It was a strange quirk of fate, perhaps, that took Rupa Devi away from her first love: if she couldn’t play the game herself, she could at least be around people who did. Rupa Devi is the first woman referee from Tamil Nadu to be selected by FIFA.
Rupa Devi fell in love with the beautiful game after she watched seniors in her school playing. She started football as a Class VI student in St. Joseph’s Girl’s School in Dindigul. Soon, she was playing at sub-junior level in her school and also in district football tournaments.
Rupa joined the Dindigul Football Federation in 2006 which supported her for various national matches besides sponsoring her studies.
In college, Rupa studied chemistry for a Bachelor’s Degree in GTN college, Dindigul and then another Bachelor’s Degree in Physical Education from Annamalai University in Chidambaram. She continued to play football at university and started playing in national tournaments.
However, once she completed her B.Ed. she got a job as a teacher at a school in Dindigul but resigned as they did not allow her to go for matches.
In 2010, life changed abruptly for her. She lost her mother due to a heart attack and in 2011, her father died due to high blood pressure. “They were my support system. After they died, I was alone at home, my brother was working outside and my sister was married,” she said.
They were barely making ends meet. “Our financial condition was bad as my father worked in a small shop. After his death, I supported myself through the matches I attended as a player. Other than that, my association and friends were very helpful,” she said.
However, this period was also what took her away from playing football and toward becoming a referee.
“From 2010, for two years there were no tournaments for women at the national level. Senior referees told me to go ahead and become a referee. They said once you get injured you won’t be able to become a referee also,” Rupa says.
On their advice, she joined a referee development school in 2012 and began to officiate in national sub-junior and junior level matches the following year. She also sat the exams conducted by the All India Football Federation.
After that, there was no looking back for her. She has been a referee for several matches in the country. She was one of the referees in the West Asia tournament in Sri Lanka and also the main referee in the Senior Women Nationals at Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.
Three years after she first began officiating matches and also sat the FIFA examination, she qualified as a referee for matches conducted by FIFA. They informed her on January 2. “It was completely unexpected. I am very happy and all the credit goes to the associations and friends who have been so supportive.”
S. Shanmugan, Secretary of Dindigul Football Federation is proud of their decision to support Rupa. “We brought in a lot of professionals to train her. We always encouraged her to go for matches as a referee. Now, that she has become the first woman referee (from TN) selected by FIFA, we are very happy about it,” he said.
Despite her current success, her everyday future is still somewhat uncertain. She qualified as sanitary inspector in 2014, but the state government hasn’t recruited anyone for the past two years even though there are vacancies.
Like many sportswomen, she wants more for women in the game. “We need to develop the game. Women teams do not play for football leagues. Women should also be given job opportunities,” Rupa says.
Along with being a referee, Rupa loves coaching younger football players and she has only one advice to pass on, “If one is interested in the game, only then get into it.”