Why is it that every time there is a major referring scandal in an international football match, the referee at the centre of the controversy seems to be Scandinavian? Last week’s Champions League fixtures once again saw both Norway’s Tom Henning Øvrebø and Sweden’s Martin Hansson the centre of attention for the wrong reasons, and consequently subjected to another barrage of criticism from abroad.
Øvrebø, who first shot to fame when he was subjected to a tirade of abuse from Chelsea players after their semi-final defeat to Barcelona last season, was routinely panned this week after a series of gaffs from the match between Bayern Munich and Fiorentina. Meanwhile Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has spent the last few days hounding Hansson after he allowed Porto to play a quick free kick and score a last minute winner. Hansson is no doubt still recovering from the abuse and condemnation he received after failing to spot Thiery Henry’s blatant handball against Ireland in the World Cup qualifiers.
Under the headline “How many more games will Tom Henning Ovrebo be allowed to ruin?” Guardian colonist Paul Wilson used both these games to argue that Swedish and Norwegian shouldn’t be allowed to referee at all:
“While being conscious that Premier League-style demotion of erring officials would leave the Champions League in the hands of a core of referees from leading nations, Uefa nevertheless need to acknowledge the potential for mishap inherent when the best players in the world are sometimes refereed by semi-professionals from quieter football backwaters such as Norway and Sweden.”
For some reason Wilson automatically assumes that if referees were chosen on merit, that it would be to the determent of the Swedes and Norwegians and in favour of the English and Italians. However England is not without its own controversial referees. The difference is that when someone like Howard Webb and Graham “three card trick” Poll makes a massive gaff, no issue is made of their nationality; they’re just canned as being a bad ref.
After the infamous Chelsea vs. Barcelona match last year Jamie Redknapp also argued that the problem lay with referees’ country of origin: “Why can’t we have the best referee in Italy?” It is easy to assume that someone that officiates the likes of Milan and Juventus would be better qualified than someone who has just refereed Trelleborg v Brommapojkarna. But as When Saturday Comes writer Lars Sivertsen pointed out, both the 2008 and 2009 Champions League finals were refereed quite competently by officials from Slovakia and Switzerland, while in 2009’s other Champions League semi final Italian referee Roberto Rosetti was criticised for sending off Darren Fletcher for a seemingly fair tackle. Just further proof that when a Norwegian makes a shocking decision it comes down to his nationality, but when they’re Italian it comes down to personality. No mater how many poor decisions we see from English or Italian referees, its unthinkable that anyone will ever argue all English or Italian referees are unfit to officiate at the highest level.
Chelsea and Barcelona have had to face-off in some epic Champions League clashes in recent years. A number of these matches have been refereed by Scandinavians, and a number have ending with the referee in question receiving death threats. Swedish referee Anders Frisk was forced into early retirement in 2005 after death threats from Chelsea supporters. When the two sides played again in 2005, the threats were sent to Norwegian referee Terje Hauge. But since when have death threats been proof of bad referring? Does the problem really centre on where the referee comes from? Unlike Øvrebø and Hansson, Frisk and Hauge didn’t have histories of making poor decisions. Maybe the problem actually lies in Chelsea fans’ inability to accept defeat graciously, despite consistently being outplayed by Barcelona?
The reality is that bad decisions are an unavoidable element of any sport and have existed in football ever since the first human being decided to kick a round object for fun. All referees have made mistakes and no matter how many of them you put on a pitch or what technology you apply, they always will. Unfortunately for referees, no matter how distinguished their career they will inevitably be remember for their mistakes. And even if Øvrebø and Hansson are bad referees, it isn’t because they’re Scandinavian. They’re bad because they make bad decisions. Is it really fair to then punish all Scandinavian referees on the basis of these two individuals?