TOKYO - Japanese football fans hung their heads in shame on Friday after referee Yuichi Nishimura's controversial performance in the World Cup opener helped Brazil to a 3-1 win over Croatia, further clouding FIFA's showpiece tournament.
Social media in Japan lit up after the official's decision to give a soft penalty to Brazil which changed the balance of the closely fought match. Several posts showed mocked-up photos of Nishimura wearing a Brazil jersey. "There's a lot of Nishimura bashing but quite right," tweeted shinokc. "That was not a penalty. Feel so sorry for Croatia."
Echoing the sentiments of Croatia's furious coach Niko Kovac, who claimed Nishimura, had been out of his depth, sanadamasayuki2 commented. "It's a tough job for us dithering Japanese." Anticipating further backlash, tonbuhin tweeted. "Oh dear, if Brazil win the World Cup the whole world will say Nishimura was the MVP (most valuable player)."
The 42-year-old Nishimura also disallowed a Croatian goal and should arguably have shown Brazilian star Neymar a straight red card for elbowing Luka Modric. He has been an international referee since 2004, and has officiated in several tournaments including the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
At the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, Nishimura was shoved by Angolan players during an ill-tempered quarter-final with Egypt but failed to send any of them off, and did not feature in the rest of the tournament. In 2010, Congolese fans incandescent at his performance in a Club World Cup game took rather misguided revenge by vandalising a Chinese restaurant in their country.
And although twice voted by the J-League as its referee of the year, he has long been controversial among Japanese fans, not least for his reputation for awarding dubious penalties. JAZUMAN deadpanned after the Brazil-Croatia match: "Premier League: no penalty, Serie A: no penalty, J-League: Oh, Nishimura!"
Fellow Japanese referee Masayoshi Okada was sent packing by FIFA after just one game of the 1998 World Cup, after England players reacted furiously to his invigilation of their 2-0 win over Tunisia. However, Nishimura's display is likely to linger longer in the memory, having significantly altered the momentum of the opening game.
It comes as further embarrassment for FIFA after months of public protests and strikes in Brazil, and with soccer's ruling body battling renewed allegations of corruption over its award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Japanese people felt pressure around the world on Friday, with chizurufgarcia in Argentina claiming she had been e-mailed by local reporters for comment on Nishimura.
Some took refuge in humour. Japanese fans were among more than 16,000 who retweeted Football Funnys account's "Man of the Match - The Referee". Mainstream media in Japan have so far steered clear of the controversy surrounding the World Cup opener, but the Nikkan Sports daily gave the match official a measure of support. "Referee Nishimura resolutely gives Brazil a penalty," it headlined. But Spurs Japan was resigned to a wave of criticism to come from the footballing fraternity, tweeting: "Japan's battle with the world has begun."