World Cup referee Yuichi Nishimura has shrugged off the controversy that surrounded his decision to award Brazil a penalty in the tournament’s opening game, but admitted that being a referee is no easy task. Nishimura made global headlines for all the wrong reasons following his performance in Brazil’s June 12 opener against Croatia in Sao Paulo, where he gave the hosts a second-half penalty with the score at 1-1 after ruling that Croatian defender Dejan Lovren had pulled down Brazilian striker Fred in the box. Neymar duly converted from the spot as Brazil went on to claim a 3-1 win, leaving Nishimura to face the fury of the beaten Croatians and millions of irate fans worldwide. Croatia manager Niko Kovac branded Nishimura’s performance “shameful,” while his players went as far as to claim that the referee could not communicate in English and spoke instead to them in Japanese. But Nishimura, who became the first Japanese referee to take charge of a World Cup opening game, played down the furor as he faced the media in Tokyo on Thursday, insisting that criticism is simply part of the job.
“There were a lot of different opinions, but we were prepared for that,” Nishimura, flanked by the two other members of his refereeing team, Toshiyuki Nagi and Toru Sagara, told reporters at the Japan Football Association’s headquarters on Thursday. “Lots of people told me that they agreed with my decision and I appreciated that. Other people told me that I was wrong and I accept that. The most important thing is that I made a clear decision from the best vantage point and that I trusted my own judgement.” Nishimura’s decision sparked such anger among Croatian fans that a group of supporters harassed the referee and his assistants after spotting them at an airport in Rio de Janeiro a week later. “At the airport there was a group of volunteers holding up a placard with our names on it, so we were easily recognized,” Nishimura said with a smile. “We weren’t roughed up or anything like that, but there are people like that. The security people moved in quickly to protect us.” Nishimura laughed off the Croatian players’ claim that he could not speak English, and stuck by his decision to award the penalty for Lovren’s foul. "I spoke English on the pitch," he said. "Those I spoke to understood me. I just refereed the way I always do. It was the kind of decision that I make all the time,” he said. “The thing you are looking for is whether it is simulation or whether the defender is holding the striker. The striker receives the ball and takes a step to shoot. I think the defender misjudges the situation. He thinks the striker is going to stop and hold the ball up, so he puts his hand on him. If the striker hadn’t moved to shoot, I don’t think the defender would have done that.” Nishimura pointed to the fact that he and his team made FIFA’s shortlist to referee the final as evidence of how highly their work in Brazil was valued, but acknowledged that the tournament had not always been easy. “There were a lot of harsh opinions but also a lot of kind words of encouragement,” said Nishimura. “Being a referee is very difficult.”
For fans of Japan's J-League, however, Nishimura is a polarising figure with a reputation for awarding dubious penalties and he has been in scrapes at international tournaments before. At the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, Nishimura was shoved by Angola 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 misguided revenge by vandalising a Chinese restaurant in their country.