Last Sunday, as you watched Mohun Bagan clinch their first I-league title in over thirteen years at Bengaluru's Kanteerava stadium, you would have easily overlooked the man who refereed the match. Running alongside players that rainy evening was MB Santhosh Kumar, one of only six referees accredited by FIFA from India.
Sadly, being one among the six in a billion is not good enough. When the 40-year old is not on the field keeping an eye on players, he is on the roads driving an auto-rickshaw to make ends meet.
His accreditation is no mean achievement, considering India is ranked 147 at the football world rankings. But that was not always his plan.
â€śI always wanted to be a footballer,â€ť says Kumar, speaking to The News Minute over the phone from his home in Kottayam, â€śI suffered a knee injury when I was 21, so I could not become a player."
But that did not mean he would not be a part of the beautiful game. He used to referee unofficial matches in Kerala, starting with local games in paddy fields, before qualifying for professional matches.
Being a football referee in India is not enough to pay the bills. Initially, Kumar worked as a caretaker at an apartment complex in Kottayam, and then took to driving auto-rickshaws for a living. â€śRefereeing is not a reliable field. Professionally accredited referees do recieve renumeration, but tough for other. If we do not pass the fitness test, it is nearly impossible to come back to the field," he says.
He follows a demanding physical training regime. Basketball at the YMCA ground every morning, then a workout at the gym, followed by football practice in the evenings, that's an average day for him.
He referees close to 150 games a year. A referee runs an average 11kms during every match.
Indian referees, as are players, a far cry from their counterparts in other soccer-playing nations. â€śWe are still developing. Foreign referees even have a dietitian to keep a tab on what they eat,â€ť he says.
Having been in the business for 20 years now, Kumar has refereed some important matches in India. Aside from the National Games in China in 2013 and the Nehru Cup in 2012, Kumar has also refereed former India captain Bhaichung Bhutiaâ€™s farewell game against German team Bayern Munich in 2011.
â€śThe quality has improved recently. We performed well in the ISL recently. Compared to international teams, quality is not up to the mark, but when compared with our previous record, we have definitely come a long way,â€ť he says.
Kumar was awarded the best referee by the AlFF for a second year running. But in most matches, while the referee gets just a memento, players get cash rewards.
With football gradually reaching more homes in the country, Kumar hopes the government job he was promised will finally come through. â€śAfter some media reports, the Kerala Sports Council President Padmini Thomas and Sports Minister Thiruvanjoor Radhakrishnan visited and offered me a job,â€ť he says.
When he turns 45, he will not be able to referee matches anymore.
Images Courtesy: MB Santhosh Kumar