When Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura was announced as the head official of the opening game of the World Cup a few days ago, Brazil flipped its collective wig.
This country keeps an extensive footballing enemies list. Nishimura was a recent addition, having worked the quarter-final game at South Africa 2010 that saw a fancied Brazil side down to 10-man after a red card, succumbing meekly to the Dutch.
That wasn’t Nishimura’s fault. What happened in Thursday’s opening game of this tournament between the home nation and Croatia was. It should be tied to him like a professional scarlet letter. He should never again referee at this level.
Faced down by a country, Nishimura flinched. He allowed himself to be undone by the pressure of the situation. The closest comparison I can think of is Norwegian ref Christina Pedersen two years ago at the London Olympics, jobbing Canada out of the chance for a gold medal.
In the 70th minute of a gripping 1-1 game, Brazil’s Fred backed into the goalmouth. Croatian defender Dejan Lovren was a step behind him. As Fred attempted to swivel awkwardly with the ball at his feet, Lovren foolishly put a hand on his shoulder. There was no pulling, but Fred’s legs shot out from under him. Nishimura was in proper position. He rushed forward immediately, pointing to the spot.
That may be a foul at midfield. Maybe. It is never one inside the box.
“If that’s a penalty, we don’t need to play football any more,” Croatian manager Niko Kovac would say later, fairly vibrating with rage. “Let’s play basketball instead. It’s a shame.”
Inside the Arena Corinthians, even the Brazilian fans could hardly disguise their mischievous delight. They didn’t roar. They squealed. After a simulation so accomplished he could find part-time work training pilots, Fred got up grinning. He almost seemed abashed.
Neymar slotted the penalty. 2-1. With Croatia pressing and exhausted, Brazil would tally a third in the very late going. But amongst their many man-of-the-match candidates, Nishimura was the most influential.
Everyone comes out of this diminished. Brazil were the better team and deserved a decisive win. Instead, they’ll spend the next few days being ground to dust by a fidgety public wondering if they’re really any good. Croatia exposed them badly at times. Had they won it 2-1, we’d be calling them tough minded. Instead, they were lucky. They won’t play another team of real consequence until the knockout rounds. The general keening across the country will only get louder until then.
Croatia deserved the draw. At the best of the times, they’re the sort of team that wears disappointments like sackcloth. History suggests they will be emotionally undone by this one.
The game deserved better. Nishimura is only one of five officials here who worked the previous World Cup. How could he get it so wrong? There is only one explanation. He’d already decided – perhaps not consciously – that he owed Brazil the benefit of the doubt. He was overwhelmed by the situation, and he folded up. Like Kovac said, it’s a shame. Nishimura is a laurelled official with a long history in the game. But he wrote the first line of his obituary on Thursday night.
Most importantly, we deserved better – you and I. The first half of this game was more compelling than all but a half-dozen at the tournament four years ago. This was a tone setter. It will have been the one game every other team in the tournament sat down and watched together. Early on, they were seeing the bar rise on their own expectations.
By the end, they will have been reduced to the basest calculation. If Fred can sell that cheap con job to one of FIFA’s fair-haired boys, they may as well try their own luck. The only thing worse than earning a reputation as a cheat on the global stage is getting beaten by someone else who’s willing to give it a go.
On a macro level, this was the start the tournament needed. Early on Thursday, riot police and protestors were clashing across the country in small-scale violence. There’s little point to that now – the World Cup is here. The activists’ message will be drowned out for a month, unless Brazil blows it. Then it could spiral. More than in any previous tournament, the host country needed this win.
But on the micro level, this launches us on a terrible course. This encourages the worst sort of chicanery going forward. It unsettles the herd, and reduces the likelihood that they will pay any attention to the men who keep the game reasonable.
It raises a basic question you never want asked, and you certainly never want asked at this stage – are we playing on a level field? That is not to suggest a fix. It’s suggesting that even the very best referees in the world are not good enough to be trusted to do their jobs.