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With the completion of the J. League first stage on Aug. 17, two foreign referees returned home to Europe, having made an impact on Japanese soccer officials.

Knud Erik Fisker of Denmark and Lucilio Cardoso Cartez Baptista of Portugal were the 38th and 39th refs to have been invited by the J. League to come over here and officiate in league games as part of an educational project that the J. League has run in an attempt to improve the standard of Japanese referees since its inaugural season in 1993.

Fisker and Baptista refereed in eight and seven J1 games, respectively, which, with the notable exception of Leslie Mottram who officiated here for six seasons, was more or less the same number of games as their predecessors. What was different however was the number of yellow and red cards they issued.

Fisker booked a total of 33 players, sent off five players and awarded 11 penalties, while Baptista issued 39 yellow cards, handed out five red cards and blew up for six penalties.

On July 27, Fisker awarded five penalties in one game, between Jubilo Iwata and JEF United. A Japanese soccer expert who attended the game said that all five calls were justified.

According to the J. League, Fisker only awarded two penalties over the course of the entire season last year in the Danish League. Asked why he had made more penalty calls in Japan, Fisker was quoted as saying, “Because they were cases for penalties.”

The average number of bookings over one stage from 1998 to the first stage of last season was 3.6 cards per game. It went up slightly to 4.02 in the second stage of last season, and increased to 4.64 in the first stage of the current season.

This increase is a reflection of the guidelines issued by the J. League, rather than a direct consequence of the cards issued by the two foreign referees. This year, referees were told to clamp down on diving, holding and time-wasting and in the games I attended in the first stage, most of the refs seemed to be following the new guidelines.

But some J. League team officials complained that Fisker and Baptista were too harsh.

One J1 club coach voiced his frustration, saying, “Do they (foreign referees) know they are here in Japan?” — implying that they should adjust their style to that of Japan.

But that doesn’t sound right. If foreign refs are forced to lower their standards when they are in Japan the game here will never improve.

Some other J1 club coaches recognize this, saying they are concerned with the level of the Japanese referees and their poor judgment and the effect it has on the outcome of the games.

J. League chairman Masaru Suzuki said, “I don’t see any problems (with the foreign refs). If there was a problem it was the confusion that arose as a result of the gap between their standard and that of the Japanese referees.”

Suzuki continued, “But it is the Japanese referees who should improve to the level of their foreign counterparts, not the other way round.”

According to Suzuki, Fisker and Baptista pointed out that Japanese players were far more prone to diving than players in Europe.

“The problem with Japanese refs is that they do not recognize this form of cheating as they are not experienced enough,” Suzuki said. “Fisker and Baptista said to me that the level of Japanese referees is low and they need more experience handling tougher games. But we don’t have so many tough games here, which is a problem.”

In the past the only competitive games in the J. League involved Jubilo Iwata and the Kashima Antlers.

This season, however, the number of such games has risen as a result of the improvement in teams such as Yokohama F. Marinos, Gamba Osaka and Nagoya Grampus Eight and the second stage will also see teams dwelling at the bottom of the table battle out do-or-die games as they try to escape from the threat of relegation.

This past spring, the J. League and the Japan Football Association launched the so-called Special Referees system, as a way professionalizing Japanese referees, and the two organizations are hoping to have more SRs in the near future.

At present the two SRs — World Cup refs Toru Kamikawa and Masayoshi Okada — are closely watched and trained by JFA chief referee instructor Mottram. The Scotsman also gives lectures and instructions to other Japanese refs, as he tries to bridge the gap between the foreign referees and the local officials.

But the system is still new and it will take time before we can see an improvement in Japanese refs, who must willing to make a change.

Although the J. League has invited a number of referees from abroad, we still see Japanese referees who cannot or refuse to communicate with the players in a game.

When a ref calls a foul and a player asks why, a typical Japanese old-fashioned style ref puts his finger to his lips, gesturing to the player to keep quiet instead of telling him what was wrong in a friendly manner as Mottram and other foreign refs often do.

The problem, according to Mottram, is increased by the fact that Japanese refs are often discouraged by their seniors not to copy the style of Mottram or the other foreign officials.

If that is the case, what is the point in inviting foreign refs to officiate in J. League games?

Japanese refs shouldn’t hesitate copying good technique and using it in their game, and the JFA — the national governing body — should be prepared to do whatever it can to improve the game.

An open-minded attitude will be the best and quickest remedy for improving the standard of referees in Japan.

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