There’s nothing quite like those balmy Tuesday and Wednesday nights, when the lights shine brightest and the sweetest anthem the world over booms out on tannoy systems all over Europe. The Champions League is that illustrious stage that everybody wants not only to stand on, but assume a protagonist’s role – or an antagonist’s role, as some prefer. At any rate, the unrivaled beauty of Europe’s elite competition captures the hearts and minds of the football community like no other, the cup with the big ears being the ultimate dream this side of the Jules Rimet Trophy.
But football is contentious business by nature, and even the all-encompassing glow of the Champions League can wash out the looming potential for dispute. Everybody ends up on the losing side of the argument – whether habitual perpetrator or supposed victim – being burned by fate is the nature of the game. Dodgy penalties, questionable dismissals, incomprehensible refereeing performances and a lack of morality are all part of what makes the world go round, like it or not. And the jewel that is the Champions League isn’t insulated from it all – hell, controversy is an undeniable part of what makes the game so alluring to begin with.
The sting of it can be as sharp as a Jose Mourinho quip, and rest assured the divisive Portuguese hasn’t been far away from plenty of the most notorious incidents to take place on the European platform down the years. Relevant domestic match fixing, anger-inducing disqualification and a particularly well-known natural gas company have all factored into the mix as there’s been no shortage of bones to pick since the European Cup was supplanted by its successor in 1992.
Join us as we count down the top 15 controversies in Champions League history.
15 Celtic's Italian Job
Celtic Park is meant to be a fortress, and nothing angers the Celtic faithful more than seeing their Bhoys taken to task on home turf – especially when they feel justice hasn’t been done. The Champions League sees a clash of styles coming from different nations around Europe, where officials treat incidents differently, something players become accustomed to. Such was the case when Juventus traveled to Glasgow to face Rangers in the round of 16 in 2013, with the Bianconeri bringing their rather rough methods of defending set-pieces to Scotland with them. The Italian giants ran out 3-0 winners as Celtic weren’t equipped to deal with their physicality, and Neil Lennon wasn’t impressed with what he saw, according to BBC.com. Lennon railed on Spanish referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco after the game, accusing Juventus of playing rugby instead of football. Midfielder Kris Commons was similarly angered, saying the goal line official should’ve been out of a job for failing to award Celtic a penalty.
14 Markovic the Red
— Lazar Markovic (@LMarkec50) February 17, 2015
Lazar Markovic arrived at Liverpool over the summer boasting the dubious distinction of once having been shown a red card without being on the pitch. The Serbian missed Benfica’s Europa League final defeat to Sevilla last term after being dismissed from the bench in the semi-finals against Juventus in relation to a touchline brawl. It seems he earned himself a reputation. In December. Markovic was sent packing as Liverpool crashed out of the Champions League in their final group stage game against Basel, arguably harshly. As he sprinted away from Behrang Safari in the 1-0 loss at Anfield, Markvoic outstretched his right arm and briefly caught the Swede in the face. Brendan Rodgers was incensed, and the clip was replayed countless times on television over the weeks that followed. UEFA have since judged that the 20-year-old was guilty of violent conduct, handing him a four-game suspension from European competition that doesn’t seem to be befitting of the crime. Typically Markovic would be shelved for three games under such circumstances, but received a bonus ban due to his actions against Juventus last year.
13 Gazprom Under Fire
Fossil fuels never fail to get people fired up one way or another, and natural gas has stood at the heart of Champions League controversy over the past few years. Anybody acquainted with Europe’s elite competition is well aware of Gazprom, the Moscow-headquartered natural gas giant majority-owned by the Russian government – and a chief partner of the Champions League. The company also serves as Schalke’s shirt sponsor, leveling conflict of interest claims when the club competes in Europe. A former Sporting CP director alleged in November that the Portuguese side were doomed to defeat against Schalke by a dubious penalty due to influence of “Russian mafia,” an overt reference to the connection between club and company, according to Goal.com. It wasn’t the first time Gazprom had landed in hot water in reference to the Champions League – Basel fans protested the company when Schalke visited St Jakob-Park in October 2013, and fincancial backing provided to Chelsea and Zenit Saint Petersburg has also ruffled feathers.
12 Luiz Adriano's Unfair Play
Fair play is a central tenet of football, no? Well, in November 2012, it certainly looked as if Shakhtar Donetsk’s Luiz Adriano missed the memo. With the Ukrainian side trailing 1-0 to Nordsjaelland, an injury stoppage occurred and the Danish minnows put the ball out of play in customary fashion. Willian followed suit by attempting to return possession to Nordsjaelland when play resumed – only for Adriano to latch onto the ball, round the goalkeeper and deposit into an empty net. The furious Danes went on to lose 5-2 as Adriano completed a hat-trick on the night. UEFA would later ban the Brazilian for one match due to his lack of discretion, and embarrassed Shakhtar coach Mircea Lucescu went so far as to publicly apologize for Adriano’s dishonorable act.
11 Van Persie Deafened by Barcelona
Arsenal seemingly win two pieces of silverware each year – the fourth place trophy in the Premier League and the round of 16 cup in the Champions League. Well, neither are actually trophies, but the Gunners’ predictable finishing positions in both competitions have become something of a household joke in football circles. Four straight times Arsenal have fallen at the first hurdle in the knockouts of Europe’s elite competition, the first elimination of the current streak coming under controversial circumstances. Arsene Wenger’s men were on top 3-2 on aggregate in the second leg against Barcelona in March 2011, a Sergio Busquets own goal having handed them the advantage just after the half-time break. A few moments later, it all went sour. Sitting on a yellow card, Robin van Persie continued playing after being called for offside. Referee Massimo Busacca took offense and promptly booked the Dutchman, sending him off for an early shower. Van Persie vehemently protested, insisting that he hadn’t heard the whistle amid the noise from the capacity crowd at the Camp Nou. Xavi and Lionel Messi then did the business to doom the 10-man Gunners, with Wenger calling Buscacca’s decision “embarrassing” in the aftermath of the match, according to The Guardian.
10 Mourinho Begins
Once upon a time, Jose Mourinho wasn’t the most notorious manager in football. His rise came due in part to a well-known Champions League tilt with Manchester United, which cemented his early legacy in his final season at Porto. Mourinho’s Dragao side dealt United a 2-1 defeat in the first leg of their 2004 round of 16 meeting in Portugal, in which Roy Keane was sent packing and Porto came back from a deficit to win 2-1. But the Red Devils looked to be on their way to turning around their fortunes after going ahead early in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford via Paul Scholes. Then it all fell apart. Scholes hit the back of the net yet again but the effort was incorrectly chalked off for offside, setting the stage for late drama. Costinha beat Tim Howard in the dying throes of the match to send Mourinho bounding down the touchline in a fit a joy and propel Porto to the quarter-finals. The Portuguese giants would go on to win the competition, with Mourinho leaving his homeland for Chelsea just days after beating Monaco 3-0 in the final.
9 Nani Sent Marching
Even hell hath no fury like that of a wronged Sir Alex Ferguson, and the former Manchester United manager was left fuming after elimination at the hands of Real Madrid in March 2013. The Red Devils led 2-1 on aggregate at the midway point of the second leg of their quarter-final tie with the Spanish giants when an infamous red card was produced. Nani went in with a high boot looking to control the ball in the 56th minute, but got a foot full of Alvaro Arbeloa instead – earning him marching orders from referee Cuneyt Cakir. Real Madrid seized the initiative against 10-man United and turned things around with a pair of strikes from Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo in front of a stunned Old Trafford. Ferguson and his squad raged that the decision had changed the complexion of the game, arguing that Nani had lacked malicious intent and had eyes only for the ball. Cakir’s call remains a point of discussion to this day, often cited whenever a controversial sending-off occurs with respect to dangerous play.
8 Barcelona's Unconventional Penalty
There’s no shortage of Barcelona detractors quick to note that referees are quick to blow the whistle when opponents don’t handle figures in Blaugrana shirts with care. Just ask the mighty Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a man with a particular axe to grind considering the lack of fulfillment he felt during his stint at the Camp Nou. The Swede raged after his Milan were sent crashing out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals in April 2012, due in part to a questionable penalty being awarded to Barcelona. Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers pointed to the spot after Alessandro Nesta grabbed hold of Sergio Busquets’ shirt in anticipation of a corner kick, the Italian in turn being impeded by Carles Puyol. The scores level 1-1 at the time, Lionel Messi stepped up to put Barca on top from 12 yards, adding another later on to book a place in the semi-finals 3-1 on aggregate. Milan protested Kuipers’ decision vehemently in the aftermath of the contest, with many claiming that the official had defied the laws of the game in awarding a penalty when the ball was not in play.
7 Celtic’s Two Bites of the Cherry
As Legia Warsaw were wrapping up an aggregate 6-1 pounding of Celtic in the third qualifying round back in early August, Bartosz Bereszynski trotted out from the bench to see out the final few minutes of the second leg at 2-0. His manager would regret fielding him. Later on it would surface that Bereszynski had been ineligible to compete, seeing Celtic handed a 3-0 walkover, sending them through 4-4 on away goals. Legia lost a subsequent appeal with UEFA and watched from home as Celtic were effectively eliminated from the Champions League a second time in the play-off round by Slovenian minnows Maribor. The Polish outfit then proceeded to troll the fallen Scots on Twitter via their official account, while incredulous Legia fans staged a massive protest with a provocative banner in the stands prior to their Europa League play-off round encounter with Aktobe in late August.
6 Marseille Match Fixing
The city of Marseille long had something to prove to its capital cousin Paris – and under the guidance of Bernard Tapie, the port city found supremacy over the City of Lights via football. L’OM became the dominant force in France with Tapie at the controls, boasting stars the likes of Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps, Rudi Voller and Abedi Pele. In the 1992-93 campaign, the club found itself closing in on a fifth straight domestic title and reached the inaugural Champions League final. Raymond Goethals’ men emerged victorious over Fabio Capello’s legendary AC Milan side – but just days later a firestorm erupted. Tapie was found to have used general manager Jean-Pierre Bernes and midfielder Jean-Jacques Eydelie in an attempt to bribe three Valenciennes players. As Marseille faced Valenciennes in the fixture directly before the crucial final with Milan, Tapie wanted to both keep L’OM’s course to the French crown intact and his players in peak shape to do battle in Europe. Marseille were allowed to retain their continental title but forfeited Le Championnat, forcibly relegated as Tapie was eventually imprisoned for his indiscretions. A 1997 judicial report implicated Tapie for defrauding European matches, while Bernes stated that “four to five matches were the object of illegal dealings” per season.
5 Marseille Match Fixing Part Two
The 1997 report that linked Bernard Tapie to match fixing in European competition may well have been founded, according to revelations made by former Rangers striker Mark Hateley. The Englishman claimed that he was offered a large sum of money by a French-speaking agent to sit out Rangers’ second group stage match against Marseille. The game had broad implications on who would make the final, as the two clubs were level on points at the top of Group A at the time. Hateley was suspended anyway after being sent off in Rangers’ previous encounter with Club Brugge on match day four. Over in France, Marseille had boosted their goal difference in a 6-0 hammering of CSKA Moscow, with the manager of the Russian side implying there had been foul play leading to the result. Marseille and Rangers ended up playing out a 1-1 draw, with the former reaching the final on match day six via a 1-0 win over Brugge as the latter stuttered to a stalemate with CSKA.
4 Jose is the Chief, According to Pep
Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are men who stand at odds in many respects, the former an exponent of free-flowing football while the latter has built his success on a strong defensive foundation. The pair spent a number of years going head-to-head during their Barcelona and Real Madrid days, during which time Mourinho claimed the 2011 Copa del Rey at Guardiola’s expense in late April. Just days later the two were slated to meet once again in the Champions League semi-finals, and the Portuguese took the opportunity to engage in his trademark psychological warfare. Mourinho slated his rival in his pre-game press conference for criticizing the referee from the Copa del Rey final, who had disallowed a Pedro goal in Real Madrid’s 1-0 victory after extra time. Guardiola fired back with an expletive-laced rant in addressing the media, calling Mourinho “the f****** chief” among other things. The Spaniard insisted that his players wouldn’t be more motivated for the Champions League clash by the row between coaches. Perhaps they indeed were, as Guardiola’s Blaugrana knocked out their bitter rivals 3-1 on aggregate and went on to win the competition by taking down Manchester United in the final.
3 Busquets Wins a Golden Globe
Sergio Busquets is a beloved figure at the Camp Nou, but isn’t necessarily held in such high regard elsewhere. The Spaniard has become renowned for his skills in the dark arts of simulation, with one incident in particular standing out. In the 2010 Champions League semi-final between Barcelona and Inter, the Blaugrana found themselves in a 3-1 hole after suffering defeat at San Siro in the first leg of the tie. Things weren’t going much better in the opening stages of the reverse fixture for Barca, when Busquets took matters into his own hands. The midfielder received a hand in the face from Thiago Motta as the Nerazzurri man looked to bring the ball under his control, throwing himself to the floor as if struck by a wrecking ball. Motta was sent off, with Busquets bringing himself into disrepute when cameras caught him pulling his hands away from his face – as he purported to writhe in pain on the ground – to check whether referee Franck De Bleeckere had taken the bait. Inter doled out their own bit of justice by holding strong and winning the tie 3-2 as a crucial Bojan Krkic goal was waved off by De Bleeckere.
2 Luis Garcia's Ghost Goal
Jose Mourinho has been a longtime proponent of goal line technology, a sentiment largely linked to a particularly memorable Champions League tie back in 2005. The Portuguese’s Chelsea side came away from the first leg of their semi-finals date with Liverpool with only a scoreless draw, leaving them in a precarious position heading into the return fixture at Anfield. The Blues’ nightmares came true just a few minutes after the opening whistle, when Luis Garcia struck to put Liverpool on top 1-0, with no goals to follow for the remainder of the match. Chelsea were aggrieved. It appeared that William Gallas had cleared the ball before Garcia’s effort had made its way across the line, but Sovakian referee Lubos Michel pointed to the center circle and allowed the strike to stand. Mourinho dubbed the incident a “ghost goal,” according to The Guardian, after all was said and done, also saying it had “come from the moon” and that “the linesman scored.” The incident set up the famous ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ in the final to come, as Liverpool came back from 3-0 down against Milan to lift the trophy on penalties.
1 Drogba's Disgrace
Few images are as seared into the memories of football fans as a distraught Didier Drogba following Chelsea’s semi-finals exit at the hands of Barcelona in May 2009. The Blues successfully kept the Catalans at an arm’s length for entirety of the first leg at Camp Nou, earning a precious scoreless draw to take back to Stamford Bridge. Everything looked to be coming together for Chelsea back in west London when Michael Essien laced a long-range volley past Victor Valdes just nine minutes in. But referee Tom Henning Ovrebo continually waved off penalty shouts from the home side as the match progressed, with Barcelona’s Eric Abidal sent off just after the hour mark. Despite their repeated claims for a spot-kick falling on deaf ears, however, Chelsea looked in position to progress. Andres Iniesta brought it all crashing down with a 93rd minute equalizer, however, sending Barcelona through and Chelsea into revolt. Drogba needed to be restrained as he hurled abuse at Ovrebo as the referee headed back to the dressing rooms, turning to a television camera and shouting “this is a f****** disgrace” for the world to hear.
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