I went to watch Brentford v Basingstoke Town in the FA Cup yesterday. We won 1-0 in tense match that could easily have seen the non-league team take us to a replay. The game made the news, not because of the score, but because of the referee. Masaaki Toma from Japan was visiting on an exchange scheme between the English and Japanese football authorities, and he became the first non-British referee to run an FA Cup match. As the BBC put it, Toma’s appointment made history. His presence certainly gave my brother David, who used to live in Japan, the chance to try out some of his Japanese in a series of unorthodox terrace shouts. He promised me that they translated as nothing more than ‘Do us a favour, ref’ and ‘Be on our side’, and he stopped short of working out a translation that involved opticians.
Toma may have made history on administrative grounds, but there was a deeper poignancy about his appointment this weekend. As the match was played the day before Remembrance Sunday, the players and crowd observed a minute’s silence before kick-off to respect the war dead. The referee has the job of blowing the whistle to start and finish this silence, and having a Japanese referee to do this was, to me, wonderfully symbolic. When we also remember that Brentford ‘s manager is Uwe Rösler from Germany, the symbolism is complete.
I am not so naive is to believe that football, or any sport, can heal the wounds of wars, and I know very well that football can as readily inflame hatred as it can offer the chance for reconciliation. I know George Orwell’s classic 1945 essay on the subject, ‘The Sporting Spirit’, with his observation that sport ‘is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’ But, as I stood in silence at Griffin Park yesterday, I couldn’t help feeling that I was involved in something special. Having a Japanese official in charge of this public act of remembrance was a moving example of sport’s occasional power to help us transcend differences.