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January 29, 2000


The Rediff Interview / Bentla D'Couth

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'My dream is to become an international referee'

Bentla D'Couth A first meeting with Bentla D'Couth in her hotel room in Bombay was very deceiving. She was soft-spoken, appeared shy and unassuming. You could barely hear her voice. And to think that she is a football referee! Yes, a qualified one at that. Indeed, it was hard to believe. But one look at her on the field and all possible apprehensions were cleared. In sharp contrast to her usual self, she was loud, aggressive and compelled 22 men play to her whistle.

Popularly known as Benty on the field, Bentla is a Bachelor of Arts from Kerala. She has been playing football since the age of 18. "I am a late-comer actually," she says coyly. Today, at 32, she aspires to be an international FIFA (the world body) referee and is working hard towards it. Kanchana Suggu met her at the Cooperage football ground in Bombay where she was officiating in the under-21 men's National Championship.

How did you develop an interest for football?

I was always interested in football, but it was only at 18 that I learnt that ladies' football also existed. When my dad and brothers found out that ladies too were playing football, they suggested that I too should join. Since the sport interested me, I went ahead immediately. When I joined the club, I realised that I was older than most of the other girls. I knew I had to put in extra efforts. So I started working six hours a day; three hours in the morning and three in the evening.

As a football player, what have been your achievements?

In 1990, under the Women's Football Federation of India, I played in the junior World Cup in Denmark. I have also participated in the 10th, 11th and 12th Asian Championships and in the 13th Asiad. At the international level, the highest I have achieved is a fifth place. I haven't managed more than that. But I have won several medals at university level, state level and national level.

How did you start your career as as a referee?

I was always curious to know more about the laws of the game. I strongly believed that only if you are well aware of the rules and regulations, you will be able to play the game better. So, with the intention of game improvement in mind, I became eager to learn more and more about the technicalities. Then I came to know of a one-week's referees' clinic that was being conducted for the selection of referees. It was some sort of a class for Class III referees. So I enrolled there. I was told that I would have to pass the Cooper test (mandatory fitness test for all football referees), theory and practical. This was four years back. You know I was the only woman to have enrolled for the clinic.

Can you elaborate on the Cooper test?

In this test, you have to complete 2,700 metres in 12 min, 50 metres in 8 seconds and 200 metres in 28 seconds. Apart from this, there is also theory about the rules and regulations of the game. These rules are made for men. I was the first woman to take this test and there were no separate rules for woman. But I did manage.

So how did you fare?

Bentla D'Couth I was so shocked to hear that out of 14 men who took the test, I got the first rank. Michael Andrews, the FIFA referee and professor Peter Thomman, who is now the Kerala Football Referee’s Association secretary encouraged me very much. Full credit goes to these two people without whom I wouldn’t have been where I am today. Till today they guide me.

What was the reaction of your family members to you officiating in the men's game?

It's really unfortunate that my parents have never seen me in action. My father has seen me play football, but has never seen me officiate a match. My brothers and sisters live abroad, so they also have never got a chance to see me. They all just read about me in the papers. Once there was a photograph of mine with some other players in the Malayala Manorama and my parents just couldn't recognise me. They thought it is some boy…

Do you remember your first match as a referee? Were you nervous?

I think it was a port match at the Porters ground in Cochin. No. I was not at all nervous. In fact, I remember feeling very confident. I knew that I was very well aware of every detail of the game and that's why I could not go wrong. I was sure I wouldn't make a wrong decision.

Initially, did you feel that you were being treated differently because you are a woman?

It doesn't happen now, but I guess earlier people did have that 'what would she know' attitude. But once they saw me on the field in action, their opinion of me changed. Then they would start coming to me for tips to improve their game. I can say that I haven't had any bad experiences so far.

How do you feel about being the first woman referee in India?

To tell you the truth, I don't feel that I have done anything great. Abroad, when I went for international games, I have seen many women officiate matches. But in India we have only Class III referees, we don't even have a Class I referee. As a player I have never seen my photograph in the papers. Six times I represented the nation but there has been no mention. I think only the men players get more exposure. I keep getting a lot of appreciation for my work. My seniors come to me and tell me about what a great job I have done, but I am not satisfied. I think I need to improve a lot.

Where exactly do you want to improve on?

I have to improve on my actions…my whistle. One has to take a decision within a fraction of a second. It's not very easy at times. My distance has to be perfect, I also have to improve on my positioning. Boys play very fast, so it can be a little taxing to keep up with their pace.

So how many hours in a day do you dedicate to football?

Bentla D'Couth I have my personal coach in Kerala. I practice in the morning for two hours. I do my daily practice with men. After that I go to work and in the evening for another two hours I practice officiating. I regularly exercise everyday. I watch football on ESPN. But then the problem with watching international football is that the rules that are followed there are very different from the ones that we follow here. Abroad, the referees declare a fowl so often and the players simply have to obey the decision. But what is really frustrating in India is that the players are uneducated, they lack professionalism unlike in other countries. So it makes the job difficult for the referee. Sometimes players debate with the referee. This kind of behaviour is punished abroad. But nothing is done here. I think the younger the players, the more difficult it is to officiate.

So what are your future plans?

In February, I have the Senior National Championship. The last match I played was in December. I basically love playing football, but I have been advised that I should give priority to being a referee because I am not young anymore. I am 30 now and I am told that I should concentrate more on officiating. Everyday I read some books on football rules and regulations. These books are almost like a Bible to me. My dream is to become an international referee and I am sure I'll be doing that in two years time…


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