Inevitably, Werder Bremen lost yesterday's UEFA Cup final to Shakhtar Donetsk. I'm not belittling the Ukrainian club, which deserved its win. It was better than Bremen. That is to say, Shakhtar was better than Bremen without Diego.
Diego's absence was always going to hurt Bremen -- his six goals, several of them quite remarkable efforts, were the most important factor in getting the club to the final. Without him, Bremen was simply not good enough. Had he been there -- well, who knows?
The point is that Diego was not there and it was his own fault. He had collected three yellow cards during Bremen's seven-game path to the final, and the UEFA rules are quite clear: after that third card, you miss the next game.
Diego's third yellow came in the second game of the semifinal against Hamburg, so he missed the final. Next week we shall see the Champions League final, and there will be key players missing from that one through suspension. Manchester United's Darren Fletcher sits it out because he was red-carded in the semifinal game against Arsenal. For Barcelona, Carles Puyol and Dani Alves are out because they accumulated three yellows.
Adding all four cases together, we get a total of 10 cards. I saw Fletcher's red, I saw the final yellows to Diego, Puyol and Alves, and I have no objection to any of them. The other six yellows, I don't know about. But they raise a doubt, one that in no way helps to reconcile me to the idea of a climactic final without its stars.
Until a couple of years back, I would have unquestioningly accepted that the referees had got it right, and that was that. These days, I'm not so sure. What has happened to alter my mind set on this is the diving witch hunt.
This is a comparatively new call for referees, but it is one that they have gleefully welcomed, egged on by repeated calls from FIFA urging them to clamp down on the cheats.
As a way of stamping out diving, this witch hunt -- which absurdly ignores the thuggish tackles that are largely responsible for diving -- has never seemed either rational or practical to me.
Because of my doubts, I have paid particularly close attention to all the diving calls that I have seen, mostly on TV where they can be replayed. And I say without the slightest hesitation that the majority of them -- perhaps as many as 75 percent of them -- are flat out wrong.
Far too often the call is an invention of the referee or -- much worse -- it is used by the referee to cover the fact that he is refusing to call a penalty kick. In short, it is a hopelessly unreliable call on which to base disciplinary proceedings. Which is exactly what one would expect -- since when has it made sense to rely on the justice of accusations made as part of a witch hunt?
I'm not sure if the six yellows that will help to keep Alvez and Puyol off the field next week include any for diving. But the point I'm making can rest very securely on the case of a player who will play in the final, but who might well have been banned because of an incorrect diving call.
None other than Lionel Messi. Yes, we could quite easily have had the climactic game of the European season without Barca's major star -- thanks to an atrocious piece of refereeing from England's Howard Webb. In the Barca vs. Bayern Munich quarterfinal, Webb ducked a penalty kick call against Bayern defender Christian Lell for tripping Messi -- and instead gave Messi a yellow for diving. A terrible call -- you don't really need the replays for this one.
As Messi already had one yellow from an earlier game, it meant that he now had to play three more games -- the return against Bayern and the home-and-home series with Chelsea -- with the threat of a third yellow looming and consequent banishment from the final, if Barca got that far.
It is quite possible that Messi's strangely quiet performances against Chelsea may have had something to do with his perilous position.
No thanks to the inept Webb, we shall have the pleasure of watching Messi in the final. But with witch-hunting referees like Webb inventing yellow cards, the three-yellows-and-you're-out regulation needs a rethink. At the very least, UEFA should agree to re-visit cards and change the decisions if they are both palpably wrong and drastically affect a player's disciplinary record in the tournament.