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This FIFA referee drives an autorickshaw for a living

Last updated on: January 15, 2013 12:44 IST

Extraordinary Indian: This FIFA referee drives an autorickshaw for a living

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M B Santhosh Kumar is one of four FIFA-accredited referees in India.

Despite the FIFA tag, he drives an autorickshaw for a living. Such is the state of sport in our country!

Rediff.com's Manu A B meets the referee from Kerala, so desperate that he is willing to work as a peon to get by.

An FIFA-accredited referee drives an autorickshaw to make ends meet.

Hard to believe, but this can happen in India...

M B Santhosh Kumar, a native of Kottayam district in Kerala, has the distinction of being one of four FIFA accredited referees in India.

Santhosh Kumar has refereed over 100 national matches, even ones featuring football stars like Lionel Messi, Thomas Mueller and Bhaichug Bhutia. He is the only referee from Kerala with FIFA accreditation.

Despite the prestigious FIFA tag, he continues to juggle small-time jobs to support his family.

Today, the 37-year-old Santhosh Kumar's ambition of refereeing a World Cup match, a dream nurtured by every international referee, is fading away fast, as he struggles to make a living, doing double shifts as a caretaker and an autorickshaw driver, to look after his four-member family.

"Internationally, referees peak during their mid-thirties and they are in demand till they touch 40, as you have to be extremely fit. There is not much hope in terms of an international career for me. So I need a permanent job, even that of a peon would help me and my family," he says in desperation, one year after he got his FIFA referee accreditation.

Bogged down by financial problems, he submitted petitions to Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy's office and Kerala Sports Minister K B Ganesh Kumar for a job. But his efforts turned out to be futile.

"My house is old and dilapidated. I wish I could build a new house. I have lot of responsibilities as my children are young. I don't know how long I will be able to carry on with refereeing," says Santhosh.

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Image: Santhosh Kumar in his referee attire with his autorickshaw
Photographs: Girish Kumar P J

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Football kept him going despite the tough times

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All Santhosh remembers fondly of his childhood is football.

"I grew up in a village that was very passionate about football. My only interest in my younger days used to be football. I used to devote hours playing this magical game since the age of ten.

"Football is a beautiful game, it is all about spontaneity, team spirit, perfect mental and physical agility," says Santhosh.

The game kept him going strong despite the family's difficult times.

His father worked as a security guard at a rubber factory while his mother was a housewife.

"We used to have cows at home. I used to help my mother looking after them," recalls Santhosh.

His parents were worried about his passion for football. While they wanted him to study well and get a good job, Santhosh spent most of his time on the football ground.

After he finished his pre-degree course, he played for small clubs and earned Rs 200 per match, a big amount those days.

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Image: Santhosh Kumar at his home in Kottayam, Kerala
Photographs: Girish Kumar P J
Tags: Santhosh

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From the paddy field to I-league matches

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From officiating matches in barren paddy fields in his village to refereeing I-league matches, it has been an incredible journey for Santhosh.

Financial problems and a ligament injury did not allow him to pursue his ambitions in football.

Santhosh decided to focus his attention on refereeing. He had enjoyed controlling the game as a referee in matches held in his village paddy fields.

In 1996, after passing a written and a physical test, Santhosh stepped into the world of refereeing. He was just 21 years old.

Santhosh realised it was not a stable job nor did it help him support his family.

He started working as a caretaker at an apartment complex in Kottayam from 2001.

"I tried to find time for football matches whenever I could. In 2004, I became a national referee. However, it was difficult to get leave to go for matches. Hence, I skipped many matches and carried on with my work," Santhosh says.

Eight years of being a national referee paid off. The winning moment came last year when the All India Football Federation appointed him as one of the three professional referees for 20 I-league matches last October.

The seven-month contract will earn him about Rs 200,000. Though he is happy about this remuneration, Santhosh says this is not enough to sustain his family in the long run so he has to continue doing other jobs as well.

His first match as an AIFF-contracted referee was between East Bengal and Sporting Club de Goa. He has refereed difficult matches between Goa and Jharkhand, Goa and Punjab as well.

Another memorable game he refereed was the one between Bayern Munich and India in New Delhi in 2011.

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Image: Santhosh Kumar at the Nehru Stadium, Kottayam
Photographs: Girish Kumar P J

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The FIFA recognition

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Santhosh is happy that AIFF is supporting and encouraging more referees with lucrative offers.

"However, after I turn 45 (the retirement age for referees), I cannot continue being a referee. I have to get a better job to support my family," he says.

His performance as a national referee was noted by the authorities. In 2010, on basis of his performance, his name was recommended for FIFA recognition.

"FIFA recognition is a dream come true for a referee. In 2011, I got the fruits of my hard work when I was officially granted FIFA accreditation," says Santhosh.

To become an FIFA referee, he points out, one has to pass a rigorous physical test, as hard as tests conducted by the defence forces.

"The tests include running a distance of 150 metres in 30 seconds, followed by walking another 50 metres in 35 seconds. This is followed by another run across the same distance of 150 metres in 30 seconds, followed by 50 metres walking in 35 seconds. These two rounds are considered as one lap. A minimum of ten such continuous laps should be taken to pass the test," he says.

Another test is a 40 metre sprint in 6 seconds, which has to be done 6 times with a one minute break after every 40 metre sprint. After clearing this difficult physical test, referees also have to pass a written examination.

Santhosh does not miss a single day of working out despite his hectic schedule.

He goes to the Nehru Stadium in Kottayam at 6.30 am every morning to play basketball and do exercises to keep himself physically fit.

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Image: Santhosh works hard at keeping himself fit
Photographs: Girish Kumar P J

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'In India, there is complete apathy towards sports and sports people'

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Santhosh recently drove an NRI doctor from England in his autorickshaw. The doctor was shocked to hear that Santhosh was plying an autorickshaw for a living. At the same time, the NRI felt proud to be with an FIFA-accredited referee.

The doctor told Santhosh how international referees were respected abroad.

"The kind of respect and recognition foreigners give to sport and sportsmen is incredible. There is so much passion and dedication to every sport. Unfortunately in India, there is complete apathy towards sports and sports people," he says.

"While all the attention is towards cricket, there is no focus on other sports. We will never be able to put up a good show at any world competition because of this careless attitude," adds Santhosh.

A referee's job is a tough one. One has to be mentally and physically fit. "The decisions taken on the ground has to be accurate so that the game goes on uninterrupted,"he says.

"During an I-league match, Jose Ramirez Barreto, Mohun Bagan's captain, argued and challenged one of my decisions. I was forced to show him the yellow card."

"The stadium was overflowing with his fans who reacted sharply to his decision," Santhosh recalls.

"On the field, referees have a challenging time to be totally unbiased, not get emotional, follow the rules and react instantly," he adds. "I got the opportunity to referee Bhaichug Bhutia's last match versus Bayern Munich with top notch players like Thomas Mueller."

In India, Santhosh believes, soccer players from the North Eastern states are the best.

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Image: Sathosh Kumar at the Manchester United Premier Cup, Chennai 2007
Photographs: Girish Kumar P J

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'Many people think autorickshaw drivers are ruthless. I have changed that perception'

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"There is nothing wrong in being an autorickshaw driver," he says. "Everyone thinks the best jobs are those of engineers and doctors. But how many of them are good in their jobs? How many of them are ethical?"

Earlier, Santhosh even did jobs like painting, plumbing, selling cassettes and cleaning lorries.

"As long as I do justice to my job, being a caretaker, an autorickshaw driver or a referee doesn't matter. But money matters at the end of the day. I need money to give a good life to my family, education to my children and pay off my loan," he says.

After he received FIFA accreditation and became a professional referee for I-league matches, he has received media coverage. More people are familiar with his name. People who once looked down upon him, now respect him.

After his two-hour morning exercise session, Santhosh works as the caretaker at the apartment complex till the afternoon, attending to several miscellaneous duties. Post lunch, he is at the autorickshaw stand, waiting for customers.

"Many people think autorickshaw drivers are ruthless, ill mannered. I have changed that perception as well," says Santhosh who chose to drive an autorickshaw as it required the least amount of capital.

He pawned his wife's jewellery to buy a petrol-run autorickshaw first, which he later replaced with a diesel autorickshaw. It is not very profitable to ply an autorickshaw, but the additional income helps, he says. He has to repay a loan of Rs 125,000.

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Image: Santhosh pawned his wife's jewellery to buy an autorickshaw
Photographs: Girish Kumar P J
Tags: Santhosh , FIFA

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'Many youngsters are forced to give up playing football'

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"Football has not grown the way it should have in India," says Santhosh, whose favourite players are the Argentinian legends, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.

"We don't have a single ground at par with world standards. Many youngsters are forced to give up playing as there are no opportunities or financial support for budding players."

"I know of an instance when some Nehru Trophy players complained that they did not have enough footballs during a practice session, an official said, 'Why don't you guys just dribble?' Such is the ignorance and callousness of officials," says Santhosh.

"We should form a team with children as young as 10 years. We should train them from such a young age and give them international exposure. Cricket is promoted big time while football is not given due recognition. It is neglected, even media coverage of football is dismal."

His wife was a huge cricket fan before their wedding. "I think she didn't even realise football existed. Now, she is a crazy football fan, who has no time for cricket," Santhosh laughs.

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Image: We don't have a single ground at par with world standards, says Santhosh
Photographs: Girish Kumar P J

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'I dream of refereeing a World Cup match'

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"My policy is to be happy with whatever I have and enjoy whatever I am doing," says Santhosh.

"My passion for football has rewarded me. I believe it is a great achievement for someone like me to become an international referee. I have no regrets about anything, though the thought of being jobless haunts me."

"Being an FIFA accredited referee, I dream of refereeing a World Cup match," he says.

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Santhosh also hopes to see his 3-year-old son become an international referee.

"He has already started dribbling..."

If you wish to help Santhosh Kumar, one of India's unsung heroes, you can call him at 094467 57920.


Image: Santhosh Kumar with his family
Photographs: Girish Kumar P J

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