It is hard to deny that Barcelona deserved to win their semi-final encounter against Milan. The Catalans looked comfortable during most parts of the match, with a larger share of ball possession and more attempts on goal than Milan.
Milan’s possession on the ball was relatively minimal and ineffective, and the Italian champions only recorded a sole attempt at the opposition’s goal.
Although one would rather not jump on the bandwagon of critics—whose accusations often stem from their loathing of the seemingly unstoppable European champions—Barcelona’s home victory over Milan was not void of refereeing controversies.
Referee Bjorn Kuipers’ decision to award the first penalty, with which Lionel Messi canceled out Antonio Nocerino’s opener, was anything but a clear call. It is hard not to see that as the major turning point of the match.
But the official’s verdict on the second penalty was even more contentious.
Things like Milan defender Alessandro Nesta’s apparent tug of Sergio Busquets’ shirt happen in every match. But they certainly do not warrant a penalty decision—especially given that Barcelona captain Carles Puyol pushed Nesta to the ground.
The main issue, however, is not that Barcelona has advanced to the semi-finals of the Champions League while making the most of controversial refereeing decisions.
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Rather, it is the European champions' recently-adopted culture of complaint that is the real source for concern.
In the first leg of the encounter, Barcelona’s players and coaching staff bemoaned the refereeing decisions, saying that the official did not award the team obvious spot-kicks.
Puyol said that referee Joan Eriksson did not want to award Barcelona a penalty at San Siro, referring to an incident where his shirt was pulled as he tried to head the ball.
Goalkeeper Victor Valdés also sounded his disappointment with the standard of refereeing in the 0-0 draw against Milan, saying that he is tired of apparent refereeing mistakes aimed against his club.
Barcelona’s players and coaching staff alike have been vocal in their disappointment over a perceived bias against them by match officials.
Airing their criticism of officials' performances seems to be neither coincidental nor spontaneous.
The Spanish champions have been piling the pressure on referees, and in doing so they have been influencing the referees’ decisions.
As Milan gathered momentum in the early minutes of the second half, Zlatan Ibrahimović was fouled in the penalty area. The Camp Nou faithful held their breaths but the referee waved play on.
And there were more controversial incidents as well.
Dani Alves was lucky to escape without a yellow card, having continuously pushed the Milan players who attacked on the left flank. On the other hand, Javier Mascherano’s late tackle from behind on Robinho may have merited a straight red card.
These incidents do not point to any conspiracy though.
Neither did Barcelona pay the referee nor does their manager Pep Guardiola have ties with the linesmen. The fact is that refereeing errors do happen, and no one should nag about them too much.
But Barcelona’s obsession with adding to their already packed trophy cabinet has made many of the Catalan fans blind to the simple fact that referees might commit game-changing errors which may benefit—or cost—any club.
Simply put, Barca would do anything to win. “Anything” ranges from faking injuries and encircling the referee to influence his decisions to demanding protection for stars who the Spanish side deem worthy of special treatment.
When they beat José Mourinho’s Real Madrid, the Barcelona staff seemed the perfect sportsmen while Mourinho came off as a sore loser.
However, the true colors of the “sportsmen” in the blue-and-red striped shirts were unveiled as they began to lose their grip on La Liga.
And though they could not top Mourinho’s allusions to Barcelona’s links with UNICEF and its influence on refereeing, the club’s players and staff have proved to be sore losers themselves.
But with Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique worthy of Oscar nominations for their latest on-field blockbusters, Barcelona should be the last club talking about refereeing errors.
This article was first published in the LAU Tribune.