After Friday's Indian Super League (ISL) encounter between Mumbai City FC and Bengaluru FC which finished 2-0 in the Islanders' favour, the Blues' coach Carles Cuadrat minced no words while addressing the refereeing in the game.
"I’m sorry but these guys don’t know football," he said, in a shocking indictment of the officiating. The statement was bordering on absurdity, especially since Cuadrat was angry because a goal was wrongly disallowed for offside. But the fact is when you consider the season as a whole and the kind of mistakes that the referees have committed, one understands where Cuadrat's anger is coming from.
Cuadrat went on to state that the need of the hour is to bring more foreign referees to officiate the games. But is that really the solution to the issue? We have foreign referees also commit errors in the previous editions of the ISL. It is not a fool-proof solution, for foreign referees are also just humans and mistakes will happen. So, is Video Assistant Referee (VAR), one of the issues discussed when all the coaches in the ISL met for a conference recently, the answer?
We've seen VAR being implemented with disastrous and often ridiculous results in some of the top leagues in the world, specifically in the Premier League. But that has got to do more with the way the referees have interpreted the law. However, VAR will help cut down on the basic human errors which have been occuring far too frequently in the league. There is no doubt about that. But there is a cost factor attached to VAR which might not be viable for a developing league like ISL.
Also, the evidence provided by the technology has to be evaluated by a referee who is human. So unless the quality of the referee improves, even VAR will not eradicate all the things that are going wrong with respect to the refereeing.
What are the long-term solutions to improve the refereeing standards in India? To get at least a vague idea about that, one must understand how the refereeing system works in India and what are the challenges they face .
Now, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has a five-tier system for the referees. Only Category 2 and Category 1 referees, the top-two tiers, come under the direct supervision of the AIFF.
The entry level categories come under the state football associations and the general consensus is that there needs to be a concerted effort from them since they act as the feeder system for referees.
Now the AIFF has a 'Referee Assessor' assigned for every match under its ambit who evaluates the performance of the referee and sends a report on the same. The feedback is then discussed with the referee, the latest by morning on the day after the game. It is supposed to be a key part in ensuring the referee remains on his toes.
But this happens in a haphazard manner in most of the state associations. The more concerning issue is that apart from a handful of states, there is no activity with respect to matches, junior or senior level, in many states. In several states, even the senior division league is held in a farcical manner for just two or three weeks. Basically, there are very few matches for a referee belonging to Category 5, 4 or 3. And there is no proper assessment being done as well for whatever matches they get.
"Bringing foreign referees or implementing VAR is not the solution to this problem. We need to have more feedback in the feeder line, ie, the state associations. They need to improve their assessment of referees and help them improve with the right guidance. Unless there is constant follow-up at the basic level, the standards will not improve," a former referee told Goal on conditions of anonymity.
It is so poor that the AIFF has now started a 'Future India' program where they take in 30-40 referees from the states and have them undergo 3-4 courses in two years. The objective is to ensure these referees are up to speed by the time they are eligible to reach Category 2.
It is the duty of state associations to ensure that there is a constant loop of constructive feedback to the referee during their formative years. And there is little to no money being spent on referees by the states. This is not to say none of the state associations are implementing this.
West Bengal, Kerala, Karnataka, Mumbai, Haryana and several North-Eastern states like Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya have all been doing commendable work when it comes to nurturing referees. Chhatisgarh has been notable for the support they give to women referees.
The challenges for women referees are even greater. There is virtually no action or games when it comes to the state level and all they have is the Indian Women's League (IWL) which runs for a short while and other national level matches in the junior categories.
Now, out of the 36 state bodies affiliated to the AIFF, there are Heads of Referees in 28 of them. However, there is no proper accounting when it comes to the work done to improve the refereeing from them. The post is, as one official was quoted saying, an honourary position . The AIFF have now started holding conferences where they try to bring more awareness among the Heads of Referees as to what improvements need to be done in their respective states.
Another concern when it comes to refereeing standards in the country is a dearth of young, upcoming referees. Though there was a boom in the number of people who had enrolled themselves in the refereeing program post 2014 when the ISL came into existence, bleak career prospects and meagre pay has turned away most of them.
"At the state level, the remuneration is also very low and it is difficult to sustain the referees' interest in the profession for a longer period. They need to be motivated and encouraged consistently so that they keep passing their levels and reach Category 2 where they come under the AIFF," said an official in the know of things.
On an average, only 20 per cent of referees who apply for Category 5 license reach Category 2 (national level). This has led to a fewer young referees pushing those who are already established at the top level, which in turn has affected quality.
Now the AIFF and the state associations need to brainstorm and find a way to ensure refereeing appeals to more and more youngsters as a viable career option but it might not be as easy as it sounds. It definitely needs more money to be pumped into the system.
Like how grassroot development at the state-level is crucial for the development of players, more activity at the state-level is necessary for the referees as well. If the feeder system is broken, one cannot expect the standards to improve. It is true for both players and referees.
The fact remains that a long-term vision needs to be implemented in order to improve the standards of refereeing in India and you need the entire system, right from the AIFF to the district football associations, to share the same vision. Till that happens, outbursts from frustrated coaches like Cuadrat will be a common occurence in Indian football.