Referee spares Barca but barely escapes

It's an old soccer joke, and right now it is being told in Barcelona: The youngster is rejoicing over his favorite team's victory and pleads with his dad to commemorate the occasion by buying him a team jersey "OK," says the father, "do you want the goalkeeper's or the referee's?"

But it is a joke appreciated by a limited audience. Certainly nobody in the European soccer establishment and no true fan of the game was laughing after the ugly scene that followed Barcelona's stunning last-minute victory over Chelsea in the Champions League semifinals.

Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo, who made a series of controversial non-calls that likely spared Barcelona, had to be given police protection and spirited out of England in secret after he received death threats following the game.

Ovrebo was fortunate to get off the field unharmed. After he denied Chelsea's plea for a "hand ball" in the final seconds, Michael Ballack chased him up the field for some 50 yards, demonstrating extraordinary dexterity by wielding his arms around the official somehow without actually touching him. Then, after the final whistle, the tempestuous Didier Drogba confronted the ref in the locker room tunnel — reportedly jabbing fingers at the official's face — and had to be restrained by security guards.

Drogba's distress was surely compounded by the fact that if he had simply done his job — he had several exceptional opportunities to score and bury Barca — Chelsea would be through to the final against Manchester United on May 27 in Rome. Still, as much as it was my fervent wish that an all-English final be avoided, it was hard to take much pleasure in that seemingly tarnished victory.

There were at least five disputed calls of all stripes — trip, tackle, shirt tug, hand ball — in the Barcelona box or its vicinity, and any fair-minded Barca supporter would probably concede that at least two of them warranted penalties. Then again, the Norwegian ref booted a Barcelona defender from the game — and, thus, from the final — on a dubious decision that had all the earmarks of a makeup call.

Then again, the officiating wasn't all that impressive last week in the first leg of the semifinal. A couple key non-calls went Chelsea's way, especially late in the scoreless game when Barca's Thierry Henry was pulled down inside the penalty box. And later, with but a few minutes remaining in the contest, referee Wolfgang Stark turned a blind eye to a hard foul by Ballack that could easily have rated his second yellow card and a suspension for the final leg. One could make the case that if the German ref had done his job, Ballack wouldn't have been on the field to chase his Norwegian colleague. (Whatever did happen to the home-field advantage?)

I am aware that European soccer fans have disdain for any suggestions from Americans, no matter how much we might share the passion. Still, if the neanderthals at the helm of American baseball can finally recognize the virtues of replay, then it is way past time for soccer.

Soccer, more than any other game, is vulnerable to officiating error, simply because scoring is low and one key call in the box — penalty or not — can most often be decisive. And no single referee — there was no indication that the Norwegian ref was getting much help from his
linesmen — can position himself perfectly to get all the key calls right.

Soccer courts controversy — not to mention officiating scandals — by its stubborn refusal to avail itself of any technological assistance. I am tired of the tedious argument that using replay would despoil a great tradition and wreck the flow of the game. What good is flow if it doesn't proceed toward an honest result?

Close calls in or abutting the penalty box should be subject to automatic review. Non-calls wouldn't even necessitate a stoppage of play. If the replay official decides a penalty is warranted, he could wait until a natural break in the action to set things right. Penalties called on the field might require some added delay. And I guess that might jeopardize how neatly the game fits into a two-hour time slot on television. But the greater jeopardy is for a game to be decided by a trip or a flop that everyone watching on TV can see clearly — again and again and again.

Of course, it seems a wee bit fatuous to talk about the virtues of tradition and flow in a story concerning Chelsea's fate. In a certain fashion, Chelsea got exactly what it deserved. The team went to Barcelona intent on securing a 0-0 tie and didn't engage in a soccer game. Rather it chose to erect a human fortress on the back line and that fortress held. Paul Gardner, one of Soccer America's most astute voices, was so put off by the effort that he labeled it "cowardly."

At the very least, it was negative, it was cynical, it was ugly — and it stultified the usually potent Barcelona attack. A week later, after Chelsea scored what it hoped would be the winning goal, the Blues again chose to defend with only an occasional counterattack. As a result, Barcelona never found its rhythm or the net-until that final minute when Andres Iniesta fired the shot that shattered the Chelsea dream.

Fair, not exactly. Yet perhaps a kind of rough justice.

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