In addition to Japan’s men’s soccer team suffering an upsetting loss in the first round of the World Cup, another disappointment occurred when a Japanese referee for the opening match between Brazil and Croatia, Yuichi Nishimura, made a controversial call.
The Croatian team, which tried to protest the call, alleged after the match that Nishimura did not speak English well. The entire country of Japan, always embarrassed at their low level of English ability, surely cringed in unison.
However, Nishimura has had plenty of experience at international matches, including the South African World Cup and London Olympics. He has been an international referee since 2004 and was voted the Asian Football Confederation’s referee of the year in 2012.
FIFA, the soccer association in charge of the World Cup, defended the call and made little further comment.
But what of Nishimura’s English?
The charge that he does not speak English sounds more like a common stereotype than a credible objection.
Only an English test score or an interview would put the rumors to rest, but that seems unlikely, and unnecessary.
If more experience, higher qualifications or perfect English were required for all referees, FIFA should have put that in place long ago. Soccer is not primarily a language-based sport, after all.
More troublesome is the allegation that Nishimura was not good enough to referee at the World Cup.
FIFA has perhaps used democratic considerations in addition to meritocratic ones when choosing referees. But having referees representing all parts of the globe makes good sense.
No matter what country a referee might have come from, many other past World Cup matches have been influenced by missed fouls, unfair penalties and hasty calls. Instead of joining in the criticism, Japanese fans at home can learn positive lessons from Nishimura.
Considering how soccer-mad Japan is, the number of Japanese referees is incredibly few compared with other countries. He is only the third Japanese referee to have officiated at World Cups.
Nishimura should be commended for doing what few other Japanese dare to do. He could have easily established his career inside Japan, making a good living speaking only Japanese and refereeing only Japanese soccer matches. However, he was confident and ambitious enough to leave the security and comfort of home for the international arena.
Nishimura’s taking a step outside should serve as inspiration rather than as a source of shame. Too few Japanese have the courage to step out into the world where one’s every decision is recorded on international television and watched — and re-watched — by millions of people around the world. Nishimura may have made a bad decision in that opening match, but he made an impressive decision about his life and career.