Chelsea v Barcelona called for better rules, not more referees

This article refers to a previous game. Get the latest Chelsea v Barcelona news here.

A month has passed now from the famous (and for many infamous) Chelsea – Barca semifinal of the Champions League. There’s been plenty of time to reflect on it, so I feel it’s worth adding a few words about it.

In the meantime, Barcelona went on to become champions, beating Manchester United in the final pretty comprehensively. There are also rumors that the next season of the UEFA Cup (Euro League, as it will be called from now on) will experimentally feature 2 more assistant referees each game, one for every penalty area. If true, it likely has something to do with the Chelsea – Barca game and the outcry it generated.

In a nutshell, my opinion on this game is that it’s first of all an extreme case of the gray area in action.

The way I saw it, there were 5 penalty cases Ovrebo could and IMO should have called, but decided not to in all of them. 4 of them would have been for Chelsea, one for Barca. The numbers are somewhat debatable; however many people think that there were at least 2 penalties that should have been called for Chelsea (2 more than for Barca, that is).

The point is, none of these calls was a must. They could have been given, but choosing not to isn’t out of line with the general reffing style. No one but the hardest-core Chelsea fans would argue that any of the non-decisions were outrageous on their own. Likewise, nobody other than some Barca fans would think that calling some of them would have been out of order. In other words, they were in the gray area.

You can see the most controversial moments of the game here.

The problem was they were too many for a single match. Had there been only one or two of them, most likely nobody would have thought twice about it (except maybe for some lunatics who make it their business to keep records of such things). Since they were 4 or 5, and since the score was so tight and with so much at stake, the nerves of the players and the fans alike gave in. But, as much as one can dislike Ovrebo’s performance in this game, he can’t be blamed for treating the 3rd and 4th incident the same way as the first 2. It’s called consistency.

The long-term problem of the governing bodies might be that we might have gotten to the point where things need some clarifying. If the current “everything goes” policy continues unchanged, we might see 3 or 4 games like this in the upper rounds of the UCL next year. Maybe even in the World Cup.

A good example incident to look at is the handball of Eto’o in the dying minutes. There’s no denying the ball hit his arm. I doubt anybody would have considered it a mistake if the ref had called a penalty. So, was his non-call decision wrong, according to the laws and customs ? Hardly. (Incidentally, he was perfectly positioned to see this action, as if he had expected it to come; no penalty-box assistant ref could have been in a better place.)

The law for handball specifically says there’s no offense unless the player deliberately handles the ball. Which, judging from the arm movement, didn’t appear to be the case. So Ovrebo just gave the player the benefit of the doubt. Everything perfectly legal, nothing outrageous. Many refs would have done the same.

Many but not all. Maybe equally many, maybe a little more, maybe a little fewer, there’s no way to know for sure, would have taken the stricter approach. That is, as a ref I’m not convinced there was no intent unless the player does everything he reasonably can to avoid the contact, or keep his arm stuck to his body. If he doesn’t, I tend to believe there was intent, without being too sure, but I find it reason enough to call a handball. Could Eto’o have kept his arm to his body ? Easily. So the ref would have been in his right to think like this and call the penalty. Nobody, and I believe really nobody, would have thought it outrageous had he done so.

Both approaches have their followers, and both are accepted by the bodies. Which of course makes for the greatest possible confusion to players and fans alike. One of the main causes of the gray area IMO. Ballack’s reaction, especially considering the circumstances, is perfectly understandable, though there’s no argument he deserved the booking he got for it.

I think it’s about time FIFA chose one and only one of the approaches and changed the law accordingly. I’m not going to tell them here which one I think would be better; suffice it to say that, IMO, it’s much easier for the ref to judge whether the player could have reasonably avoided the contact, than to assess intent.

If games like this one are to be avoided, I doubt it can be done by just having more assistant refs. Unfortunately, not even the video ref would probably do the trick. Not alone anyway. The obvious first step seems to be to get rid of some of that gray area, which cannot be done without some form of tightening the rules.

Most likely this will have to be limited to top level competitions like the Champions League and the World Cup, at least for the time being. It would be a little too difficult to also do it say in Greenland. But, as I think it’s obvious, what’s acceptable in Greenland may not be acceptable in the Champions League. You can’t have Greenland play like in the Champions League, which shouldn’t mean we make the Champions League play like Greenland.

(The handball rule change I mentioned above is an exception, I think it should apply to everybody, not just the top competitions.)

This alone might solve the problem or at least get it to acceptable levels; I doubt it. I doubt also that more assistant refs will be enough. In the long run, I still think some form of video ref will be unavoidable. But that’s for another time.

Also See: Chelsea vs Barcelona – the best argument for video replays this side of Vicarage Road

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