game. The foul was clear, but a free kick was given instead of a penalty. To be fair to the Norwegian, it was a lose-lose situation, he was going to outrage either set of fans with this one. After 10 replays I still can’t tell whether it was a penalty or a free kick, so I’ll go lightly on him with this one.
However, just two minutes later, Ovrebo’s actions were indefensible. A perfectly executed lobbed pass from Lampard saw Drogba racing through on Valdes’ goal, with Eric Abidal the last man. An excellent first touch from the Ivorian took the ball away from the Barcelona defender, who then took two swipes at Drogba’s shirt before dragging him down as he was about to pull the trigger. A cynical foul from Abidal, and a clear denial of a goalscoring opportunity, or so everybody thought. The only person in the stadium that disagreed with that was Ovrebo, who waved away the Chelsea appeals. Drogba was outraged, punching the floor in frustration, whilst a chorus of boos echoed around Stamford Bridge.
One of the most clear-cut fouls you’ll see. Not only had it denied Chelsea the opportunity to extend their lead from the spot, but Abidal should also have been shown the red card. A scandalous decision from the Norwegian, the first of many.
Abidal Red Card
Had the penalty decision gone the other way, it is quite likely that Chelsea would have been out of sight by the time the half time whistle sounded. Instead, Guardiola’s side knew that a second-half goal would see them progress on away goals.
With no substitutions at half time, the second half predictably started in the same manner as the first, with Chelsea dominating. In typical Guardiola fashion, his side continued to pass the ball about like it was a training session, with no rushing or real urgency. It’s not easy to dispossess a midfield trio of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets, but Hiddink’s side seemingly had their number.
In the 65th minute, the tables turned completely, and it was Barcelona who could feel aggrieved with the referee. Not that he should have been on the pitch at this point anyway, but Abidal was finally given his marching orders. Anelka latched onto yet another lobbed pass over Barcelona’s high line and fell to the floor after what looked like a coming together with his French compatriot. Ovrebo fell hook, line, and sinker for Anelka’s fall, brandishing a straight red card to Abidal. It was met with several cheers from the home crowd, although the replays showed that Anelka had in fact tripped over his own feet.
Guardiola was in disbelief on the touchline, chewing the ear off of the poor fourth official. With a man advantage, Chelsea pushed heavily for the second goal which would all but secure an all-English final. Proving to be an absolute menace to the Barcelona defence, Anelka tried to flick the ball past Gerard Pique in the penalty area, which ricocheted up onto the Spaniard’s arm. The handball was so blatant that the Frenchman had just stopped playing altogether, fully expecting the referee to point to the spot. Ovrebo, seemingly allergic to giving a penalty, yet again waived play on. For a player that is pretty much programmed to pass the ball 10 yards or less, Pique’s long punt up the pitch tells the story of a man that knows he’s got away with murder. Having rewatched the game in preparation for this article, I honestly have no idea how the Norwegian referee has missed this.
Oh well, it’s not like Barcelona posed any threat going forward, oh wait…
Like a real-life game of FIFA, the team that had been under the cosh for the majority of the game were hit with a sucker punch in the 90th minute. Okay, a sucker punch is probably a bit harsh on Andres Iniesta, as the Spanish wizard’s strike was one of pure beauty. An iconic goal was met with some iconic commentary that has since been singed into all Chelsea fan’s nightmares.
“and the Chelsea fans cover their eyes in horror”
A scuffed clearance from Chelsea’s first half hero Essien found its way to Messi, who laid the ball back to the edge of the box. In typical Iniesta fashion, he delicately swiped at the ball with the outside of his foot, curving the ball into the top corner of Petr Čech’s net. Normally calm and collected, the Spaniard couldn’t contain his excitement, removing his shirt and knee sliding in front of the jubilant Barcelona fans. In the dying embers of the game, Barcelona had snatched that all-important away goal. A hammer blow for Hiddink’s side, who had been dominant for pretty much the full 90 minutes.
With Barcelona’s wild celebrations dragging on for a few minutes, the fourth official added on several minutes of injury time. Chelsea threw pretty much everybody forward as a last resort, with time frantically running out. Barcelona had scrapped their passing game that they were renowned for and adopted a tactic you’d expect from Big Sam, hoofing every ball as high and far away from Valdes’ goal as humanly possible.
It looked like Iniesta was going to have the final say in the game, but a scuffed clearance from Yaya Toure saw the Blues rewarded with a corner. The referee had already checked his watch once, and you kind of sensed that this was going to be the last kick of the game. Čech was given the instructions to go up for the corner, leaving just one Chelsea player outside of the Barcelona box. It was now or never for Hiddink’s side.
A poor delivery into the box rebounded into the path of Michael Ballack, who hit a thunderous volley goalward. Eto’o made the block, which on live TV looked to have been made with his arm. The Chelsea players certainly thought so, as every player had both hands up in the air appealing for a penalty. Ovrebo was in an excellent position yet was somehow unable to spot the handball. At this point, it felt like the game was scripted for Barcelona to win. Incensed by the lack of penalty awarded, Ballack went ballistic at the Norwegian, chasing him down the pitch and screaming in his face. Now I am overly critical of referees, sometimes harshly, but not being able to spot Eto’o’s handball from two yards away is absolutely criminal, and completely justifies Ballack’s outrage.
Shortly after turning a blind eye to the Cameroonian’s volleyball impression, Ovrebo blew the full-time whistle, securing Barcelona’s place in the Champions League final. A complete injustice for Hiddink and his side, who to put it bluntly had been robbed.
Normally, when the full-time whistle is sounded, the stewards gather around to protect the players from the spectators. In this instance, the stewards were there to protect the referee, who was not only subject to abuse from all four sides of the stadium but also the Chelsea players themselves.
After coming off deep into the second half with an ankle injury, Drogba was in a prime position to confront the referee as he hurried toward the tunnel. Being restrained by several dozen security officers, and his own manager, the Ivorian marched towards the Sky Sports camera, venting his disappointment at the referee’s performance. His infamous tirade saw him on the receiving end of a three-match UEFA ban, whilst José Bosingwa also received a two-match ban for his post-match grilling of the referee’s performance.
There is one thing hating the referee in the heat of the moment, but a couple of days later and Ovrebo was being escorted out of the country by police after being on the receiving end of several death threats from angry Chelsea fans. Chelsea of course distanced themselves from the threats, however, they were later fined £85,000 for improper conduct.
Several years after the dramatic semi-final, Ovrebo admitted that it “wasn’t his best performance”, which is a huge understatement, to say the least. The Norweigan claimed that he still gets lots of hate from Chelsea fans 10 years on from the infamous match. Whilst I don’t condone the death threats that he received in the slightest, his actions that night were unforgivable for a Champions League referee. One mistake is forgivable, possibly two, but four controversial calls in one game pretty much destroyed his career as a top-level UEFA official.
He was the allocated referee for Bayern Munich’s round of 16 clash with Fiorentina in 2010, but came under further scrutiny when he missed an obvious offside in the final minutes of the game leading to a Miroslav Klose goal. Needless to say, he never officiated in a UEFA competition again.
Pep Guardiola’s side secured the treble in the 2009 final, humiliating Sir Alex’s Manchester United side 2-0 in Rome. Chelsea did get their revenge on Barcelona three years later when Fernando Torres scored a dramatic winner to secure a 3-2 victory in the Semi-Final of the 2011/12 Champions League, a tournament that the Blues went on to win. Again, another goal made famous by the accompanying commentary. Gary Neville became an internet sensation overnight for his iconic ‘goalgasm’, stealing all of Torres’ thunder.
However, the pain caused by Tom Henning Ovrebo on that evening in 2009 still doesn’t sit well with the majority of Chelsea fans, who will never forgive the Norwegian for his officiating, or lack there of.