SAO PAULO — Just one game into the World Cup, and referees are already in the spotlight. The refereeing standards at the World Cup are always hotly debated, and Yuichi Nishimura made sure this one won’t be any different after a controversial performance in the opening match on Thursday.
For Croatia coach Niko Kovac, the Japanese official was out of his league on such a big stage, and risked making ‘‘a circus’’ of the World Cup.
‘‘I usually never attack referees, but this time I can only say: shameful,’’ Kovac said after his team’s 3-1 loss to a Brazil swung on a questionable second-half penalty. ‘‘This is a robbery.’’
Nishimura pointed to the spot when Brazil’s powerful forward Fred fell to ground from a slight touch on his upper left arm by Dejan Lovren. Neymar converted the 71st-minute penalty, giving the host nation a 2-1 lead after trailing early in the match.
Some referees may not even have allowed Neymar to stick around for that long. Nishimura showed the Brazil star just a yellow card in the 26th for pushing a forearm into the throat of Croatia playmaker Luka Modric. That incident sparked the first agitated clamor around the referee, and more followed as Croatian frustration grew late in the game and after the final whistle. The message seemed to be lost.
‘‘I never saw in my life that a referee don’t speak English,’’ said defender Vedran Corluka, though it is required of World Cup referees. ‘‘He was speaking something in Japanese but no one could understand him.’’
So the World Cup has its usual refereeing furor earlier than usual. Though Nishimura is a full-time referee at his second World Cup, his performance revived complaints from Europe about varying standards. Any matchup between a South American and European team is tricky for FIFA because it requires a neutral referee from a continent where fewer high-intensity matches are played.
Throw in the fact that the host nation was playing in a stadium packed with noisy, fervent fans, and the situation gets even tougher.
‘‘Unfortunately, the referee was completely out of his depth,’’ Kovac said through a translator. ‘‘If we continue in this vein there will be 100 penalties in the World Cup.’’
FIFA’s director of refereeing, Massimo Busacca, was aware of the challenge facing his match official teams long before the tournament started. Asked last week about players expertly bending the rules, Busacca acknowledged it was tough to spot ‘‘a foul from a simulation as it is mostly a question of centimeters.’’ ‘
‘It is important that the referees show their personality in order to prevent bad behavior,’’ the Swiss former referee said.
Busacca and Nishimura were colleagues at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where controversy came early and often. Brazil’s group-stage win over with Ivory Coast saw Luis Fabiano score after twice handling the ball in the build-up, and a potential late winning goal for the United States against Slovenia was disallowed and never fully explained.
Most famously, Frank Lampard’s shot that crossed the line but was not ruled a goal for England in a second-round loss against Germany saw the laws of football changed. Goal-line technology made its World Cup debut Thursday in Sao Paulo.
Nishimura worked four matches at the 2010 World Cup but is best known, ironically, for sending off Brazil defender Felipe Melo in its quarterfinal exit against the Netherlands. Then, FIFA rewarded Nishimura by naming him fourth official to England’s Howard Webb in the testy final between Spain and the Dutch. While FIFA never publicly criticizes its referees, Fred’s successful flop means Nishimura is unlikely to stick around for the final this time.