On the football field, the man with the whistle probably plays the most significant role. The referee is the authority on the field. He controls and directs matches and has the power to turn games on their heads. However, the efficiency of a referee is in his ability to stay away from the limelight.
But that has not been the case lately in the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League, especially in the former. Right from day one, the refereeing has been lambasted for being error-strewn and inconsistent. In fact, many mistakes have directly affected the outcome of several matches.
There have been erroneous penalty calls, free-kicks, cautions and what not. There was also one particular incident during Chennaiyin FC's home match against Kerala Blasters where the referee was forced to overturn a legitimate goal after pressure from the Kerala players. Safe to say, it has not been good advertisement for the league or for Indian football.
But amidst all this, the plight of the men who cop the stick is worth taking a look into. The life of a referee is tough and lonely in India.
India has a structured system for referees which lays the pathway for an aspiring candidate to become a FIFA certified referee. The process, even for the brightest of them, takes more than six years and some may not even reach there. In theory, the testing process should breed competitiveness and therefore excellence.
But that has not been the case so far, at least on the evidence of the ongoing season. There are plenty of challenges a referee in India has to tackle in his career at the top level. The truth is that the career prospects for a referee in India is bleak.
It is no secret that in India, depending on refereeing alone as an income source is foolhardy. In fact, it is an accepted fact that a whopping majority of the referees in India have to depend on a second job if they are to make ends meet. And we are talking about referees who officiate in the top tier - ISL and the I-League.
The instances where a referee gets back home after officiating in a top-tier league and within an hour or so, getting to his second job is not uncommon. To get an idea, the remuneration for a referee in the ISL is somewhere between ₹12000 to ₹15000. In the I-League, the figure ranges around ₹10000. When you consider state leagues and junior leagues, the remuneration goes down. In the state leagues, a referee could get paid as low as ₹500 - ₹1000 per game. The important point here is that ISL and I-League run for only five months a year. Even during that period, there are multiple international breaks.
It effectively brings the income of a referee who is solely dependent on his profession down by a considerable amount during the other seven months where he has to make do with the petty cash he gets from state league matches and other junior games.
One of the referees says that even during the time when the top-tier leagues are running, mistakes can cost them. "If we make mistakes during a game, it could be that we might not get a lot of matches immediately. There have been occasions where we have got just ₹20000 from refereeing in a month," he said on conditions of anonymity.
However, he also says that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) have been doing what they can to improve this aspect. "The remunerations have increased manifold in the recent years. The AIFF are doing whatever they can from within their ambit for us. In fact, they give several promising referees a professional contract. Most of us keep doing this because of our passion towards the game."
But the point is that not all the referees, or at least all the Category 1 or Category 2 referees, cannot be given a professional contract, simply due to a lack of funds.
But the profressional contract offered is not lucrative either. It gives a referee an assured sum of ₹27000 per month which is still not enough to improve the career prospects in refereeing. It's clear that focusing on just refereeing as a career might not be as easy as it sounds. Which is probably a factor that affects the quality of the referees in India.
Coming back to the job on the field which the referees still have to carry out in a competent manner, the scrutiny these days is much higher. After the television coverage of the leagues improved, every action of the referee is dissected and evaluated by fans and pundits alike. No mistake goes unnoticed and rightly so, especially when it comes to the application of the laws and controlling feisty situations in the game.
But there have been contentious penalty decisions which have impacted games. What one must understand is the referee gets just one view at the incident, in real-time. He is not privy to slow-motion replays. All the referee has is one frame and a couple of seconds at most in which to make the decision.
"Often we just happen to see one view of a foul. There have been instances where I was convinced an incident inside the penalty box was a stonewall penalty. I would stick to what I saw and award the spotkick. But after the match, I would look at it and see that there was no contact whatsoever. It happens," the referee says.
However, making that right call under pressure is the job of the referee. Make no mistake about it. That's why they are put through rigorous examinations and fitness tests. But do the referees in India get enough support in order to carry out that job perfectly?
The referees in India are a tight-knit unit apparently, given the demands of the job. However, they don't actually get together and exchange ideas as often as they would like, unless it is during refereeing conventions or courses which could be held only once a year or so.
When you look at it in a holistic manner, a referee who earns a pittance holds the fate of teams which have invested multiple crores of rupees in his whistle. And one wrong call can have a devastating impact on a team and the money they have invested. Amidst all the scrutiny and the lack of proper remuneration, the referee needs to control matches with absolutely no margin for error.
In many ways, Indian referees have a thankless job.