Soccer / J. League | J. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Mixed results from VAR's Levain Cup debut

by Dan Orlowitz

STAFF WRITER

The video assistant referee (VAR) has made its J. League debut, but there’s still much to be done before the system is ready for the big time.

After over a year of offline testing, VAR was used in the quarterfinals of the J. League YBC Levain Cup this past week.

VAR’s implementation arrived with plenty of anticipation after a string of controversial officiating decisions made headlines this year.

So far, the results are mixed.

Kei Chinen recorded the first goal confirmed by VAR on Sept. 4 when he was judged onside for Shintaro Kurumaya’s deep pass forward at Todoroki Stadium.

The first reversed goal in the competition also took place that night at Panasonic Stadium Suita, where Gamba Osaka’s Leo Takai had his 2-0 goal against FC Tokyo called back for not having completely crossed the line.

“It was a good decision. (The referees) were prepared and did well,” J. League vice chairman Hiromi Hara said of the Takai reversal, while also noting that the review was made without the use of a goal-line camera. “The cost is an issue, but we need to make (video review) clearer so we’ll keep trying things out.”

Meanwhile, Urawa Reds were left steaming on Sunday after Kashima Antlers defender Bueno’s late takedown of Kenyu Sugimoto in the penalty area — a play that could have resulted in a series-tying penalty chance.

“That’s the kind of situation VAR is supposed to cover,” grumbled several Reds players after the game, according to Nikkan Sports.

In his Monday column for Goal.com, Hara described a sequence in Sunday’s second-leg match between Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Consadole Sapporo in which referee Koichiro Fukushima paused for two minutes to listen to the VAR official via earpiece.

Bemoaning the lack of information displayed on Edion Stadium’s scoreboard and the resulting confusion among the supporters, Hara wrote that VAR “needs to be easily understandable by fans at the stadium” and promised further reforms.

Those reforms may need to come quickly, as NHK on Tuesday said that the league is preparing to introduce VAR in the first division in 2020, one year earlier than planned.

Also on Tuesday, Nikkan reported that VAR is expected to make its Olympic debut next year in Tokyo. As part of those tests, the system will be used during the Jan. 1 Emperor’s Cup final at the new National Stadium.

Zelvia rebellion

Rebrandings are often a controversial subject in sports, as fans argue over what’s gained — or lost — from a break from uniform tradition, a revised emblem, or even a renaming.

In recent years, clubs such as Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and Iwate Grulla Morioka have added home prefectures to their names in order to expand their footprint and appeal to a broader geographic area.

But Machida Zelvia’s potential rebrand under new owner CyberAgent has drawn outcry from supporters fiercely protective of their hometown pride for a city so far removed from downtown Tokyo that it’s jokingly referred to as part of Kanagawa Prefecture.

On Sept. 3, four August trademark applications by CyberAgent became public two weeks after submission. They included the name “FC Machida Tokyo,” an emblem, a stylized logo resembling a bird’s head, and an illustration of a potential mascot.

Internet sleuths soon discovered that a number of related domain names, including fcmachida-tokyo.com and fcmachida.tokyo, are no longer available for purchase.

The discovery comes nearly a year after CyberAgent made a similar application for “Tokyo Machida FC,” soon after the media agency purchased a majority share in the club.

Zelvia wouldn’t be the first club to align itself more broadly with the metropolis — the fourth-tier Japan Football League’s Yokogawa Musashino was reborn as Tokyo Musashino City in 2016.

But supporters clearly believe that such an action would run counter to Machida’s proud history as a vibrant soccer town.

Beginning with the formation of the FC Machida Training Center in 1977, Machida was the first city in Japan to establish a youth development pyramid, choosing to go its own way rather than become the hometown of All Nippon Airways SC (later the J. League’s Yokohama Flugels) in 1992.

Following Zelvia’s 1-1 draw at Omiya Ardija on Saturday, fans held up a banner reading: “Dear (Zelvia president Takehisa) Otomo, do you understand what we’ve accomplished with this club name and emblem?”

If such a rebranding was to occur, it would be the league’s most significant since Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani swapped Vissel Kobe’s black and white stripes for the crimson of Harvard Business School, his alma mater.

International flavor

The J1 welcomed two players with senior international experience to its ranks on Monday, with both going to teams in desperate need of a boost in the last nine rounds of the season.

Gamba Osaka signed one-time Spain midfielder Markel Susaeta, who made over 500 competitive appearances for Atletico Bilbao over the last 12 seasons.

Meanwhile, 17th-place Matsumoto Yamaga, who are four points behind Vegalta Sendai in 15th, have brought on Guinea-Bissau striker Isma. The 28-year-old, who grew up in Portugal, has a journeyman’s resume featuring clubs across Europe and West Asia including Nice, APOEL, Heart of Midlothian, and Esteghlal.