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Tom Henning Øvrebø interview full transcript

Chelsea Supporters Denmark visited with Tom Henning Øvrebø

I: THO, thank you for having us

T: Thank you

I: For inviting us into your psychology practice.

T: You’re welcome, it’s nice having you here.

I: Before we get to what this interview mainly will be about, the match nine years ago between Chelsea and Barcelona, I would like to ask you; why did you choose to become a referee back in the days?

T: It was because of the challenge in being allowed to make decisions and be a part of the game. I played myself and thought it was really funny, and as a 14 year old it was nice with a bit of pocket money. Back then, we got paid 30 kronor and a bus ticket for a game. That was a fine compensation and at the same time, it was a good challenge in being able to follow a football match.

I: You’re refereeing in many years before the famous match in 2009.

T: Yes, I referred internationally from 1994-2010 – so for 16, 17 seasons on the international arena, and slowly but safely I got better and better matches and got in a better group. Towards 2009 in was in the top of Europe and was selected for Chelsea-Barcelona.

I: How much do you prepare for the game. Do you do that in any way?

T: Yes, you prepare in 30 years. I’ve refereed football since I was 14 so the preparation is long because you take it step by step. But when you get a special match obviously you know it, one, two or three weeks in advance. That time, I knew it one week beforehand the game was due. But at that point you are well prepared because you’ve trained, refereed other games. Worked mentally and talked to the referee team. So you’ve done a lot of preparation up into the last week before the game.

I: Do you remember standing in the tunnel before the game starts?

T: Of course you remember all the big games. I refereed in the Champions League for 10 years and obviously, when you stand in the tunnel before entering the field and hear the Champions Leauge anthem you get this ‘yes’ feeling and want to go out and enjoy the game and make sure everything goes the way it should. So it’s always a good feeling and I also felt that before that game. The minutes before the game, a mix between being tense and full of excitement.

I: And the moment when you step on the pitch, do you remember that?

T: Not in details. Like the players, the referees also wish to be on the top level and that is getting a match in a Champions League SF and games like that. It’s a good challenge, so it is with great motivation and focus you go into the game and have butterflies in the stomach.

I: Obviously, you can’t remember every detail from the fame. After all, it’s nine years ago, but do you remember how the atmosphere developed among the fans and the players on the pitch?

T: It’s a game like every CL match should be; close duels, many situations high intensity, amazing footballers and a good atmosphere in Stamford Bridge. In the beginning of the game, the atmosphere was good but during the game controversial incidents occured where Chelsea wanted two, three, four or five penalties which creates this discussion about our effort as referees. But it was a game with great pressure and a lot of demanding decisions a game where the players also tried to appeal to the referees, because they wanted a penalty. Maybe they should’ve had it sometimes so it was a game where we really needed to be prepared for the important things. And that is what we like to do, and what is funny.

I: A few minutes into the game, we see the first controversial decision in the game. What does that mean for how the game develops in terms of that the players are unhappy and your decision isn’t in their favour?

T: I don’t think it necessarily means anything for the referee team because we’re suited to it. During a game there are many controversial episodes where one of the teams think that the decision should be different. So it isn’t something that affects us in any way, as I recall it and as a referee, it’s important that your focus is on what’s coming and not what already has happened.

I: Is that possible, putting the situation, let’s say the first penalty or situation that could’ve been a penalty. Is it possible to look past that situation when you’re in the game?

T: It’s an interesting question, if you can put it behind you but I think that when you have been in the game many years it’s not situations like that that change your focus and it is important that you think of the next situation and you can look forward, and then maybe the different situations can affect you the same way it can affect a player or a coach but I think that when you’re on this level you can’t linger much on what has happened. It’s important that you look forward. Then it’s better to learn from it after the match, than when you’re in it. It’s important to think of the next situation. Obviously, everything is not as easy.

I: Was it possible in a game like that not to think on those situations that occurred and maintain focus on the rest of the game when a new controversial episode happened?

T: Yes. Because there are many situations in a game, you can’t focus too much on what happened. Then it is important that you keep looking ahead , and the more that happens the easier it is to focus ahead. If it’s a match without a lot of incidents, then you can easily end up thinking back on episodes but because stuff happens all the time then it is the next situation that becomes important and that is what you in hindsight can discuss if we did well enough. It’s hard to know.

I: Can you feel anything special at Iniesta’s goal to 1-1 happens to the players on the field for instance?

T: You can feel the atmosphere dropping a bit. Before, Chelsea were in front 1-0 and had been in a big part of the game. Chelsea were ready for the final after 0-0 in the first match in Barcelona. So now Chelsea were no longer in the final, Barcelona were. And obviously, that affected the atmosphere. Additionally, there wasn’t much time to score again because the equaliser came in added time. So it was one last desperate attempt from Chelsea to score and, of course, that affects the atmosphere on the pitch and you feel that too as a referee. That it’s important that you keep a cool head and try to get a grip of things towards the end of the game.

I: Did you succeed in that regard?

T: In posterity, you can discuss if we managed to do that. But that is up for others to assess. But of course, it became a match with very high temperatures towards the end.

I: But do you feel, when looking back at it, that you could keep a cool head in that situation?

T: In terms of keeping a cool head, I think I did fairly well even though we were stressed during the game, but I think it’s natural for a game to be like that. There are probably things that could’ve been done differently and would’ve been completely different if other decisions were made. And I’m sure that Chelsea supporters have a very clear opinion and then I’m sure that Barcelona and their fans have a completely different opinion. So there are things that can be debated, and I leave it to you to find the conclusion on that. I can’t comment on that.

I: Why not?

T: I think that it can be a discussion that can keep living out there. I have my opinion on it, and then fans, coaches and players can have their opinion if they feel the need to find a conclusion on it. But I am pretty sure that everyone that follows football and anyone who watches it and knows the rules can see that everything in that game wasn’t done right from the referee’s side; from my side. I think that is clear. And then it must be up to the individual to assess how many mistakes there were. Was there one penalty, were there 10 penalties, were there too little or too many red cards? It must be for others to decide. I have my opinion, and I get to keep that and then others can have their opinion.

I: You don’t want to share that with us?

T: No I think that it can keep living out there, but taking an honest look at it as a referee the match wasn’t solved the best possible way. Mistakes were made in that game and, unfortunately stuff like that happens in a game that the referee make misjudgements. In a span of relatively short time, you have to look, perceive assess, decide and act to make the right decision and in that game I’ll say that not all decisions were right, and then others must assess how many were wrong. But obviously, from a referee perspective, I was not happy about that semifinal, it’s not to be ignored. I don’t have a good feeling when leaving Stamford Bridge when that kind of reactions and discussions occur afterwards. You then realise “Ah Tom Henning, this unfortunately, wasn’t the time when you showed your best.”

I: The last episode of the game is a corner kick to Chelsea where Michael Ballack volleys the ball on the forearm of Samuel Eto’o. Afterwards, he chases you across half the field. Do you still remember that situation?

T: Yes, it’s hard to forget and it’s also a situation that I still get reminded of. I also use pictures from it when I’m doing talks. It’s not good pictures and it isn’t how it should be at the same time I’ve got to say that I understand Ballack’s frustration. It is a situation in added time – penalty or no penalty – that if they would have got it, they might have scored and progressed. That was the last chance in the game so I’m aware that Ballack is frustrated and we can always discuss if it might have been too much. I remember that it resulted in a counter attack and therefore I ran the other way, and I felt that he was chasing me, and it isn’t nice pictures. It’s not how it’s supposed to be on a football field. At the same time I do have a certain amount of sympathy for the player’s reaction in that situation, and then others have to decide if it crossed the line if it crossed the line. But it is not something we should have too much in football in any way.

I: After the final whistle, the hectic things continue. Didier Drogba is also very unhappy after the game has ended. How do you remember the minutes after you’ve blown the whistle?

T: I remember telling myself and the referee team, “Okay Tom Henning, now we’ve got to try and leave Stamford Bridge with some dignity and tranquillity. Because at that point we knew that there would be trouble. You can feel it by the reactions from the players and the atmosphere in the stadium. So the most important thing for me and the team was to keep our heads relatively high when we left Stamford bridge. And then I remember that there was a lot of pressure from the players but I think that the security was well managed by Chelsea and their people. I also think that Guus Hiddink, who was head coach for Chelsea, behaved very professionally by making his players calm down. I didn’t feel any danger around me. But it was unpleasant because you could see that the game could have been solved better from the referees. So it wasn’t a good feeling but we did choose to leave Stamford Bridge with a certain amount of decency left.

I: You said it was important that you elft SB with some dignity.

T: Yes

I: What do you mean by that?

T: By that I mean that with the massive pressure generated by a lot of people, coming at us wanting to tell us how bad we were, or how hopeless our effort was, or outrageous it was, a ”disgrace” that kind of terms, it’s important that we, the referee team, keep calm. That we don’t pay them back in their own coin, that we leave and think all right, that wasn’t good but we should at least leave Stamford bridge with a certain amount of tranquillity and dignity. So we don’t sink to the same level, to put it like that. So we were anxious to do that but as I said, both the players security people in Chelsea and Guus Hiddink were exemplary in that situation and then, one or two players overreacted with too powerful statements but that’s the way it is in the heat of the battle. And as a referee, I’m comfortable with that but I think it was a bit much.

I: How did you leave Stamford Bridge?

T: We had to sit and wait for a while in referee locker room because of the big pressure outside and screaming in the hallway. You could hear that people were unhappy. Many things were said, so we just have to calm down in the locker room and wait for some hours until people had left the stadium, so it got a bit later than we were used to because of safety measures. So we sit in the locker room, and when I think of all the games I’ve had, then you’re usually happy and have a good feeling, but when we sat in the room in Stamford Bride there was no cheering of happiness. We realised, that we’ve done a poor job and that’s the way it is. Players have bad games, coaches have bad games and unfortunately, referees have bad games too, and that is a part of football. Of course, I wished it would have been different, but unfortunately, it wasn’t.

I: Can you describe the atmosphere in the referee’s locker room more closely?

T: Yes, the atmosphere is dense. You try and solve the game he best way possible and then when you afterwards realise that you haven’t performed on the level you usually do, the atmosphere becomes a bit dense and you become a bit dissatisfied. You think that it wasn’t fair for the teams. You realise you haven’t done the job you were supposed to do and that obviously affects the atmosphere. At the same time it’s important that you don’t break down, but instead get the best out of the situation but of course it’s hard to do after a game like that.

I: Did you know at the time, when you are sitting in the locker room, that you had made mistakes during the game?

T: No, because we didn’t have any TV footage and we hadn’t talked to anyone but judging from the reactions during the game and how the game developed, the thought was not that foreign that there might have been some wrong decisions. And that is a feeling you have during the game that in some way can affect you.

I: So, during the game, you can get that feeling that some decisions should have been different?

T: Yes that’s possible but it shouldn’t affect you too much. But especially afterwards, when you talk more closely to the assistant, you can go into the discussion.

I: When you leave SB, do you have extra security or can you leave it like it was every other football match?

T: No it’s different because due to these episodes during the game, there was a lot of aggression out there, so UEFA chose, due to safety precautions, to move us to anther hotel than the one we originally stayed at. So we got moved to a different hotel and stayed there until the next day.

I: And then you flew back to Oslo?

T: We left London the following day. You always do that, so that was regular procedure. But they asked us to travel as civilians and we got a police escort to Heathrow, and we also had police escort when we landed In Oslo. So there were a lot of precautions and pressure around the match, which also meant an increase in security.

I: What did you think about that?

T: I thought that it’s good that they’re taking care of us. And at the same time, I thought it was a bit exaggerated but with that being said, I’m glad they did it. Because it turned out that a lot of reporters were waiting outside the house I lived in back then. And that is something that can create extra challenges for the family. One thing is what I’m being exposed to, but it’s not good when it is the family. So I’m very glad they took those safety precautions but as a referee it feels a bit much because you aren’t used to that type of reactions afterwards. But as I said, it was good it was there. When you get back home and all the reporters stand outside your house, do you go right inside? No the rules from UEFA at least, back when I was a referee, states that you cannot talk to media about the game you’ve done. Now it’s not a problem because I’m not refereeing anymore but if I was still active, I couldn’t talk about it. So I didn’t go home, I went to another place instead.

I: How did it affect you?

T: As a father it isn’t nice, but at the same time you are prepared that you, as a referee, won’t be a popular man. A lot of people hate you and think you are a big idiot. So you’ve learned to live with that whether it’s Chelsea fans, Valerenga fans, Barcelona fan or Bayern Munich fans, many people will have strong antipathy towards you and hate you. So it was something that I, in many ways, was used to but the pressure was bigger this time.

I: I don’t think I can remember a more debated game than this one, so I think that it must have been a tremendous pressure?

T: Yes, but then I also thought that this game shouldn’t be the one that defined me as a referee. As I said, I’ve refereed for 10 years in the Champions League and 25 years before then on a pretty high level. So it isn’t that game that gets to define me. So it was important for me to start again with a new football game. So already the week after, I refereed a new game in Tippeligaen here in Norway.

I: You’ve been named Referee of the Year in Norway five times and yet, it is probably the game between Chelsea and Barcelona that people will remember you for. What do you think about that that is your legacy as a referee?

T: I’m totally fine with that. I think it’s pretty natural, as it was the semi-final in the Champions League. Before that, I had three semi finales in the UEFA Cup. I’ve refereed a quarter final in the UEFA CL and been in final as the fourth official – had many fine matches. And obviously when there Is so much attention and so many controversies in a match like that, it’s natural that there will get a lot of attention and people don’t’ really follow the referees until they screw up but because there were so many situations, it’s understandable that people will remember me from that game. But from my own perspective, I don’t let that one game define my career as a referee. It helps define it, but there is so much more to it than during all the years I’ve refereed that get to define my career as a referee.

I: But it is that game that people will probably remember you for. Isn’t that annoying?

T: No I don’t find it annoying, I’m fine with it.

I: You’re fine with it?

T: Yes, now I can use those that example and those experiences when I do talks as a psychologist for instance. It shows how short the distance is between heaven and hell. Also how to handle the pressure from international media and failure, which we all do every now and then. Whether it’s on the football field, on the job, in school, or whatever it may be, it happens that we fail. So I think that it Is an experience that, in many ways, has made me more reflective and has been useful in many ways.

I: Do you feel that your career as a referee ended after that game?

T: No, not that it ended but, obviously, it was a very hard blow. I had this feeling after the game “now the World cup (2010) is gone”. But I still found football funny even though this happened. So I decided to keep on refereeing and in the fall of 2009, I didn’t get the toughest games in the CL but during the fall it went well and I also got better games in 2010.

I: Again, doesn’t it annoy you that most football supporters remember you for that game, instead of the fact that you have been named referee of the year in Norway five times, or refereed tons of games in Tippeligaen or in the CL?

T: But did you expect that a Chelsea fan in Copehnhagen should keep track of who got named the referee of the year in Norway? Not me. I‘m fine with people remembering me for this game. I usually say that it is better to be harassed than overlooked. It’s completely fine that people remember me for that. As I said, it’s now what defines me. I’m so much else. I’m a dad, I’m a friend, a boyfriend I’m more than being the referee in a semi final. So what the people remember me for isn’t that important. I wish that I was better in that game and refereed like a God. Unfortunately, it didn’t go like that, but it’s up to people to decide what they will remember me for, I don’t want to spend a lot of time on that.

I: Looking back, would you rather have refreed another match?

T: No absolutely not, think about how many people that’d want to participate in a Champions League semi final. If you would receive the offer to play a semi final for Chelsea would you have said yes or no?

I: I would probably say yes.

T: Also if you would have played poorly in that SF, it would probably still have been a great experience been in it. So I will never wish not to have refereed the game. But I f I had the opportunity, there were things that I would have done differently. But as the Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard says, life is lived forwards and understood backwards. So it’s easy to sit here now and be hesitant and point out this situation or that situation, but when you stand in it with hat pressure and have to make a sharp decision, there is a risk that you might be wrong and you’ll have to live with that. Then you can say it was stupid, or you should have done it differently. But you won’t get the chance again. And that’s what is fascinating about being a referee, taking immediate decisions and standing by them.

I: Looking at it from the outside, it seemed that the whole world of football hated you. At least Chelsea fans all over the globe. How did you process that hatred from so many people?

T: After a match like that there are, of course, some days when you bother a bit and think “Why didn’t I do this or that?” and on top of that I received both mails and texts from Chelsea fans expressing their hatred towards me and wishing me and my family dead and wanting to kill me. But again, that is part of being a referee. People are committed, and that is both good and bad. Sometimes it becomes too much, but it isn’t something that affects me too much. It was something that went on out there. I chose not to read paper as much and not follow social media as closely which wasn’t so common back then because it wasn’t so widespread so for me, it wasn’t a big problem. And then, we cannot forget that I also got support –not for my refereeing but people told me “we know, you are a good referee, get back in the saddle.” So it was a bit nuanced. Even tough around 90% were hate messages and “Tom should die”, so there was a bit of support and that was mostly from Chelsea fans.

I: Just to receive death threats, or messages where people wish you and your family dead – how could you that not affect you?

T: I’m not saying it didn’t affect me, but I was fine with it. Because I think that those types of messages say more about the sender than me. I can’t let it define me and if you, as a Chelsea fan, send me a message saying you want me and my family dead. Then it says more about you than me. And I think it’s important to put the responsibility where it belongs. All right, I refereed poorly in a game, but there are limits to what I have to listen to. So I think it defines the sender more than me. I didn’t take it very close.

I: How often do you think about the game between Chelsea and Barcelona?

T: Today, not so often. For me it’s history. After all, it is almost nine years ago. I think it’s fascinating that it still causes some interest and at the same time I use some of the experiences I got from the game I work as a psychologist. When I do talks or work with people, it happens that I use examples from that game in connection to different themes but I don’t think about the game anymore. Football fans remind me of it. It is, as you say, the game people remember me for. So when I meet people that can remember me for my career as a referee, they remind me of it. But in my everyday life, I don’t think so much about it.

I: When it got announced that Chelsea and Barcelona will meet again in February I saw several people that wrote “Don’t give us a referee like Ovrebo.”

T: Yes yes, that is understandable that you want a better refree this time. But we’ll see. I’m sure that the referee that will take charge of the game is well-educated and will do well and then it’s fascinating that you never know – there could be an episode or two that can be defining for the match and that is part of being a referee.

I: Last question. We talked about it earlier and you said that you’d rather not give your opinion about the game but will you say how many penalties there were?

T: No, I think others can do that. Some will say there was one, some will say there were five and some will say there were ten. Therefore, I think it’s up to the individual to deicide and then if you ask a Chelsea fan the person will probably give you a different answer than the Barcelona supporter. But that there was a penalty, I think most people that know the rules can agree on. And then I’m not sure if there are as many as Chelsea wanted. But it’s up for the individual to count. Another thing is that it’s not a certainty that you would have scored. You don’t know. So as Kierkegaard said: Life is lived forwards and understood backwards. I should have done something about those decisions but back then there wasn’t any video technology, so the referee just gotta stand for it and then you’d better discuss it in the future. So the discussion of law to continue living out there.

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