Pat Nevin: Sorry refs, but even I can't stand up for you this time
IN MY business as a football pundit it is de rigueur to pontificate over, abuse, ridicule and patronise referees, but I try not to do it. Football folk often sit and chat about who is the best, worst, most over-officious or even the most approachable whistler around. Once again I do not get involved because, to be perfectly honest, I don't usually know one from the other.
The main reason why referees rarely get a mention in this column is because I go to games to watch the footballers, not the officials. I understand how hard their job is: I have tried it and was unable to handle the players and control the match. They have my quiet admiration and sympathy... most of the time.
Even on TV, when I have to talk about a glaring mistake by the man in the middle, I always make a point of searching through every single camera angle to find one that gives the referee's perspective, in the hope that I can get him off the hook. However bad a mistake looks, if the official is unsighted because of players in his eye-line, as is often the case, then it is not his fault.
I honestly do think I am a champion of referees most of the time and would argue no one on the box compliments them more than me when they get it right. So the following statement is painful: the officials have managed to ruin, at least to some extent, each of the last three games I have watched before yesterday.
At Easter Road eight days ago, Chris Hogg was shown a straight red card in the last few minutes that led to a last-gasp winner for Dundee United. I grant you that Hibs manager Mixu Paatelainen deciding to play with nine men for those dying minutes wasn't his finest moment either, but the referee's extremely harsh reading of nothing more than an honest mistimed tackled was the pivotal and deciding moment of the game.
On Tuesday, Darren Fletcher's hopes of European Championship glory were all but destroyed by a referee's inadequacy. His straight red after a not only legitimate, but in actual fact magnificent, tackle in the penalty area was a colossal misread. With apparently no right of appeal, the only Scotsman with a hope of shining on club football's biggest stage has been denied. And what we tend to forget about that game at the Emirates, because of that one blatant gaffe, was just how many other decisions the referee got wrong that night.
No matter, surely it wouldn't happen in the other semi-final between Chelsea and Barcelona, would it? You could almost forget everything else at Stamford Bridge including Eric Abidal's sending off and the myriad penalty claims for Chelsea. Anyone who watched Gerard Pique handle Nicolas Anelka's clever flick in the box, even just in real time, would know that this was the very definition of a penalty kick. No ifs, no buts: for two officials to miss that is less likely than the 40,000 there, along with the millions watching on TV, not noticing an alien spaceship landing on the centre circle. It stank.
Even so I still believe it to be inadequacy rather than cheating. Though without in any way excusing Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack (pictured) for their behaviour, I know precisely how they felt and can't claim not to have lost it on the odd occasion myself.
People talk about passions running high and about the adrenaline-fuelled mania of the game, then they coldly say that the players' behaviour was beyond belief. It isn't beyond belief if you have invested much of your time, thoughts and even life into reaching a certain professional goal, only to have it snatched away by the inadequacy of an amateur. Referee Tom Henning Ovrebo is a full-time psychologist, so even if he doesn't yet fully understand what a penalty kick is, at least he has a professional knowledge of the strains he placed on the players' psyches.
I said inadequacy and not cheating when I described Ovrebo's performance because, however bad it felt to Guus Hiddink's men, I do not believe it was a UEFA-led conspiracy to scupper another all-English final. There are corrupt referees out there in European competition, that is beyond doubt as various scandals have shown, but the Norwegian in charge was just incapable on the night.
If he was bent he wouldn't have sent Abidal off for being in the vague vicinity of Anelka. However, how he and, crucially, his assistant were the only two people in the stadium who failed to spot Pique's basketball play is beyond me. In the referee's defence, he was perfectly positioned for every big play; it is just a shame that he still managed to get just about every one of those major decisions grotesquely wrong.
It is important not to cloud this issue with the others on the night. Drogba was throwing himself around in a despicable manner and reacted inexcusably after the final whistle, though I would still argue that even though it was unacceptable it was understandable.
It is also important not to confuse the issue with who deserved to win. Barcelona were the prettier side and had an embarrassing amount of possession, even if they only managed one shot on target in 94 minutes. The final is of course now the one most football purists would desire.
On the other hand I am not entirely buying into the purity of a final that features United and Barca. While taking Drogba to task on his diving tendencies, Cristiano Ronaldo matches him roll for roll. Barcelona are the team I would pay to watch before anyone else in the world, but I would pay extra to see full back Danny Alves – thankfully out of the final through suspension – sent off for his almost constant play-acting.
In the widest sense however, Dundee United deserved their eventual win against Hibs, and Barcelona's attacking stars are also through, so have the referees actually done us favours in the end? Maybe we should just let them decide the winners before the game starts and save us all the effort and the aggro. I suspect Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter might see some perverse logic in the idea.
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