By Cesare Polenghi
At 30 years old and after more than a decade as a professional, he still plays every game as if his life depended upon it. He is one of the best strikers in the history of Japanese football, with more than 100 goals in the J-League’s first division. Although he’s never won a title, he has become a symbol of Sanfrecce Hiroshima, respected by supporters across the country. His colleagues admire him to the point that they have picked him to represent them, as president of the Japanese Professional Football Players Association. Truly, few embody the role of poster boy for the J-League as well as Hisato Sato.
It is thus symptomatic of a growing problem that Sato himself leveled a very direct critique toward the Japanese football establishment. It happened after a disgraceful performance by referee Takuto Okabe in the Nabisco Cup game between Cerezo Osaka and Sanfrecce, after the home team won the match thanks to a penalty call that was dodgy at best.
"We are in the same football community. We players play as professionals but some of the referees are not; that's the difference"
- Hisato Sato
Sato’s comments showed a decidedly un-Japanese lack of restraint: "The referee committed huge mistakes, it was rather crazy and an incredibly bad way to end the match. We are in the same football community. We players play as professionals but some of the referees are not; that's the difference. There is an atmosphere in which it is taboo to disagree with the referee, but shouldn’t be a legitimate right for the players to ask them for explanations [during the match]? I hope the league will think about it and that the referees can begin to control the matches with a little more sense of responsibility."
The league did indeed consider the matter, and decided that this must be solved in a very traditional way: with Sato lowering his head and writing an official letter of apology. After all he has done for Japanese football, my sympathy for him is equal only to my puzzlement at this so-called resolution.
I’ve repeatedly said in the past that I admire the J-League for the fantastic job they have done over the last 20 years. But I believe that in this case, they are making a huge mistake in trying to censor a player guilty of no more than expressing his opinion.
"We always say that in Japan we want the level of the game to improve, but we never direct questions toward the standard of refereeing here"
It’s no secret that the level of the referees in Japan and in Asia is in need of improvement, and this has been reiterated by several Japanese players who had the chance to play in Europe. In a recent interview with the Daily Yomiuri, Sato’s former team-mate and national team player Tomoaki Makino expressed his concerns: “We always say that in Japan we want the level of the game to improve, but we never direct questions toward the standard of refereeing here. That has to improve, too."
This problem is indeed in need of discussion, and Sato’s honest outburst is a great chance for the league, the players, the referees, the media and even supporters to start an open dialogue. Everyone involved must realise that for Japanese and Asian football to gain more credibility on the international stage, we also need an improvement in the level of officiating.
If I may be allowed a philosophical digression, I believe that football, the most popular game on our planet, should be a beacon of freedom that represents the best of humanity, including the right to speak freely and even criticise.
"Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things"
- Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill, the former British Prime Minister who also happened to be a savvy football observer, once said that “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
Can anyone disagree?
I hope that after this episode, everybody who loves football in Japan will understand that it is time to start openly discussing this and other problems, just as other footballing cultures are capable of doing around the world. And I believe we should all be thankful to Sato for his honesty and courage in bringing up the matter.