The referee is never the most popular person on a soccer pitch, but the man in charge of Tuesday’s J. League clash between Oita Trinita and FC Tokyo certainly didn’t do himself any favors.

Yuichi Nishimura, a full-time, FIFA-level official, allegedly told Oita player Taikai Uemoto to “die” as the defender remonstrated over one of Nishimura’s decisions.

The JFA’s disciplinary committee is currently investigating the matter, and Nishimura will be in big trouble if he is indeed judged to have used those words.

For anyone who has watched frenzied players and managers hurling obscenities at the referee for 90 minutes solid, the initial reaction might be a satisfied chuckle at the man in black finally getting some payback.

In England last year, referee Danny McDermid was acquitted of claims that he aimed a few choice words at then-Leeds United manager Dennis Wise at the end of a stormy match with Gillingham.

Wise, once banned for breaking a teammate’s jaw, is not the type of character who garners much sympathy, and few soccer fans would have complained had McDermid actually given him a taste of his own medicine.

But such action from an official would be absolutely unacceptable, and the Nishimura incident highlights a series of controversial refereeing performances that have punctuated this year’s J. League season.

First there was the Xerox Super Cup, the traditional season-opener at Tokyo’s National Stadium.

The match between Kashima Antlers and Sanfrecce Hiroshima descended into farce when referee Masaaki Iemoto ordered three penalties to be retaken, sent off three players and dished out an additional seven yellow cards.

Iemoto was ordered to take a “cooling-off period” of unspecified length, after the referee’s committee condemned his handling of the match despite fundamentally supporting his decisions according to the letter of the law.

Then, last month, referee Ryuji Sato sent off three Kyoto Sanga players and their manager, Hisashi Kato, in their game against Albirex Niigata.

At first glance, both Iemoto and Sato were in the wrong. The knee-jerk reaction in soccer is always to blame the referee when a match gets feisty.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter chipped in his two cents at the last World Cup when Russian referee Valentin Ivanov sent off four players and booked seven more in a second-round match between Portugal and the Netherlands.

Blatter suggested there “could have been a yellow card for the referee,” but Ivanov was only trying to control two disgraceful sets of players hell-bent on maiming each other from the first whistle.

The rules must be enforced to ensure the game is fair.

Iemoto was lambasted for ordering the penalties to be retaken in the Xerox Cup shootout, but if a goalkeeper moves off his line before the kick is taken, the referee is entitled to ask the player to take it again.

The 2005 Champions League final is best remembered for Liverpool’s rousing come-from-behind win, but the infringements of goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek in the shootout went woefully unpunished.

Japanese referees can certainly not be accused of failing to apply the rules, but there is more to good refereeing than that.

An official must use his common sense to maintain the flow of a game, giving players a degree of leeway in certain situations. Soccer is not a game for robots, and there are times when the iron fist must make way for the velvet glove.

While Iemoto may have been technically correct in the Xerox Cup match, no one wants to see fussy nit-picking in a game intended to celebrate the start of the season.

One of the most telling comments of last season came when then-Nagoya Grampus manager Sef Vergoosen complained that injury time in J. League matches seems to be always set at three minutes, regardless of the ebb and flow of the 45 minutes that preceded it.

If Nishimura is found guilty of abusing the Oita defender, no one could accuse him of slavishly applying the rules to the detriment of enjoyment.

But it would also confirm the view that several Japanese referees have some way to go before they are worthy of the respect their position demands.

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YOKOHAMA F. MARINOS’ courtship of Celtic’s Shunsuke Nakamura may be nothing more than sowing the seeds for a deal far off in the distant future, but there would be a devilish irony if the midfielder decided to return to Nissan Stadium sooner than the Scottish club would like.

Celtic has shown scant respect for Japanese soccer, sending a sour-faced team for a money-making fixture against Marinos in the summer of 2006, and grumbling whenever Nakamura is required to travel to play for his country.

Celtic has no such problem when it comes to milking the Japanese market for all it’s worth, so the sudden repatriation of the man who has done so much to elevate the club’s standing in the Champions League would be unlikely to cause many tears to be shed on these shores.

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