Waiting for a cough

After the Champions League semifinal second-leg match between Chelsea and Barcelona, referee Tom Henning Ovrebo admitted his mistakes during the match; but one of them was to expel Abidal, which surely gave Chelsea a substantial advantage.

A “cough,” in the parlance of British detectives, is what you get or hope to get from criminals, when you are investigating a case. And unless in football you get a cough, or its equivalent, all the seeming evidence of refereeing malfeasance, all the television replays, all the manifest mistakes, however manifest, will get you nowhere. At least when it comes to any kind of relevant action by either of the two bodies, FIFA and UEFA. Even then, as my American colleague Keith Botsford and myself found out many years ago, on the Sunday Times, you will still, in all probability, be frustrated.

All this, of course, after the recent, scandalous affair of the return European Cup semifinal between Chelsea and Barcelona at Stamford Bridge when the Londoners might have had as many as three or four penalties awarded to them by a catastrophic referee, the Norwegian psychologist, Tom Henning Ovrebo, who instead gave none at all.

There were plain handballs, and the plainest possible foul in the box, undeniably plain from the place where I was sitting, let alone to the referee who was only a few yards away when the Brazilian right-back for Barcelona, Alves, brought down the Chelsea left-winger Malouda very crudely, just inside the penalty box on Barca’s left flank. Abundant salt was rubbed into Chelsea’s gaping wounds when, after 93 minutes, Barca, reduced to 10 men by the — unjustified — sending off of Abidal, scored with their only real accurate shot of the game. That, of course, made it 1-1 and qualified Barcelona on the away goal.

Very well, Ovrebo was inept, but was he corrupt? After the game he admitted his mistakes; but one of them was to expel Abidal, which surely gave Chelsea a substantial advantage. Needless to say, conspiracy theory has been in the air. It has even been fancifully suggested that UEFA themselves might have been behind it all, not wanting a second consecutive Final between two English teams. To which the answer can be only: prove it!

And that is where, without a cough, things simply break down. I’m reminded of a famous verse by Humbert Wolfe which ran:

There is no way to bribe or twist Thank God the British journalist. But seeing what the man will do Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

Bitter experience resigns me to the fact that, even with a truly substantial cough, there is no remote guarantee of justice being done. So one goes back to 1974 when a cough, from Budapest, did indeed come to me as football correspondent of the Sunday Times. To the dramaticians’ alarming effect that the Portuguese referee of the previous season’s European Cup second-leg semifinal between Derby County and Juventus had been approached and offered a bribe to bend the game in Juve’s favour by the notorious Hungarian exiled fixer, Dezso Solti, known to have acted in such a murky role before on behalf of Milan’s Internazionale. Lobo, we were told, had bravely and honestly refused and he’s reported the attempt to his own referees’ association, whence it had reached UEFA. Who in turn had staged in Zurich a farcical parody of an inquiry at a Zurich hotel where Lobo and Solti, though both there, weren’t even confronted. After which UEFA solemnly and slimily whizzed off a letter of thanks and absolution to Juventus.

So Keith Botsford, a Portuguese speaker, flew to Lisbon, spoke to Lobo who played him a tape of his phone conversation with Solti. We broke the story on the front page, causing uproar in Italy where, of course, it was furiously denied. To use another expression common to English criminality, Juventus were bang to rights, but they were owned by one of the most powerful men in Europe, Gianni Agnelli, the FIAT tycoon and the dirt was brushed back under the carpet. No punishment for Solti or the serpentine Italo Allodi, who had “run” him both at Inter and at Juve. Just a feeble tap on the wrist for Solti: suspended for a year.

We went on investigating, not least the shocking antics of Inter, Allodi and the then millionaire President, Angelo Moratti. Of three successive European Cup return semifinals at Inter between 1963 and 1965, two referees had successfully been bribed we found. But in 1966 Hungary’s Gyorgy Vadas had gloriously held out, refusing to corrupt the Inter-Real Madrid return. His reward: abuse from Solti at half-time, more from the Hungarian Federation secretary in dead of night, and never another appointment to a European game. Unlike Lobo, alas, Vadas never reported what had happened, and even so many years later refused to talk about it when Keith and I tracked him down in Budapest. Eventually he told the whole sordid story to a young local journalist, Peter Borenich, who published it in a book. Too late for anything to be done.

Some years after our Lobo-Solti revelations, I was asked for help by Franco Zeffirelli, protean Italian film, theatre and opera director. He, a passionate Fiorentina fan, had accused Juventus of corrupting referees on the basis of television clips. No coughs. No proper evidence of wrong doing and of course he went down in court. There’s an old Sicilian saying: One hand washes the other. Never mind the Mafia; how true it is of European football and its authorities. Even when you find the equivalent of the smoking gun, you have no certainty of bringing the perpetrators to book. I myself don’t believe Ovrebo was guilty. But what if he was?