Protests put Asian refs on the spot

Protests put Asian refs on the spot

Seoul (AFP) – A rash of complaints about controversial decisions has put Asia’s football referees on the spot despite strenuous efforts to raise standards.

Japan and Thailand both lodged official protests after key decisions went against them in this month’s World Cup qualifiers, while standards are mixed at club level.

Japan were incensed after Takuma Asano’s shot crossed the line against the United Arab Emirates, but went unnoticed by Qatari ref Abdulrahman Al Jassim. They lost the game 2-1.

And Thailand complained when China’s Fu Ming awarded a penalty in the closing minutes of their qualifier against Saudi Arabia, which consigned them to a 1-0 defeat in Riyadh.

“The penalty was not our mistake. In fact, in the first half, we should have been awarded a penalty,” Thai coach Kiatisuk Senamuang told reporters.

Five days later, Saudi Arabia were trailing Iraq 1-0 until they were awarded penalties in the 81st and 87th minutes by Qatar’s Khamis Al Marri. They scored both to win 2-1.

Such controversies are hardly new to football, but they have raised fresh questions about refereeing standards as Asian football strives to match other regions.

Former Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi, who has also taken charge of clubs in Thailand and Japan, said referee selection was a sensitive area.

After Japan’s “ghost goal” in Saitama, Japanese fans on social media questioned whether the Arabic-speaking Qatari referee was biased in favour of the UAE.

“Assigning an official from an Arabic-speaking country close to the UAE in a game between Japan and UAE placed unnecessary pressure on the officiating team,” Ghotbi told AFP.

“Confederations can improve by assigning officials to matches to eliminate even a hint of influence or bias.”

Al Jassim was later criticised for disallowing an apparently legitimate goal for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors against Shanghai SIPG in the AFC Champions League quarter-finals.

However, the incident was quickly forgotten as Jeonbuk went on to win 5-0.

– ‘Arigato’ –

The Kuala Lumpur-based Asian Football Confederation refused to comment on individual referees. But it has been increasingly active in referee development and education, holding seminars and courses all over the continent.

Strides have been made. Ravshan Irmatov of Uzbekistan has taken charge of World Cup semi-finals and quarter-finals, and Iran’s Alireza Faghani officiated at the 2016 Rio Olympic gold medal match.

One high-profile outing didn’t go so well. In the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, Japan’s Yuichi Nishimura was roundly criticised when he gave Brazil a highly disputable penalty against Croatia.

After it put the misfiring hosts 2-1 up and on their way to a 3-1 win, Brazil’s O Globo newspaper gratefully ran the headline “Arigato” (“Thank you” in Japanese).

Later that year, Nishimura was again under fire when he turned down Al Hilal’s repeated penalty appeals in their AFC Champions League final defeat to Western Sydney Wanderers.

The Saudi club issued an angry statement alleging corruption and calling the game a “black spot in the history of Asian football” which had “looted the rights of an entire nation”.

In a continent which has endured a litany of match-fixing scandals, suspicions of corruption are never far away.

But Alfred Riedl, coach of Indonesia with spells in Vietnam, Laos, Palestine and Kuwait, said sometimes the quality of refereeing is simply not good enough.

“The standard of referees in Southeast Asia is simply not adequate and is often really bad,” Riedl told AFP.

“Everyone makes mistakes but too many times, the referees’ decisions are unknowable. In Indonesia there is still the same bad quality of refereeing as six years ago as referees are scared to make big decisions.”

Ghotbi said that while improvements have been made in Asian officiating, more could be done.

“Compared to… other continents, there are differences in judgement of referees, their management and interaction with players and coaches,” he said.

“Most judgement errors has to do with experience and understanding the context of the game… obviously, there is a longer history of professional football in other regions, and Asian football is trying to close the gap.”

China also complained about a disallowed goal in the 0-0 draw with Hong Kong in November which appeared to have torpedoed their World Cup qualifying campaign.

But, as is the way with such protests, the result was allowed to stand.

Japan must approach Thais with caution, says Ghotbi

Japan must approach Thais with caution, says Ghotbi

BANGKOK, Sept. 3, Kyodo

Japan must approach Thailand with caution and be wary of their crafty tactics in Tuesday’s Group B match in the final round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, says former Shimizu S-Pulse manager Afshin Ghotbi.

Japan have arrived in Bangkok bearing the emotional scars of a controversial 2-1 defeat at home United Arab Emirates on Thursday, while Thailand put up a brave fight before succumbing to a late penalty in a 1-0 defeat in their group opener away to Saudi Arabia.

Ghotbi, who has experience managing in Thailand at Premier League champions Buriram United, also believes Japan’s experience in major international competition will give them the edge, but says Thailand will not be easy to beat on their own turf.

“Thai players are generally technical, dynamic and physically and mentally strong. Due to the nature of Thai football, the Thai players also possess the gamesmanship qualities (ie. winning fouls, wasting time, etc.),” Ghotbi told Kyodo News by email.

“Everything is possible in international football. The gap continues to shrink between nations and the race for the World Cup is more exciting for the fans.”

“For all the teams competing for World Cup spots, the key will be taking maximum points at home. Thailand will be a difficult team to beat at home, and Japan must approach the game with caution,” the former Iran coach said.

Ghotbi said that one advantage the Thais do have is that the main players in their squad play for the same club side, Muanthong United FC, where former S-Pulse defender Naoaki Aoyama also plies his trade.

“The Thai national team lacks the experience at the global stage to compete with the best in Asia such as Japan. The majority of Japanese national team players compete in the European leagues, giving them an edge on many levels compared to the Thai players who compete in the Thai Premier League,” said the Iranian-American.

“One small advantage for the Thai national team may be that the main players are on the same club side Muanthong United FC, so they train and play together throughout the year.”

Soccer is the most popular sport in Thailand, but until a few years ago, there was a lot more interest in European soccer than the TPL and the national team, says Atsuo Ogura, international marketing and sales manager at TPL club Chonburi FC.

“European soccer is the most popular, the English Premier League and the (European) Champions League. It used to be that soccer news was 90 percent about the EPL and 10 percent about the TPL,” Ogura, the son of former Japan Football Association chief Junji Ogura, said.

“But there is more interest in the TPL and now it is about half and half. The national team is a cash cow business, the same as it is in Japan.”

Thailand striker Teerasil Dangda is the danger man that Japan must keep a watchful eye on, Ogura said.

“Teerasil plays for the same team as Aoyama and according to Aoyama he is on a different dimension in every department. He could more than hold his own even in the J-League,” Ogura said.

‘Iran ready to samba with Brazil’

‘Iran ready to samba with Brazil’

Brazil players take part in a training session at the Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi yesterday, ahead of their friendly against Iran. Robinho (second from left) said the players were looking to impress new coach Mano Menezes.

Abu Dhabi: Robinho, Dani Alves, Thiago Silva and Alex Pato are just a few of the big names set to step on the hallowed turf of Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi tonight at 9pm, when five times world champions Brazil take on Asian Cup hopefuls Iran in a much-anticipated friendly match.

Brazil will play in the famous yellow and blue, while Iran stick to their traditional all white kit in this important albeit academic battle of wits.

It’s only Brazilian coach Mano Menezes’ third game in charge since replacing Dunga, following a torrid World Cup campaign.

Brazil were one of the oldest squads in South Africa, but the experienced youth coach has already rung the changes with five new players in the squad including Elias, Wesley, Neto, Guliano and Mariano.

“All games are important, even friendly matches,” Robinho said yesterday. “We are ready to be the best and give a good impression of ourselves to the new coach. “For the Brazil team every game is important.” Meanwhile Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi, looks to this game to fire out salvoes ahead of the Asian Cup in Doha, Qatar, from January 7-29.

Ghotbi was thrown in at the deep end late last year, with three World Cup qualifiers left to get Team Melli to South Africa after Ali Daei’s dismissal. Although he didn’t pull off that task he is expected to lead Iran to Asian dominance. Having lost just one from thirteen games in 2010, things seem on target, but Brazil could disrupt that.

“Brazil are so good they expose all your weaknesses. But I’m 100 per cent my players will play better given the high motivation and pride at stake,” Ghotbi told Gulf News.

“This is an opportunity for us to play at the highest level and will be a good yardstick by which to measure our progress. We’ll take this chance to showcase ourselves and demonstrate that we’re not so far from the world’s top footballing sides,” Ghotbi added. Ghotbi also suggested that his players finding out about the Brazil friendly, while still in action at the final of the West Asian Football Championships in Jordan last week, probably disrupted their form in that competition, where they lost in the final to Kuwait 2-1.

“They suddenly started to look beyond the final and it was difficult to get them to re-focus.”

The Brazil game also hands an opportunity to Iran to bid farewell to stalwart Karim Bagheri who goes into international retirement following this exhibition match. Bagheri, a 36-year-old midfielder, will make his 87th appearance for Iran tonight.

Japanese Soccer, Hits an Unexpected Rough Spot

Japanese Soccer, Hits an Unexpected Rough Spot

Overshadowed by the Japan Football Association’s declaration 10 years ago that it wanted to win the World Cup by 2050 was another pledge that seemed more easily achievable: having the team ranked in the top 10 by 2015.

There is still plenty of time for the World Cup, but time is running out to meet that top-10 goal. Currently, Japan is ranked 53rd in the world by FIFA.

That ranking may be an unfair reflection on how strong the team actually is as it prepares for a friendly on Friday against Tunisia in Oita, Japan. But over the last few months, Japanese soccer has hit turbulence after a decade of relatively smooth and impressive growth.

Five years after establishing the professional J. League, the national team made its World Cup debut in 1998. Co-hosting the tournament with South Korea and reaching the second round in 2002 was another milestone. Japan arrived in Germany for the 2006 World Cup carrying high hopes as the Asian champion, but it never recovered after a dramatic 3-1 loss to Australia in the opening game. The tournament was, however, viewed as a valuable lesson on how mistakes get punished at the top level of international soccer.

Under the Japanese coach Takeshi Okada, the 2010 team made it to the knockout round as it recorded its first World Cup victories on foreign soil. It narrowly missed reaching the final eight in South Africa after losing a penalty shootout against Paraguay.

The experienced Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni took over in September 2010. After leading the team to the 2011 Asian Cup and strolling through qualification for the 2014 World Cup, there was talk of a quarterfinal finish in Brazil. Instead, the team flopped at the World Cup last year and collected just one point. After high expectations, it was a huge disappointment.

Critics talked of a talented but predictable team lacking a spark, along with the ability to impose its own style of play in tough conditions. “What Japan possesses in organization, hard work and discipline, it lacks in originality, identity and creativity,” said Afshin Ghotbi, the former national team coach of Iran and the manager of the J-League club Shimizu S-Pulse from 2011 to 2014. “Organization, discipline and hard work will only take you so far. Then you need innovation, and that is something still rare in Japanese football.”

In August, Japan appointed Javier Aguirre, the tough-talking two-time coach of Mexico, to succeed Zaccheroni. Aguirre talked of introducing “street smarts” to the technically polished Japanese team as it prepared for the 2018 World Cup. The 2015 Asian Cup was the first major test, but it ended with another disappointment as Japan exited at the quarterfinal stage at the hands of the United Arab Emirates. It was the team’s worst performance in the tournament since 1996.

In February, Japan fired Aguirre after he was implicated in a match-fixing scandal over his tenure as coach of the Spanish club Real Zaragoza in 2011. Vahid Halilhodzic of Bosnia was appointed coach in February, the third foreign boss in the span of nine months.

With the national team in an unusual state of flux, soccer fans in Japan have not found much comfort with the J-League, either. Its clubs are struggling in the Asian Champions League, the continent’s premier club competition.

After three rounds of the tournament’s group stage, three of the country’s four representatives have yet to win a game. The recent rise of wealthy Chinese clubs buying top-class foreign talent that Japanese teams can’t afford is posing a huge challenge.

“At the moment, the J-League can’t compete with Chinese clubs financially,” said Beijing Guoan striker Dejan Damjanovic, one of the most successful European players in Asia in recent times. “Japan must try to attract and keep its best foreign talent. The domestic players are still very good, but in Asia, foreign players can make a big difference in many games.”

Still, there is good news coming out of Japan. The country’s youth development system is still the envy of Asia, with 12 out of the 23 players on last year’s World Cup roster playing in the bigger European leagues, including some at elite clubs, like Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo. There are gaps, however.

“Not all positions are the same,” Maya Yoshida, a defender with Southampton in the Premier League, told the English newspaper The Independent earlier this month. “The most difficult for Japanese people are striker, center-back and goalkeeper.

“There are many Japanese midfielders and fullbacks, but the key positions are not as easy.”

These are issues that other nations in Asia would love to have, but according to Ghotbi — as well as the federations’s declaration in 2005 — Japan wants to use the world, and not just Asia, as its yardstick for measuring success.

“The future is bright, as Japan is one of the most organized nations in the world,” Ghotbi said. “Japanese players are technical, hard working, mobile and versatile. The challenge is not just to be the best in Asia but to be one of the best in the world.”

Halilhodzic has much work to do as the new coach, but he has a good chance to get off to a strong start against Tunisia on Friday and against Uzbekistan in another friendly four days later.

J.F.A bosses hope the Bosnian can replicate the success he had with Algeria in 2014, when he took an aggressive, fast and skilful team to the second round of the World Cup, including an impressive performance against the eventual winner, Germany.

“I was able to get Algeria to No.17 in the rankings, and I want to do the same for Japan,” Halilhodzic said in his first Tokyo press conference.

That may not be top 10, but it would certainly do for now.

A version of this article appears in print on March 27, 2015, in The International New York Times. Order Reprints

Ghotbi deals with Japan quake

Ghotbi deals with Japan quake

Afshin Ghotbi’s place in the history of South Korean soccer folklore is assured; he was, after all, a member of the national team’s coaching staff at the 2002 World Cup, the first of three stints with the Taeguk Warriors. He would argue that there is much more to come in the future whether in Korea or Japan, his current place of employment.


That has been temporarily put on hold as his new career in the J-League coincided with the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, just five days after his first game as head coach of Shimizu S-Pulse. He has to wait until April 23 before the season starts again.


His career was already full of drama. The 2010 World Cup was the first since 1994 that didn’t have the Tehran-born tactician on the bench, though he was in the country, researching current trends and future opponents. His dreams of going to South Africa with the Iranian national team were looking good with nine minutes left against his old friends in South Korea in the final qualification match in June 2009 but a late Park Ji-sung goal put paid to Persian hopes. That game was overshadowed somewhat by some of the Iranian players wearing green wristbands to support protests against the regime back home.


It was ironic that it all happened in Seoul World Cup Stadium, just a 10-minute drive along the Naebu Expressway (traffic permitting, of course) from the Grand Hilton Hotel, Ghotbi’s home for much of the period from 2000 to the summer of 2007.


When Guus Hiddink was appointed coach of South Korea in December 2000, he recruited Ghotbi, who went to the 1998 World Cup with the United States, as a technical analyst. It was during this time that his reputation as a forward-thinking tactician began to spread as the Taeguk Warriors made it to the semifinals. Ghotbi was back in Korea in October 2005 as a coach under Dick Advocaat. When that particular Dutchman headed back west after the 2006 World Cup, the Iranian-American remained as Pim Verbeek’s assistant coach until it all ended in the summer of 2007 and the Asian Cup.


It was then that Ghotbi went back to Iran for the first time in 30 years to lead Persepolis to the 2008 league title thanks to a last-minute goal in the last game of the season. The next year, he was appointed head coach of the Iranian national team. He fell just short of rescuing the stuttering qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup but did take the team to the 2011 Asian Cup. That continental quest ended in elimination in the quarterfinal by ― you guessed it ― South Korea.


Now he is in Japan with Shimizu, a team based in the city of Shizuoka, and dealing with the aftermath of what happened last month.


“We were preparing for our first home match,” Ghotbi said. “We had a training session in the Shimizu S-Pulse stadium in the morning of March 11 and returned home to pack to travel to the team hotel for the match. Then, my house started shaking and rolling. The intensity grew with time, and it seemed to last forever. The house started to make cracking sounds and I thought it was going to collapse. I have lived through a few earthquakes in California but this was on a different scale.”


“This tragedy has affected everyone in my club, as our training ground and club house is only approximately 100 meters away from the ocean so the images of the tsunami shook the nerves of our players and their entire families. People were sad, terrified and concerned about the well-being of their families, community and nation. Our foreign players were perhaps more scared as they were influenced by foreign media and embassies.”


Soccer obviously comes a very distant second in such circumstances and fans will have to wait seven weeks after the first game of the season to see the second. This lengthy break presents practical problems for coaching staff too. Like most teams, Shimizu has been playing charity matches that not only raise money for victims of the disaster but also give the players something to focus on.


“Overall, we have tried to make the best of a very difficult situation using this tragic time to improve our team,” said Ghotbi. “Given the circumstances, the players have shown great resilience, fighting spirit, and improvement. The club has done a great job to be proactive in raising money for the victims with charity matches, fund raising functions and events.”


By John Duerden, Contributing writer (

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