A day in the life of Santosh, FIFA referee, at his hometown Kottayam, in Kerala

Santosh is up and about early in the morning. He goes to the stadium ground for an hour of rigorous work-out; drops his daughter at school; takes out his auto-rickshaw and operates in the town for a few hours before reaching the Skyline apartments, of which he is the caretaker. He is back once again with the auto rickshaw in the afternoon; returns to the apartment in the evening and attends to the routine work there. Also takes up assignments as a personal driver on hire.

Next morning, off to the Cochin airport on the way to Kolkata to officiate an I-League match.

A day in the life of Santosh, FIFA referee, at Kolkota, while on an I-League assignment

Santosh is up and about early in the morning. He goes to the Maidan grounds in the Park Street area from his hotel Crest Wood in Park Circus; has a regular work-out and returns to the hotel for breakfast. Depending on the time of the match, the officials of the Indian Football Association (or the officials of the East Bengal or Mohan Bagan clubs, if it is their home match) come along with the referee’s liaison officer to fetch Santosh and other match officials to the ground. There will also be a police escort. Match over; the VIPs are escorted back to the hotel.

Next morning, off to the Kolkata airport to return to his duties as auto rickshaw driver and caretaker at Kottayam.

These are the roles MB Santosh Kumar, FIFA referee, juggles with veritable ease; in this interview, he talks about his life, his love for football and how he has kept himself in the game, battling all odds.

Santosh with his auto rickshaw. Pic: MB Santosh

How did your relationship with football evolve?

I was fascinated by the game from my early boyhood days. Everyone in the neighbourhood was playing football. I too joined them. The school in which I studied, SH Mount School, had a good football team. I took to football seriously by the time I was 13. I attended a summer coaching camp. It was in the sports quota that I got admission to the college.

Which college?

Baselious College, Kottayam, for the pre-degree course. I got into the college team and very soon, I was also in the MG University team in 1994. I played in the South Zone Intercollegiate Tournament. We had a good team and many of my team-mates from the time reached higher levels of the game later in life. One of them, Firoze even became the goal-keeper of the national team.

What made you to shift to referee-ing?

My father was a watchman in a private rubber mill. I had two elder sisters. After my father retired, and he did not get any pension, I managed the affairs of the household playing ‘Sevens’ football.

(Interrupting) A family of five on the income from Sevens?

Oh, yes. I used to get Rs 200 per match and there would be six matches in a week, in season time. 200 was a substantial amount those days, I mean around the mid-nineties. I did this for two years. But I did not go to Malabar for Sevens, even though it was more lucrative. You see, there, if you get a red card, you are out, but the team can introduce another player. So the team does not lose anything. So the number of fouls and the nature of fouls are much more severe. One serious injury means you are out of action for months. I couldn’t afford that.

It became quite clear to me that I had to get a job, if I were to carry on with football. I tried to get into many departmental teams. I also made it to the last round of the selection in several cases. But I could not make the final mark. Bribing and recommendations were also relevant factors, both of which were beyond me.

It was around this time that the Mammenmappila All India tournament was revived after a number of years, at Kottayam. I was given the assignment of working as the liaison between the referee’s panel and the tournament committee. I got lots of opportunities to mingle with them. I started to feel that being a referee is not such a bad idea. At least, I would be able to retain some links to the game I loved.

In Malabar area club tournaments, the gate collection itself amounts to two to three lakh rupees. But the referees are not even given a bottle of mineral water, let alone a meal.

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Did you have any previous experience in this field?

Yes, it was not as if I was totally new to it. There used to be several tournaments in the paddy fields, after the harvesting season. Often there would be quarrels over fouls and other things. There was a Jayan Chettan around. He would blow the whistle and everyone would obey, even though he did not know the rules. He was a sort of an inspiration to me. This experience helped me a lot when I passed the referee’s test.

This was in 1996. First, there was a fitness test and then a written test. One could take the written test only if he cleared the fitness test.

When did you become a national referee?

The promotion takes place every two years, but unfortunately that process was not strictly followed in Kerala. There were many national referees in Kerala at that time. So I became a national referee only in 2004. This was after a fitness test, written test, practical test and also a viva.

Santosh with assistant referees at the Federation Cup Final 2011 Calcutta. Pic: MB Santosh

How is it different – being a National referee?

One can supervise all matches held at the national level including Santosh Trophy and the I-league. Santosh Trophy was the first I refereed as national referee, officiating in the cluster matches in Trivandrum. But I could not go to many tournaments, as I was working as the caretaker here, and they would not give me leave. So I used to go for only those tournaments which would enable me to get back by nightfall. Thus I could attend only two tournaments outside Kerala till 2009. I would get posting orders, but I just could not go.

In 2009, the state club championship was held in Thiruvalla (a nearby town). I refereed in that tournament including the final. Then Michael Andrews, a FIFA referee told me: “You should take this seriously. You should go outside the state to supervise championships. Or else, you ought to give up”

I thus went to Silchar in Assam for the cluster league qualifiers for the I-League in 2009. I was allotted only one match initially. But a couple of senior referees there told me that if I perform well I would get more matches.

The first one was between George Telegraph and ONGC. It was a good match. Then a referee from Kerala, who was in the Elite panel of national referees, told me that I had performed well and would get one more match. I got a chance to referee the decider. This was sort of a take-off for me.

How did the FIFA appointment come about?

In the 2009 Santosh Trophy, I was the central referee in the match between Tamilnadu and Bengal, in Chennai. A penalty was awarded towards the end of the match against the hosts, who eventually lost the match. From the television replays, it was confirmed that my decision was correct. This match proved to be a turning point. I was immediately offered the semifinal match. But I could not referee the match, as I had to get back to my caretaker's job. It was after all my only livelihood.

My name was then forwarded to the FIFA selection committee. But then, there was an objection - I had never till then officiated in I-league matches. So I was given an I-League assignment. The first was a match between Salgaonkar vs Mahindra, held in Goa. This was followed by another match - it was a derby – between Sporting Goa and Salgaonkar. Thus I got the FIFA badge in 2011.

Referee MB Santosh. Pic: MB Santosh

How many years is the FIFA badge for?

Just one year. Then one has to undergo the tests once again. Fitness and everything else, especially performance, is very important for selection each year. One has to be active, especially, when one is aging. Now, the trend is to catch them young . Even 17-18 year olds are encouraged and trained to become referees.

Are you eyeing the elite panel?

I cannot become a member of the elite panel, because in 2011, the year in which I became a FIFA referee, the rules were changed. Only those below 35 could become an elite. I was already 36 then.

How many FIFA contracted referees are there in India?

Only three. Even this is for the first time. The contract is for seven months. Rs 25000 every month. One has to referee a minimum of 20 matches. When you do more than that, you get a match fee for those matches and airfare to the city where the match is taking place.

How much did you get for a match as a national referee, before you became a FIFA badge holder?

Rs 400 as Dearness Allowance (DA) for a day. No match fee.

So, that was the disincentive for your not going for the Santosh Trophy semi-final?

Yes, it certainly was. It is much worse in Kerala tournaments. Rs 125 is the payment. In Malabar area club tournaments, the gate collection itself amounts to two to three lakh rupees. But the referees are not even given a bottle of mineral water, let alone a meal. All expenses have to be met from one’s own pocket. One still does all these, because of the interest in the game.

What about the payments that players receive in the I-league?

The minimum amount for a player is Rupees 5 lakh, but almost everyone gets much more than that, on an average Rupees 25 lakh.

How many members are there in your household?

My father died a year ago. Now, my mother, wife and two children aged six and two.

Does your wife work?

She used to, in a private firm. But after the birth of our second child, she gave it up. Of course, it had an effect on the household income.

Hence, the auto-rickshaw?

Yes, the income from this caretakers's job is too meagre for a family of five. So I took a loan, pledged whatever gold my wife had, my brother-in-law too chipped in with a sum, and I purchased a diesel auto-rickshaw. I told the apartment people that I would have to double time with this auto rickshaw or else I would quit the job there. They agreed. So I combine both and somehow manage now.

So in this context, your getting the FIFA badge and the contract has been a great thing?

Indeed, it is. Money is important, but equally or more important is the recognition, affection and respect that this position brings with it. Take, for example, the evening before a match. The management of the teams meet, the referee and other match officials are present. The preparations for the next day, the colour of the jersey etc. are discussed and finalized. I never dreamt that I would ever really be involved in such things.

Everyone connected to the game feels that I am the most unlucky referee in India because I can never get into the elite panel, even though I am perfectly qualified for that. But I am content with what I have been able to achieve. Even that, I feel is a bonus.

When I am in Calcutta, journalists come and ask me for interviews; they ask me, “Dada, you have managed two East Bengal-Mohan Bagan matches, one in the IFA shield and the other in the I-League, without any incidents, how did you do it?” I’m happy hearing this.

When our team, the two assistant referees and I, leave the ground after the match, it is with applause that spectators greet us. This is the greatest recognition that I can get. It is an acknowledgment that we have been impartial and fair. Mind you, this comes from a crowd which is overwhelmingly partisan. Of course, the players too co-operate, otherwise it would never have been possible. The other day I told journalists, “You see, even if everything goes smoothly for 119 minutes and a small decision in the 120th minute goes wrong, the referee will be remembered for that, and not for the 119 minutes. So please leave me alone, no interviews.”

But do you never feel disillusioned or let down by the scenario in Indian sports where an avid sportsperson like you gets absolutely no support from the establishment at the earlier stages of his career and is forced to make ends meet by doing all kinds of odd jobs?

Well, I’ve certainly undergone all those emotions. But more than any anger or disillusionment, what one feels is an intense kind of helplessness. As a young person one has only passion and nothing else to carry on with the game. But I never let myself be bogged down by that kind of sentiment. One has to move on, hasn't he?

And then there are many who just have to give up sporting activity altogether. You must have heard of several budding athletes and footballers who could not carry on beyond school or college level. I could at least remain on the football ground, even though wearing a different uniform.

What is your opinion about the general treatment meted out to sportsmen in India? Of course, my question excludes cricket and a handful of Olympians...

Pathetic is the only word to describe it. Right from basic facilities, advanced training to remuneration and other incentives, sportspersons are a neglected lot.

So, what could be changed and how?

Ideally support from the society and the government has to come at every level. Sporting activity should never be seen as ‘extra curricular activity’. It should be part of the education system and a natural part of ‘growing up’ of a person. Why speak more about it, let there at least be good football grounds, the most primary requirement!

How do you look at the overall future of Indian football?

I’d say that the prospects are bright. The FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) are taking interest in the development of the game in India. The number of teams in the I-League is being increased to 16, which means the number of games will increase down the line from the qualification rounds. There will be much more football activity. More players and more referees will be required.