Soccer | From the Spot

J. League embraces discussion of controversy

by Dan Orlowitz

Knowledge is not always power, but a little communication can go a long way.

That’s perhaps the biggest takeaway from last Saturday’s game between Yokohama F. Marinos and Urawa Reds, where an outside source of information gave Teruhito Nakagawa a somewhat undeserved goal in the hosts’ 3-1 win.

While the goal itself — and the minutes of chaos that followed — will not be remembered as notoriously as Daiki Sugioka’s famous “phantom goal” for Shonan Bellmare in May, it became yet another arrow in the quiver of those arguing for the introduction of video assistant referees.

Much of the aftermath could likely have been avoided with more proactive communication on the part of the officials.

We know all of this because of “J. League Judge Replay,” the weekly program streamed on DAZN and YouTube that features league and Japan Football Association officials dissecting each round’s controversial decisions.

It’s arguably among the best content the league has produced in the last decade, and perhaps beyond that.

Tuesday’s episode dedicated nearly 17 of its 28 minutes to Saturday’s incident, with MC and commentator Keiji Hirahata joined by J. League vice chairman Hiromi Hara, Japan Football Association referee committee member Toru Kamikawa, and retired FC Tokyo midfielder Naohiro Ishikawa.

Through their discussion, aided by replay footage and an experimental imaging system showing each referee’s field of vision, emerged a clearer picture of what went down on Saturday at Nissan Stadium.

What fans watching on DAZN knew — but the referees couldn’t see definitively — was that Nakagawa was offside when Keita Endo sent his cross from the left flank.

What happened in front of the goal was even more uncertain. If Nakagawa touched the ball he would have been offside, but had his marker — Urawa Reds midfielder Tomoya Ugajin — gotten to the ball first, Nakagawa may not have been considered offside and the goal would have counted as an own goal in Yokohama’s favor.

As the officiating team struggled to determine what had just taken place, word came to fourth official Hirokazu Otsubo from staffers in charge of compiling the official match record that Nakagawa had been tentatively awarded the goal.

This knowledge, had the referees come to it on their own, would have been enough to overturn the goal as offside. And initially, that’s what referee Hajime Matsuo did.

But because the information came from an outside source — defined in this case as anything the referees did not see — it could not be considered when making an officiating decision.

Yokohama head coach Ange Postecoglou realized that quickly, and eventually the officials also figured it out. Knowing that their knowledge was forbidden, the refs did the only thing they could do — let the goal stand and explain the situation as best as they could to both managers and players.

It was an improvement from the acrimony which followed the Shonan-Urawa incident, but whatever was said on the pitch may not have been sufficient.

Urawa defender Tomoaki Makino recounted to a throng of reporters that he had been told by Matsuo that “the decision was made by the administrators,” a statement which raised the specter of league chairman Mitsuru Murai making a panicked phone call to the evening’s match commissioner.

If the managers were more satisfied than Makino with the explanation they received, neither was willing to say after the match: both Postecoglou and Reds boss Tsuyoshi Otsuki refused to discuss the specifics of their conversations with the officials.

It took two more days for “Judge Replay” to put everything into perspective, and now we know that while the initial decision to award the goal was incorrect, the decision to keep the goal was proper given the circumstances.

While it’s certainly an improvement over when such incidents were swept under the rug, there is a sense that the next step is for more proactive communication between the officials and the media, to reduce the possibility of comments such as Makino’s distorting the narrative.

As the league prepares to roll out additional goal-line referees — as well as VAR in the Levain Cup’s knockout stage — it may also want to consider the establishment of a referee pool reporter, similar to that used in Major League Soccer.

In that system, a designated reporter submits up to three questions and one follow-up question to the referees, who may respond either in writing or via interview.

It’s by no means perfect. Referees who for years have rarely had to answer to public criticism may chafe against being called upon to defend their decisions so quickly after the match.

But if “Judge Replay” has proven anything, it’s that the J. League no longer needs to fear dialog regarding the decisions of the officials. Quite the opposite, in fact — the show has not only diffused some of the tension between players and officials, but helped educate fans on the finer rules of the game.

Three members of the officiating team were handed suspensions on Wednesday, illustrating the gravity of the incident. But at the very least, it’s a positive step that these controversies are no longer being resolved in the shadows.