If you ever happen to talk football with one of India’s most prolific referees and India’s first-ever in the FIFA elite panel, you are very much likely to mistake him for the guy next door. Years after blowing his final whistle as a FIFA referee and later as a national referee, Rizwan-ul Haq still lives and breathes the game that has given him everything but he never wore an aura around him, neither when he was officiating nor when he is associated with the game in an administrative role in the Delhi football circuit.
Rizwan began as a footballer wanting to enter the national team and was even part of the National Under-15 side. He was even named in the senior team probables but when he couldn’t make it to the team, he tried his luck in officiating, much like his father FIFA referee (late) Ikram-Ul Haq and began as a Class III referee in 1988.
In an exclusive chat with The Statesman, Rizwan talked at length about football, his experiences as a referee, and what India needs to do to emerge as the next sporting powerhouse.
Air Force men, engineers, teachers
In the underdeveloped ecosystem of Indian football, refereeing has often been an afterthought.
In England, the refs became professional 20 years ago. In India, for all practical reasons, it’s started to happen just last year.
While criticising the standard of refereeing, it is important to note that until 2022, the match officials were forced to juggle between a proper day job to support their families and pursuing their hobby.
Gupta was a technician in the Indian Air Force for 20 years and was stationed in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Gujarat. Nathan worked for tennis star Somdev Devvarman’s adventure sports company in Chennai, organising obstacle course races, triathlons and mountain adventure races. Kundu was a PT teacher at a school in Delhi, where he also taught them football while R Venkatesh was a chemical engineer.
All of them took to refereeing either because they suffered injuries as amateur footballers or came to a sobering conclusion that they wouldn’t make it big as players. And even though refereeing let them stay connected with the game, it was hardly a viable career option.
“Earlier, we used to get Rs 30,000 per month while the assistant referees got Rs 25,000 per month,” Venkatesh says. “After Trevor joined, we are getting Rs 50,000 and Rs 45,000 per month, respectively. So it helps us focus more on refereeing and it’s also motivating for the younger generation. Before, we had to do something else to run our family.”
While the cream of Indian footballers earn upwards of a crore per season, which enables them to focus solely on improving their fitness and tactical understanding, and managers too are compensated handsomely, the referees were left behind in this aspect, which stunted their growth for years.
On paper, football might only have 17 laws but in a match, Nathan says they have to process around ‘250-300 situations’. Applying rules to those match situations requires high physical fitness and mental alertness, which was tough while carrying out two jobs and tougher also because of lack of matches.
A perennial problem for India from a players’ perspective has been the lack of games. That issue is worse for the referees, who get fewer matches in a season than a player. In the first few years of the ISL, the situation was so bad that India had to import referees. That’s not the case now, but after being neglected for decades, Indian referees are playing catch-up, just like the players vis-à-vis their counterparts from mature football nations.
Last year, after the new All India Football Federation administration took charge, one of their first decisions was to hand professional contracts to the top eight referees, with the number likely to increase in the coming years.
These referees have their own coaches and analysts, who simulate match situations, provide strategic inputs and dissect their performances after each match. “We study the teams’ strategies, the formations they use in situations when they are winning a match or losing, the timing of their substitutions, the behaviour of the benches, the discreet signals players use during set-pieces… it’s pretty elaborate,” Gupta says.
Making referees mentally strong
During the recently-concluded season, Kettle introduced a concept that the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), the body that is responsible for refereeing in England and now involved in the Indian top tier, introduced in the Premier League and other divisions. “It’s called ‘Let’s Play’,” Nathan says. “Basically, the idea is to let the game flow.”
Kettle says the idea behind the ‘Let’s Play’ concept is to make the game more exciting for the viewing public. This also means an additional emphasis on fitness, with Kundu saying the referees now have to maintain the same body-fat level as players (around 12-15 per cent).
Kettle isn’t worried about the fitness bit – “they are some of the fittest referees I’ve dealt with,” he underlines – but in his immediate analysis, he realised the problem was more in the mind. “Mentally, not strong enough,” Kettle says. “That has come out slightly in my analysis of the key match incidents, especially when I start looking at the accuracy of serious foul play, violent conduct and dealing with those serious incidents. So that’s going to be a focus for us next season.”
“Mistakes are never going to go away,” Gupta admits. “Our aim is to reduce blunders. And from that point of view, we are headed in the right direction.”