When justice takes a holiday
One of the great villains of Greek mythology was a gent called Procrustes who possessed an iron bed on which he invited his guests to sleep.
If they didn't fit the bed exactly, he would either stretch them out on the rack or cut off their legs until they did. The unfortunate guests normally snuffed it after this treatment which ended when the hero Theseus forced Procrustes to go through the same routine himself.
I thought of Procrustes last week as various sporting pundits tried to bend and alter the story of Arsenal's Champions League defeat by Barcelona so it would reflect maximum discredit on Arsene Wenger and his players. In doing so, they subjected the truth to the same kind of damage Procrustes used to inflict on his guests.
Because, while it must have been extremely enjoyable to once more ventilate the hallowed prejudices about Wenger being a wimp and Arsenal choking on the big occasion, the main point of Tuesday's match was missed in the process. The main point being that Arsenal were level 1-1 on the night and 3-2 ahead on aggregate when Robin van Persie was sent off in the 55th minute by Swiss referee Massimo Busacca.
The sending off, everyone agrees, was a ludicrous decision. Busacca gave van Persie his second yellow card of the game for kicking the ball away even though there was only a second between the whistle and the kick, the player probably hadn't heard the whistle anyway because of the noise in the Nou Camp and the Dutch striker was trying to get a shot in rather than booting the ball away aimlessly.
I'm at a disadvantage compared to many of the journalists who've heaped scorn on Wenger and his team as I don't possess the gifts of clairvoyance which enable them to confidently assert that Arsenal, 'would have lost anyway.' But from my, regrettably non-psychic, perspective the Gunners didn't seem to be doing too badly before Busacca screwed up. Lionel Messi had given Barca a 1-0 lead at half-time but, for all the home team's possession, the first half was notable for the lack of clearcut chances created by the Spanish champions.
At 1-1 and 3-2 Arsenal had every chance of progressing. Once van Persie departed, they hadn't a prayer. The match was fundamentally changed by that one decision and failing to recognise this is like asking Jackie Kennedy how she enjoyed her trip to Dallas apart from the bit in Dealey Plaza.
The Barcelona siege of the Arsenal goal only really commenced when the Gunners were down to ten men. And although it was repeated ad nauseam that Barcelona could have got five or six or seven, they didn't. They got three and scraped through by one goal. Had Nicholas Bendtner not fluffed a glorious chance with a couple of minutes left, they wouldn't even have done that. It was the kind of chance van Persie regularly puts away. Which is not to say that the chance would have fallen to him had he remained on the pitch. Because the salient point about Tuesday's game is that it would have been completely different had both teams been playing with a full complement for 90 minutes.
Arsenal actually showed a great deal of fortitude in the face of adversity. There isn't a team in Europe which could defend against Barcelona while a man short yet they did manage to hang on to the extent that Bendtner's miss mattered a great deal instead of being a meaningless postscript to a match lost long before. Those who flourish possession stats in an effort to prove that Arsenal were trounced forget that Barcelona usually have the lion's share of possession. They had it last year when they were knocked out of the same competition by Inter Milan.
Given that we can't really know how the game would have panned out but for the sending off, why the rush to lambast Wenger and his team? Some of it stems from laziness, the tropes of Wenger as complainer and Arsenal as losers hardened into comfortable cliché some time ago. It's easier to give them another run-out than to entertain the notion that the truth is a bit more complicated than that.
Some of it stems from the fact that Wenger has cried wolf too often in the past to the extent that his account with the bank of public sympathy is severely overdrawn. And Arsenal have bottled it severely in the past, their League Cup final defeat by Birmingham City was fresh in most people's minds when they took the field in the Nou Camp.
But perhaps it also has something to do with the belief, or perhaps more accurately the wish, that big games are trials of character which are won in the end by the team which best displays the quality John Giles often refers to as 'Moll Cudge' as though name-checking a female pickpocket from a Dickens novel.
It's a comforting idea that football matches, like Hollywood movies, have neat endings where goodness is rewarded and a logical shape imposed on the preceding narrative. But it's not always like that. Luck can play a huge part. And so can awful refereeing. In fact, this is the third year in a row that a big Champions League match involving Barcelona has been materially affected by the referee.
Two years ago, everyone rightly praised the quality of Barca's football to the hilt. But they would have been eliminated from the competition at the semi-final stage had Norwegian ref Tom Henning Ovrebo not failed to award Chelsea three clear penalties. Andres Iniesta's last-gasp winner at Stamford Bridge was marvellous but the game, and the tie, should have been over long before then. Last year Jose Mourinho received all the plaudits for masterminding Inter Milan's semi-final victory over the holders. Yet the goal which brought Inter through, the third in their 3-1 first leg win, scored
by Diego Milito, was clearly offside and in the same game Portuguese ref
Olegario Benquerenca also denied Barcelona an obvious penalty. You can talk all you want about 'good teams making their own luck' but the margins between the top teams in Europe are sufficiently tight for an incompetent referee to decide the outcome of a match.
Sometimes a terrible decision doesn't make that much difference. Germany would have beaten England even if Frank Lampard's goal had stood. And sometimes it changes everything, Thierry Henry's infamous handball may in the end be the moment which prevented Giovanni Trapattoni from being seen as the new Jack Charlton rather than a cross between Brian Kerr and the guy who used to sing 'shaddup ya face'.
C'est la vie. Goal-line technology wouldn't have made any difference on Tuesday night. You didn't need a computer to tell you that Massimo Busacca was making an atrocious decision. Yet make it he did. And until FIFA turn to infallibly programmed robot referees and linesmen, we'll have to put up with many more decisions of this ilk.
Only let's not pretend that justice is always done in football, any more than it's always done in life. There are times when Moll Cudge takes a holiday. Last week Arsene Wenger was both cheated on the pitch and slighted in the press. There have been few finer illustrations of Alexander Pope's line that, "when a true genius appears in this world you may know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in confederacy against him."
Sunday Indo Sport