In the 2017-18 season of the Indian Super League (ISL), an Indian referee earned Rs. 11,100 per game (a daily allowance of Rs. 2,200 for the day before and after a game and a match fee of Rs. 6,700). In the I-League it was Rs. 7,000 per game, Rs. 1,500 fo
“Truth is, people with access to replays, multiple angles and slow motion can call us on our mistakes,” the text read. “But on the pitch, life is different.” It isn’t just the words but the careful crafting of them that stands out. This is the defence of a figure so universally maligned they unite the two arms of a Indian football, the ISL and the I-League. In this one regard they are united. The Indian referee is not good enough.
In the Indian Super League (ISL), over the past two seasons — not coincidentally, ever since the All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided to increase the quota of Indian referees taking charge of games — refereeing complaints in December are as much of a surety as Christmas.
The coach of the defending ISL champions has already observed that “[if] this tournament is looking at developing the standard of the game and producing better players, then India should be able to produce better referees too and we have to work towards that.” The head coach of Jamshedpur FC coach has ventured further, “This league could be a great league but with this level of refereeing, it is pretty much impossible.” And finally a consortium has approached the AIFF, demanding a short-term and long-term solution for the refereeing crisis that engulfs Indian football every December.
In the middle of all this is the man in black, with a whistle around his neck, who ‘doesn’t give interviews’ because referees do not have a voice. They are not supposed to be outlined and locked into a code of conduct that protects them and hurts them in equal measure.
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But, referees do speak. They have lives. They also have back stories and current stories worthy to be told and retold. They do so though on the condition of anonymity. Talking to them can be hard, because they are forced into defending themselves from an attack from all quarters, but do so with the bare minimum weapons.
“There is no incentive to become a referee in India,” one of them says. “There is no guarantee of regular work. The pay is unreasonable for the effort it takes, and it is a thankless job. You have no power.”
Empowered. That’s the word, somewhere to start a football conversation with people who live for it and make a living for it. Their excuse is ‘love for the sport’, a reason for getting back to it everyday. A desire to be involved with it despite not theoretically being able to justify why. Opportunities are scarce and the reward worse. To stick around you have to be durable. How durable, though?
“When a student studies hard, and looks towards a career in his future, of prime importance to him is what? Financial security, obviously. Why should referees be any different?” one of them asks.
In the 2017-18 season of the ISL, an Indian referee earned Rs. 11,100 per game (a daily allowance of Rs. 2,200 for the day before and after a game and a match fee of Rs. 6,700). In the I-League, the figure dropped lower, to Rs. 7,000 per game. Lower still, to 1,500 for Santosh Trophy matches, and Rs. 1,200 for the 2nd Division. It gets worse. "To tell you the truth, there are local matches where referees are paid between Rs. 100 and Rs. 200,” is a clear assessment of what the reality is.
The figures may have changed over the years but they are nowhere near what the foreign referees get paid, and breathe a different air to the amount the players do. “Everybody says foreigners are foreigners and have to be paid extra, we have to pay Indians less. We are doing the same job, the laws are the same!”
It goes beyond numbers of course. It is about inspiration. “The fee is not important,” one of them says, “but when I leave my office job to do a referee assignment, I should get better money than what I get at the office.”
And this means few leave the office. According to estimates, India has about 7,000 certified referees, only half of who are operational at the competitive level — of these, about 200 lie at the top. For comparison, Japan has over 2 lakh certified referees in their system.
But there is no point in inflating numbers without providing them opportunity either. Despite the existential, somewhat rhetorical rants that most referees had about ‘the difficulty of doing the job itself’, unequivocally all of them insist that they would forego pay for opportunity.
“How do you expect players to get better?” one asks, “by playing more games, playing against different opposition and getting more exposure, right? Similarly, for referees, it is important to gather more game time. But there are hardly any opportunities in India for them to do that, and as a result we suffer.”
Despite what the AIFF think is an expanded football calendar, there is, genuinely, a lack of competitive football played in the country. Most state associations do not have an organised league, or a strict calendar they adhere to. Besides the ISL, I-League and the second division, opportunities for referees are scarce. The impact is two fold. At one level, without any game time, they often do not meet the basic required standards required to be promoted up the ladder. The second is more hard hitting. Without work, referees tend to drift away from the game, forced to find other means to finance their and their family’s existence.
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“Look at the performance of the Indian players,” says another, “It was nowhere near the level of the foreign players in the early years. But, gradually, this gap has lessened. With more opportunity and more exposure, we can also only get better.”
A myopic vision, though, may see a harking back to a system where there are more foreign referees than Indian on the pitch (even there the reduction of errors is fantasy). Refereeing errors will exist and have forever existed in the sport.
A secondary suggestion — the lobby for which is strong but unbelievably ill informed — is that India go the way several leagues have gone and cuddle into the warmth of VAR. It isn’t all so simple. There are contrasting views on the effectiveness of this. A weekend on Twitter after a Liverpool game should tell you all.
Referees, themselves, are unanimous in their opinion about one thing: VAR is a tool. It is intended to aid reduce human mistakes from time to time. The distinction is important because the person sitting in that room pressing the buttons is also human. If they lack expertise, education and experience, no matter how many times he or she saw a particular incident, the right decision would constantly elude them.
The cost of this implementation itself is mind boggling. VAR implementation per game can cost anything between Rs. 5-8 lakh. In an ecosystem where broadcasting games without problems is near impossible, imagine the additional financial burden. As one referee succinctly puts it. “If you donate Rs. 5 lakh per game towards referee development sir, I think VAR will be redundant.”
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There have been refereeing errors this season. As there were last. Slowly things will change. But to effect that change, more must be done. It isn’t enough to pump money into kits and broadcasts, songs and jingles but ignore the basic facets of the game. As with every conversation about Indian football, the problem lies in the thought at the grassroots.
One of the referees said it perfectly, turning Carlos Cuardrat’s criticism on its head. “If you want the ecosystem of football to grow, then referees have to be a big part of it. You cannot say football is growing but refereeing is not. Not without actually being willing to invest in referees at every level.”
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