- Associated Press - Thursday, June 12, 2014

SAO PAULO (AP) - 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 Yuishi Nichimura 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 depth 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.”

Nichimura 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.

Nichimura 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 Nichimura is a full-time referee at his second World Cup, his display 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.

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