Under normal circumstances, the Japan Football Association would prefer that its referees be conductors, blending into the background and occasionally providing a guiding whistle as the players take center stage.
But after a 2019 season that saw match officials thrust into the national spotlight, 2020 will see them take an even more central role as the J. League prepares to introduce video assistant referees (VARs), one of the sport’s biggest additions in the modern era, into its first division.
VAR has had mixed success in leagues where it has been introduced, with its rocky implementation in the English Premier League — especially the infamous line used to judge offside calls — coming under particularly intense criticism.
While VAR use in the knockout stage of last year’s Levain Cup as well as the J1 Playoff final was planned, the decision to implement video replay in the top flight was accelerated by the “phantom goal” that took place during the May 17 game between the Urawa Reds and Shonan Bellmare, in which Daiki Sugioka’s score for Shonan was missed entirely by referee Yudai Yamamoto and his assistants.
The non-goal, as well as Bellmare’s improbable comeback to win 3-2, became a viral sensation, drawing national headlines as well as a nearly half-hour discussion on the weekly “Judge Replay” review show. While an initial proposal to add goal-line referees from August was not implemented, VAR’s arrival was earmarked not for 2021 as some had expected, but instead this year.
As the JFA has prepared VARs and their assistants (AVARs) for action, it has also taken time to explain the new technology to Japan’s soccer media, who will play an important role in educating fans whose previous exposure to video review may have been limited to overseas leagues.
The latest such briefing took place on Thursday, with JFA officials as well as eight of its referees discussing VAR as well as changes to officiating standards for the upcoming campaign.
“VAR will help the referees,” said Ryuji Sato, one of Japan’s veteran international referees. “There have been a lot of cases where VAR would have helped me a lot in my decision-making.
With a mantra of “minimum interference, maximum benefit,” one thing VAR won’t be bringing to the J1 — at least for this season — is the three-dimensional plane used in Premier League broadcasts used to judge whether or not shoulders, heads or knees are over the line.
Instead, two-dimensional lines can be placed over footage from certain camera positions, allowing officials to see where players are positioned at the time the ball is hit but leaving edge cases open to interpretation.
Unlike in last year’s VAR usage by the J. League and JFA, video from the pitchside booth will be shown to fans inside the stadium. However, audio communication between the VAR and on-pitch teams will remain private.
“Video replay will affect our calls, but our job as referees is to get in the right position to make the right calls,” Sato said. “Without VAR that’s what we’ve done our best to do, and with VAR that won’t change.”
Although VAR is sure to draw headlines, officials discussed what could potentially be an even more significant change to J. League officiating on Thursday — the encouragement of contact play, with the expectation that fewer whistles will be blown when a player takes a tumble.
“The trouble is, some players feel the contact and fall over because they know a referee will give a foul, But the contact was not enough to cause the fall,” said Ray Olivier, vice chairman of the JFA’s Referee Committee. “It’s not simulation, (but) it’s not a foul.”
Citing the Premier League’s 2018-19 average of 20.9 fouls per game compared to the J. League’s 28-30, Olivier’s message to players was clear: Stay on your feet.
“We want attackers to stay on their feet and try to win a free kick or a penalty kick. Providing the contact is fair, legal and safe, they will continue to play,” he said.
“When we introduced this in the Premier League in 2012, it took half a season for players to understand and eventually it became normal,” he said. “The players don’t look for the PK, they’re looking to continue to play.”
While the change is sure to take time to be implemented evenly across officiating teams, the result should be more of the open and entertaining soccer that gave the J1 its highest-ever attendance in 2019.
“It’s a small change, but getting everyone to go along with this is a big challenge,” said Sato. “I don’t see this as a change in the rules. It’s just about adjusting our standards slightly and staying consistent throughout the season.”