SUITA, OSAKA PREF. – The Kashima Antlers have always found a way to get the job done, which is why they have 18 pieces of silverware stocked in their trophy case and on Wednesday, the eight-time J. League champions added another accolade by becoming the first Asian side to reach the Club World Cup final.
But for all its wisdom and experience, not even Kashima could have predicted the turn of events in the 3-0 win against South American champion Atletico Nacional — a first-half penalty being awarded by the video assistant referee system being tested at this Club World Cup.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” Antlers center-half Naomichi Ueda said of the incident on the half-hour. “It was good they caught the foul and gave us a penalty for it, but we were saying out on the pitch that we had to be careful because we were being watched.”
Referee Viktor Kassai stopped play when video assistant referee Danny Makkelie informed him about a missed foul on a free kick a couple of minutes earlier. Antlers’ Daigo Nishi was tripped in the box by Orlando Berrio, which Kassai was able to confirm on the pitch-side monitor.
Nishi was thought to have been offside by some, but was not in position to contest the ball. Kassai pointed to the spot, handing Kashima the penalty, which Shoma Doi converted, and it proved decisive in sending Antlers to Sunday’s final against either Real Madrid or Club America, who were scheduled to meet Thursday night in Yokohama.
FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, hailed the replay system, deeming the trial a success.
“This is the first-ever live trial with video assistant referees at a FIFA competition, so this is something that is new for everyone — especially to see the referee run to the video replay area at the side of the field,” FIFA’s chief referee Massimo Busacca said in a statement.
“In the incident tonight, the communication between the referee and the video assistant referee was clear, the technology worked well, and ultimately the final decision was taken by the referee, which will always be the case since the VARs are only there to support.”
Making their tournament debut here, Antlers’ march to Sunday’s final at Nissan Stadium in Yokohama is bound to spark debate, as anything new introduced will do.
The video replay drew mixed responses from the Kashima and Nacional camps. Nacional coach Reinaldo Rueda said his team was “victims” of the new technology, while Antlers manager Masatada Ishii was not totally convinced, despite the victory.
“I’m not so sure about the way it disrupts the flow of play, especially if it happens more than once,” Ishii said. “I think it would be best if we can get the decisions right without breaking up the game. We need to come up with a solution of some kind.”
Nishi, on the other hand, felt justice was served.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as coincidence. There are reasons behind the results,” he said.
It remains to be seen which team Kashima will face in the final, although European champion Real is tipped as the heavy favorite over America.
“It doesn’t matter who we play. We haven’t won anything yet,” Nishi said. “But I think it’s fitting Kashima Antlers were the first Asian team to get to the final.”