Poor standards and lack of sufficient exposure are the major reasons Indian referees have failed to make the cut for the World Cup since Komaleswaran Sankar broke new ground by officiating at soccer’s showpiece event 16 years back, feel experts.
“We have the acumen and refereeing in India is going in the right direction. But in modern times, refereeing has become more scientific and unless you have proper exposure to international tournaments, you cannot officiate in a World Cup game,” Sankar told IANS over the phone.
“We need to give referees more exposure and they should be part of higher-level continental matches on a more regular basis. I feel we could be there soon; it’s just that the exposure on a consistent basis is missing,” he said.
Sankar is still the only referee in the nation of 1.3 billion people to have made it to the pinnacle of the sport. The Chennai-based man took the field as an assistant referee in three games of the 2002 World Cup hosted jointly by Japan and Korea.
Referees in India have drawn a lot of flak in recent times with coaches and players from the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League expressing their displeasure at the match officials’ performance.
Sankar, though, disagreed that their standards were poor.
“I don’t agree with this view. Human errors are everywhere. I have seen the games and have not seen any instance of a poor decision affecting the outcome of the match. We referees need support from all corners to succeed,” he added.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is hopeful of having at least one referee from the country at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but at the same time concedes it won’t be easy considering the steep selection criteria.
“There have been various reasons for not having referees for the men’s World Cup,” AIFF Head of Referees Col. Goutam Kar said.
“The target is to have at least one referee in the probable list for the 2022 World Cup. We are preparing for that and training the referees in such a manner. But it won’t be easy.”
By early next year, FIFA is expected to announce the list of probable referees for the 2022 World Cup.
With India unlikely to have a referee at the 2019 Asian Cup and lacking the numbers in the AFC Champions League (ACL) at present — only Arumughan Rowan has been in the ACL panel — chances of a second name being added to the elite list along with Sankar are dim.
“It won’t be easy. We don’t have too many referees at the top flight in the AFC at present,” said Kar.
“What Sankar achieved was on his own. The AIFF did not have a referees department back then. It was his credit,” he added.
In 2010, FIFA had asked the AIFF to form a referees department for their development.
“There was no proper structure before that. I joined in 2011 after the referees department was formed. There were two things that needed to be done. Proper documentation and referee education,” Kar said.
There is a Referee Identification Number (RIN) now where close to 7,000 officials are registered. This, Kar said, prevents age fudging which used to be the norm before.
“It will thus take time for referees from India to regularly feature in World Cups. It’s just been over six years that we had a dedicated department,” he noted.
India at the moment has a quota of six men referees and eight assistant referees and two female referees and assistant referees each.
While Sankar and Kar stuck to their guns saying they are on the right path, former India striker and AIFF technical committee chairman Shyam Thapa was more critical.
“How can we expect to have Indian referees in World Cups when the team is ranked close to 100?
“Yes the national team is doing well of late, but our referees are nowhere near the best in Asia. I don’t see that changing soon.”