Ovrebo admits Chelsea protests had negative influence vs Barcelona

EXCLUSIVE: Tom Henning Ovrebo admits Chelsea DID deserve a penalty in their 2009 defeat vs Barcelona and says their protests may have influenced him not to ‘be fooled’… as the retired ref opens up on infamous Champions League semi 13 years on

  • Chelsea and Barcelona played out a controversial fixture on this day in 2009
  • Andres Iniesta’s last-gasp away goal sent Barca into the Champions League final
  • The Blues also saw a handful of big penalty appeals waved away on the night
  • Tom Henning Ovrebo was the referee who ignored their protests in the game
  • The Norwegian has looked back at the infamous match in a chat with Sportsmail 
  • He says Chelsea’s protests may have influenced him not to bow to their demands
  • Ovrebo also admits having VAR would’ve ‘taken the fun of being a referee away’ 

Utter the name Tom Henning Ovrebo to any Chelsea fan and you will likely receive a furious tirade littered with conspiracy theories for your troubles.

Exactly 13 years have passed since Ovrebo cemented lifelong villain status at Stamford Bridge, the scene of his most infamous refereeing crime. Though for Blues supporters the night in question remains a sore subject.

On May 6, 2009, Chelsea welcomed Barcelona to west London for a crucial Champions League semi-final second leg, with the aggregate score locked at 0-0 following a stalemate in the first. That soon changed when Michael Essien looped home a spectacular volley after nine minutes, firing the hosts ahead and raising the roof in SW6.

Tom Henning Ovrebo cemented lifelong villain status at Chelsea on the night of May 6, 2009

The Blues’ infamous Champions League semi-final against Barcelona remains a sore subject

Yet, in the long-forgotten days of the away-goal rule, Barcelona only needed an equaliser to progress to the final. Chelsea, hunting a second consecutive appearance in the European showpiece, were therefore desperate to add a second and give themselves breathing space.

Unfortunately for Guus Hiddink’s men that two-goal cushion never came, albeit in highly contentious fashion. Over the course of the next hour, Ovrebo somehow waved away three credible Chelsea penalty appeals to the bemusement of an increasingly boisterous home crowd.

And to shine an even brighter spotlight on the Norwegian official’s decisions, Andres Iniesta then struck in the dying minutes to break Blues hearts.

‘I’m sure the end of the match would have been much easier for us as a refereeing team if that goal had not been scored,’ Ovrebo admits during a conversation with Sportsmail.

‘Chelsea would have gone through to the final and their supporters would have gone to the pub and said, “maybe we should have had one or two or three or four or five or six penalties… but it doesn’t matter tonight because we’re through to the final.” 

Michael Essien broke the deadlock for them at Stamford Bridge with a spectacular volley

Chelsea then saw a number of credible penalty appeals waved away by Ovrebo on the night

After his controversial calls, Andres Iniesta struck late on to send Barcelona to the final

‘Of course, as a referee you know a goal like that creates more discussion and more reactions and more controversies around the decisions you have already made in the match.’

The first of Chelsea’s various penalty appeals came as early as the 24th minute. Florent Malouda raced towards the byline before cutting back just inside Barcelona’s box, where he was then felled by Dani Alves. Instead of pointing to the spot, however, Ovrebo awarded a free-kick which ultimately came to nothing. 

Merely three minutes later and the Bridge faithful were demanding another, this time when Didier Drogba went down under a challenge from Eric Abidal after being released in the box. But again, Ovrebo refused to buckle and Chelsea’s protests fell on deaf ears for a second time in quick succession.

By this point Stamford Bridge had boiled into a raging pot of fury, with incensed supporters directing their outrage towards Ovrebo and his officiating team. So did the hostile atmosphere throw him off his game?

‘It can start to get into your head,’ he concedes, ‘but it’s important for a referee and a referee team to have laser-like focus. That’s not easy all the time, but for us it’s about the next situation and you can’t think too much about the situation that passed already. 

Ovrebo ignored a number of potential spot-kicks, including when Eric Abidal pulled down Didier Drogba inside the box

Drogba and his fellow Blues were in disbelief when their appeals were continually waved away

‘It was important to keep our focus and to continue to stay concentrated and attentive. Of course, you can always feel the tension in the match and in the stands, but that’s a part of the game and the atmosphere is always nice in matches like this.’

If Ovrebo felt the atmosphere was nice early on, by the time he blew his final whistle it was anything but that.

Inside the closing 10 minutes, Chelsea anger became disbelief when Gerard Pique handled the ball in Barcelona’s area so clearly he may as well have been dribbling a basketball. Once more, though, an uninterested Ovrebo did not see fit to award a penalty.

Even after Iniesta’s dramatic winner there was room for more controversy. As Chelsea frantically searched for a response, Barcelona cleared a corner straight to the feet of Michael Ballack, whose last-gasp shot at goal looked to have been blocked by the arm of Samuel Eto’o. 

Again they called for a penalty and again Ovrebo, now firmly public enemy No 1, refused to bow to the pressure late on. The image of a berserk Ballack chasing, pushing and shouting at the referee remains synonymous with a match Jose Mourinho later branded ‘the scandal of Stamford Bridge’. 

When the full-time whistle eventually sounded Chelsea players wasted no time in making a beeline for Ovrebo. Didier Drogba memorably bellowed ‘it’s a f****** disgrace’ straight down the lens of a television camera. And while he is adamant not all of their appeals were valid, Ovrebo accepts at least one spot-kick should have been given. 

The image of Michael Ballack chasing the referee is synonymous with the controversial game

Ballack was left incensed when another penalty appeal after Iniesta’s winner was ignored

A seething Drogba made a beeline for Ovrebo as soon as he blew his full-time whistle

The Ivorian striker later bellowed ‘it’s a f****** disgrace’ down the lense of a television camera

Ovrebo admits Chelsea’s protests may have influenced him not to ‘be fooled’ into giving in

‘I don’t think the Chelsea supporters are correct when they claim four of five penalties, but I think everybody that knows football and the laws of the game knows there should have been a penalty given,’ he says. 

‘That happens, especially before VAR. Sometimes you miss a penalty, sometimes you miss a red card or a crucial decision. And I think everybody that knows football knows there should have been a penalty. 

‘They can speculate themselves which ones should have been a penalty. I will not give you a correct answer on that because I don’t have the correct answer, I just have my perception of it.’

To best sum up his shortcomings on the night, Ovrebo points to a famous British rock band. ‘I think it’s Coldplay,’ he says, ‘they have a song and one of the lines is “when you try your best and you don’t succeed”. 

‘That in a way sums up the performance of the referees in this match.’

Coldplay lyrics aside, Ovrebo also has a refreshingly honest explanation for his bad night at the office.

As is often the case when tight calls go in the favour of so-called super-clubs, Chelsea felt they were on the wrong end of foul play that night, with Hiddink even admitting: ‘Some people argued it was fixed. While deep down I don’t believe that, perhaps it was the only time I started to doubt it.’

His decision to send Eric Abidal off before the late goal rules out any accusations of foul play

Ovrebo’s decision to show Abidal a straight red card in the 66th minute, long before Iniesta scored at the death, exonerates any accusations of corruption. But he is happy to accept that Chelsea’s animated protests perhaps made him reluctant to point to the spot.  

‘In a match like that when you have so many penalty appeals, sometimes as a referee you get concerned about not being fooled by the team,’ he admits. ‘So maybe that could have influenced my perception in a negative way. 

‘That could be it. I don’t know for sure, I’m just speculating with you. That could be one kind of explanation, that you don’t want to seem like a referee that is pressured to give a penalty. So then maybe you perceive the situation more strictly in a way.

‘If I had VAR in that match I’m sure some of the calls would have been different. But I can’t go around reflecting on my performance as long as I did my best. I can learn from it and that was maybe the most important thing, but for me I can’t go around and regret some of my calls. I made other mistakes during my 40 years as a referee and I can’t regret all of them.’

Ovrebo spent another year as a FIFA-licensed official before seeing out the remainder of his career in his native Norway. After hanging up his whistle in 2013, he now works as a psychologist at the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences, a field he studied during his days at university.

The retired official, who now works as a psychologist in Norway, says having VAR would have ‘taken the fun away’ of being a referee

You would hardly blame the ex-referee, who resides in his hometown of Oslo, for glancing on enviously whenever VAR helps a modern-day official avoid the type of disaster he encountered at Stamford Bridge.

Yet astonishingly, for Ovrebo the assistive technology would have taken the thrill out of refereeing.

‘I think VAR is a good thing for football as long as they use it wisely, but of course it also takes away some of the fun of being a referee because you have that safety mechanism,’ he insists. ‘For me, I was a referee in another era when we didn’t have this technology and I enjoyed that a lot. 

‘I must say that I’m very positive towards VAR as long as it is used wisely. But the pressure for a referee is different with VAR than without VAR, because you always have that safety net. 

‘That was one of the things that I liked about being a referee before VAR, that it’s a very short distance between being in heaven and in hell.’

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