Chelsea vs Barcelona: The Best Argument for Video Replay This Side of Vicarage Road

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“Football defeated anti-football,” raved the Catalan press on Wednesday night.  “Pain and recrimination,” cried the English.  In one of the most bizarre Champions League matches in recent memory, Barcelona managed to draw 1-1 with Chelsea and advance to the final in Rome on the away goals rule.

The ninety-six minute stomach churner began with promising play from both sides, saw a handful of penalties ignored, handballs denied, and even a red card that wasn’t, and finally ended with an undeserved injury-time wonder strike that led to complete chaos on the pitch.

Wednesday night’s referee, Tom Henning Ovrebo, had to be smuggled out of England by the police after allegedly receiving death threats from fans and very nearly getting ripped to pieces by a thunderous Michael Ballack on the pitch.  Though the Catalan press may smile on the result, it leaves dozens of questions unanswered.

However, one was resolved: does European football need video replays in order to better justify referee decisions?  The answer is a resounding yes, and Wednesday’s match is all the proof UEFA and FIFA should need.

It’s difficult to decide where to begin, but it would probably be best to determine who among the officials was at fault for the terrible decision making.  Most seem to be on Ovrebo’s shoulders, although Abidal’s controversial red card was apparently decided by the assistant referee.  So what caused Ovrebo’s shocker of a match?  One could play devil’s advocate and point out the consistency and blatancy of Dani Alves’ and Didier Drogba’s dives during the game, and argue that Ovrebo was simply trying to crack down on immoral behavior.

His blindness to their weak free-kick appeals could have led to, well, blindness in general.  However, it turns out that he has a history of poor judgment in high-pressure situations.  Ovrebo refereed the controversial Italy-Romania match during Euro 2008, in which he incorrectly ruled a Luca Toni goal offside.  This decision cost Italy the three points, and the game ended in a 1-1 draw.  Ovrebo later admitted he had been mistaken, and was relieved of his Euro 2008 duties.

Therefore, although Ovrebo may well release a statement attributing his lapses in judgment to stress, nerves, poor vision, or lack of communication with the other officials, viewers of the Chelsea-Barcelona game would do well to note that this is hardly his first offense.  And it likely won’t be his last: Ovrebo has been pre-selected as a World Cup 2010 referee.  If he is allowed to keep his place in the tournament, his games would certainly be worth watching.

Although Ovrebo made clear mistakes, and this was an important match, football is entertainment at heart and should never, ever jeopardize anyone’s safety, especially not an official who was attempting to bring order to the whole affair.  The Chelsea players’ reaction towards Ovrebo at the end of the game and the supposed death threats sent in by fans are unfortunate and could have been avoided with simple video replays.  If Ovrebo had had this benefit, we would know for sure whether or not he was a “thief”, as Jose Bosingwa elegantly put it.

Those who argue against video replays claim that taking the time to review tapes would ruin the flow and integrity of the game.  While replays would certainly take some time to review, they could hardly take more time than the players of both teams spent arguing fruitlessly with Ovrebo.  And as for the integrity bit, if football fans think making improper calls and consequently having to be smuggled out of a G8 member nation in order to avoid bodily harm is integrity, then we might as well call the whole sport off.

Video replays, even if only used in moderation, could have spared Chelsea an undignified Champions League exit, Barcelona some questionable player suspensions, and Ovrebo his career and safety.  And these replays would have taken up less time than the unruly chaos that broke out on the pitch after the final whistle.

So the Catalan press can coo, the English press can wail, and footballing fans the world over can scratch their heads.  But the only way to possibly bring these groups together is to introduce video replays into crucial matches like the one that was just sullied by poor decision making.  In a match where the only genuinely impressive bits were the classiness of Pep Guardiola’s suit and the vivacity of Michael Ballack’s end-of-match tantrum, in a match where Dani Alves sent more balls into Row Z than to his teammates and Nicolas Anelka and Samuel Eto’o unceremoniously disappeared, video replays would have added some much-needed class and certainty.

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