Referees are rarely out of the spotlight in the J. League, but the recent rain-abandoned game between Kashima Antlers and Kawasaki Frontale has turned up the glare.
Intense scrutiny followed Masayoshi Okada’s decision to call off the Sept. 12 top-of-the-table match with only 15 minutes to go, highlighting the enormous pressure officials are under with every action reverberating throughout the league.
To lend a guiding hand to the men in the middle, the Japan Football Association has looked overseas to appoint a top referee instructor with a mission to aid the development of officials throughout the country.
If staying calm while all around are losing their head is a crucial requirement, the JFA has made a good choice in Alan Wilkie.
Despite his decades of experience in the English game, Wilkie will be forever remembered as the referee who sent off Manchester United’s Eric Cantona against Crystal Palace on Jan. 25, 1995, just seconds before the French star launched a flying kick at a home fan that stunned the world.
Wilkie’s new role may not offer quite the same adrenaline rush, but after three months on the job he is already identifying areas for improvement.
“I think the thing that needs to be worked upon most is the relationship between players and referees,” he said at the JFA’s headquarters last week. “At the moment we have players, and we have referees. Quality football has players and referees working together.
“The first thing we need to work on is how to deal with communication between referee and player. There has to be a realization that the referee is a big part of the game. It’s basically engaging in conversation.”
Wilkie believes the hectic pace of the J. League is partly to blame.
“A referee will make a decision, give a yellow card, then the game is restarted before he puts his card away,” he said. “That’s not good practice. Good practice is stop, talk, then card.
“My target is to slow the game down a little bit so that people can realize that discipline has taken place, there is a reason for the discipline, and there is a warning that it should not happen again. If I blow the whistle and don’t tell you what the foul is for, you don’t know.”
Given the sheer number of fouls J. League referees call, it is perhaps no surprise they are so eager to restart the game quickly. The merest hint of physical contact often results in a free kick, something Wilkie believes needs to change.
“There is far too much overreaction to physical contact,” he said. “Players go down as if they are dead, they get a 30-second breather and then miraculously recover. The game of football is a contact sport. If you take the contact away, it loses its attractiveness.
“The English game is becoming very aggressive and needs to be lessened, and I think the target should be somewhere in between. It disappoints me the number of soft free kicks that are awarded in Japan.”
A league in which referees are quick to punish physical play can become a fertile breeding ground for diving, something that Wilkie believes will “scar” the game if allowed to go unchecked. Spotting the difference between real and fake, however, can be tricky.
“We need to be able to get the referees to recognize the content of a challenge,” he said. “The outcome of a challenge is really a secondary thing. We need to get the referees to recognize whether the challenge is careless, reckless or fair. That’s the fundamental thing about refereeing.
“I’ve seen Cristiano Ronaldo, and if you think he runs fast on TV, go and see him live. (Naohiro) Ishikawa of FC Tokyo is slow compared to Ronaldo. He has a massive frame moving very fast, so a touch and he can go to the ground. The object the referee has to look for is the contact.”
There was certainly contact the night that Cantona flew feet first into the Selhurst Park crowd. Recalling one of the most infamous moments in the game’s history, however, Wilkie admits he did not even see it.
“I was completely oblivious as to what was going on until there were no players around me,” he said. “It all happened within 45 seconds, but it seemed like two hours. The players were all blocking my view, and then of course they saw what had happened so I was left there.
“I still didn’t know what had happened until after the game. When I saw it I couldn’t believe it. I was interviewed twice by the police, and twice I said that I didn’t see anything.”
Wilkie opposes the use of technology to aid or overrule the referee, arguing that it is the human touch that makes the game so special.
It also leaves the referee’s judgment open to criticism, but in the biggest game of the season at Kashima Stadium two weeks ago, Wilkie believes Okada made the right decision.
“He was spot on, completely correct,” he said. “It was dangerous for the players. The only consideration that the referee should have is the safety of the players.”