Japan 1 - 2 UAE
Japan began its quest for a spot at the 2018 World Cup on Thursday evening, and even before the contest kicked off, there was an ominous sense that this was going to be a long and uncomfortable evening. Perhaps some people are just too optimistic, or too unfamiliar with geography and world history to be surprised or get annoyed when they hear that the officiating team for a match against the UAE hails from Qatar. For those of you who have no interest in the history of the Middle East, and dont have time to Google it, the UAE and Qatar are essentially the same country. It was essentially the same thing as appointing a ref from Hong Kong to officiate a match between China and Iran, or a Puerto Rican official to oversee a contest between the US and Russia. Sadly, the foreboding this writer felt as soon as the principals were introduced was only the first gust of wind from a typhoon of trouble
-Shusaku Nishikawa; Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Masato Morishige, Gotoku Sakai; Ryota Oshima (Genki Haraguchi 75'), Makoto Hasebe; Hiroshi Kiyotake (Takashi Usami 62'), Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda; Shinji Okazaki (Takuma Asano 66')
It hardly seems worth the effort to go into any detail about the content of this match. No amount of apoplectic ranting can alter the fact that Japan received no points from the result, and even a 1000-word detailed account would almost certainly leave out some of the factors that made this match impossible to stomach. Global media reports mainly focused on the disallowed goal which Takuma Asano scored about 20 minutes before the contest concluded. This call alone would be sufficient reason for Japan to formally protest the result. However, it was only the most blatant of the many (deliberate) "errors" made by the officiating team.
Both goals were created out of thin air, as the referee called fouls against Japan that are simply impossible to see on a video replay. In both cases there was enough theatrics on the part of the UAE player involved to make the call look bad, and many referees (particularly those in leading leagues in Europe and South America) might have even been inclined to award a yellow card for simulation. At the opposite end there were at least two and perhaps as many as five incidents in the UAE penalty box that a competent ref might have seen as PK-worthy fouls. The blatant two-handed shove on Takashi Usami as he tried to dribble in from the left flank was only the most egregious of these non-calls. The display of grassrolling in the second half was also difficult to swallow, even for those who have seen it a hundred times before. Once again this raised questions about the officials' "neutrality". Although YouTube visitors can confirm for themselves that the UAE goalkeeper stopped play for nearly 3:20 of total elapsed time, by feigning injury, and there were numerous other stoppages in addition to the six substitutions, only four minutes of additional time were awarded. Guess they dont make stopwatches like they used to . . .
The REAL problem, though, is that you have all heard this refrain before. We already KNOW that AFC referees are corrupt, and they frequently make efforts to fix a result. That isnt an opinion -- it is a fact that can be confirmed by any one of the seven (and still counting...) former AFC-licensed referees who are currently serving time in prison. Drawing attention to the problem simply doesnt work. We already KNOW that it doesnt help to post videos on YouTube to "expose" the behaviour. Been there. . . . . Done that.
The only way that these problems are ever going to be resolved is if Japan (and hopefully a few other like-minded countries) draws the line, and says "that's it! No more!" With all the video evidence at its disposal, it would be simple for the JFA to build a case for effective, punitive action, whether through the far-from-reliable dispute mechanisms of FIFA itself, or perhaps more appropriately, through the Court of Arbitration for Sport. At a minimum, Japan needs to insist that all of its future FIFA-sanctioned matches are officiated by a competent team from UEFA or CONMEBOL. Until AFC referees can demonstrate a minimal level of competence and impartiality, they have no business controlling the fate of the Japan National Team in international competitions.
On a longer-term basis, the JFA needs to begin aggressively pursuing a "divorce" from the Nexus of Corruption that currently oversees Asian football. An East-West split in the Asian Confederation has been mooted in the past; now it is time to make it happen. As a last resort, Japan might withdraw from the AFC and join Oceania. The nations of the Pacific are geographically as close to, if not closer than the nations of West Asia, and with the proper organizational support (not only from Japan but potentially from Australia as well as existing member New Zealand) there is every reason to believe that the OFC could do a better job of overseeing a confederation than the current top leadership of the AFC has done.
One only need look at the sports headlines to see examples of why Japan needs to distance itself from the AFC. Though that organization has made a big bluster in recent months, insisting that it has a "no-tolerance policy on corruption", one only has to watch a replay of the Japan-UAE contest to put lie to that silly conceit. If the AFC really is cleaing up its act, then why do the same problems occur every four years?
Yes . . . that was a rhetorical question.