Friday night’s 3-2 win by Shonan Bellmare over Urawa Reds showcased everything great about the J. League, with the plucky underdogs winning in stoppage time to cap a dramatic comeback.
Unfortunately, it also saw one of the league’s biggest problems — inconsistent officiating — evolve from private shame to global embarrassment, following referee Yudai Yamamoto’s failure to award a clear goal scored by Bellmare’s Daiki Sugioka.
The league’s tendency to sweep bad decisions under the rug is familiar to those who have watched it for years. In the past, such plays — whether phantom offsides or uncalled fouls — were rarely discussed by commentators and never made the evening news.
Managers also toed the line to avoid fines, with foreign coaches often the most vocal about unfair decisions.
Only in recent years have more opportunities for dialog between clubs and referees been established, and one positive aspect of DAZN taking over J. League broadcasts is that commentators are willing to say — or at least imply strongly — that a call was incorrect.
Friday’s incident at Saitama Stadium left no room for ambiguity: Sugioka scored in the 31st minute, bouncing his shot from the edge of the penalty box off one post and into the opposite netting, which should have made the score 2-1 in favor of Urawa with an hour remaining.
League chairman Mitsuru Murai, sitting next to national team coach Hajime Moriyasu, saw it from the stands.
“When the referee makes an error, all we can do is look into ways to improve the quality of officiating decisions,” Murai told reporters after the match. “We need time to introduce video assistant referees (VAR) but we have to start discussing ways to bring in goal-line technology (GLT) faster.”
Urawa goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa, whose throw toward the center circle turned into a short-lived counterattack, knew it had gone in.
“I wasn’t trying to pass the ball, I was calling out to (my teammates) to stay focused after giving up the goal,” Nishikawa told reporters. “If I was in (Bellmare’s) position I would certainly be upset, and I hope the referees are disciplined.”
It would in fact seem that the only people who didn’t see a clear goal were Yamamoto, assistant referees Akihiro Kawasaki and Taku Nakano and fourth official Yukitaka Kumagai, none of whom were made available for comment.
In his column for Yahoo News, soccer journalist Hideto Shimizu criticized the officiating team for a lack of empathy.
“Even if (Yamamoto) didn’t see the goal, he should have been able to make the appropriate decision based on Nishikawa’s conduct,” wrote Shimizu. “He could have called over the assistant referees and fourth official to discuss the decision.”
Speaking on the weekly “J. League Judge Replay” show on Tuesday, league vice chairman Hiromi Hara said the situation required “bravery” from the officiating team.
“The players reacted so strongly because they had seen it hit the net,” Hara said. “(Yamamoto) needed to be brave enough to take the time to confirm what happened and to recognize that this wasn’t a normal incident.”
Bellmare manager Cho Kwi-jea, along with his coaching staff and players, weren’t the only ones left raging at the decision. As the team discussed whether to boycott the rest of the match at halftime, fans across the country saw the play after it was quickly uploaded to DAZN partner Goal’s official Twitter account. As of Wednesday, the clip had been viewed over 1.6 million times.
— Goal Japan (@GoalJP_Official) May 17, 2019
Bellmare mounted its spirited comeback in the second half, which featured a pair of Shunsuke Kikuchi goals topped with a Miki Yamane game-winner deep into stoppage time.
But the seaside club’s incredible resilience was lost in the shuffle as everyone focused on Sugioka’s goal that wasn’t.
“I don’t want this to end as a moving story. Bad calls are bad calls. It was a goal,” tweeted Bellmare midfielder Tsukasa Umesaki. “We need to improve things for the sake of our sport.
“As players we get punished for bad fouls, but I don’t believe there are many penalties for referees who blow calls, and that’s something that needs to be fixed.”
Such was the backlash by current players on social media that retired Kashima Antlers defender Daiki Iwamasa called for his colleagues to back off, igniting his own firestorm.
Iwamasa later clarified his remarks on his personal blog, explaining that while he was in favor of technological reform, he hoped to avoid a fractured relationship between the two sides.
“Players and referees don’t need to be enemies,” wrote Iwamasa. “They may look at a game from different perspectives, but our love of the sport and desire to create a good match are the same.
“Without mutual respect, (players and referees) will grow further apart . . . and that’s not how you build a good relationship.”
The Japan Football Association moved quickly, suspending Friday’s officiating team and declaring its intent to speed up the introduction of technology and other countermeasures to prevent similar incidents in the future. This may begin as early as August with the use of additional assistant referees on the goal lines, which have been trialed in past Levain Cups.
“Based on this incident, we want to approve AAR. The J. League and its clubs will have to make the decision, but surely nobody’s opposed to it,” said Yoshimi Ogawa, the head of the JFA’s refereeing committee, on Monday.
“This was a human error, but we’re not in a position to make excuses. We want to work with the J. League to be able to present attractive soccer.”