It was eight in the morning when I reached the Nehru stadium in Chennai. Players of various disciplines were already leaving after their daily practice. I was there to meet a man called Komaleeswaran Sankar. He is the lone Indian who will be at Seoul, South Korea, to participate in the football World Cup 2002. He is one of the assistant referees, selected by FIFA to officiate in the matches, commencing on May 31.
For the 39-year old Sankar, this is not the first time he will be officiating at an important international football match. He was an assistant referee in the 1996 Junior World Cup, the 1997 Youth World Cup, the 1999 Confederation Cup and the Sydney Olympics in 2000. He also won the Asian 'Best Assistant Referee' award in 1999. Unfortunately, not many in India know him or have even heard of him.
When I entered the stadium, he was busy doing his work-outs. We sat on the ground and started talking.
Excerpts from the conversation:
How did you receive the news that you were going to officiate, as an assistant referee, at the football World Cup 2002 in Japan and Korea?
To tell you the truth, having been an assistant referee in the 1996 Junior World Cup and 2000 Sydney Olympics, I did hope to be selected for the 2002 World Cup also as an assistant referee. But I must admit it was a faint hope. When the message from the All India Football Federation came -- that I had been selected as an assistant referee for the 2002 World Cup -- I was overjoyed.
What are the qualities FIFA looks for in the selection of referees and assistant referees?
Only your previous performance. They see whether you have officiated in any major international events, like the Junior World Cup, Youth World Cup, Confederation Cup, Olympics, etc. And, if you have performed well in these tournaments, you will be called to officiate at the World Cup.
Of course, the Asian Football Confederation, the supreme authority in Asia, will have to recommend your name to FIFA; and FIFA is the final, deciding authority.
You used to play football for Netaji Sports club, Madras University, the Tamil Nadu team in the Santosh Trophy and Indian Bank, where you work now. After retiring from the game, why did you decide to become a referee and not a coach?
To tell you the truth, I was more interested in becoming a coach. It was the Tamil Nadu Football Association secretary who advised me to become a referee. He told me that there are so many coaches in India but there are very few referees. He also told me that if the team you coach does not do well in tournaments, you are finished as a coach. Anyway, I am thankful to him now because he had to literally force me to write the examination to qualify as a referee. This was in 1987.
In 1994, I became a National referee. I still remember the first major match I officiated in as a referee. That was in Bangalore, and the match was between Mohan Bagan and East Bengal. My performance was well appreciated by the All India Football Federation. Because of that, I was there for the selection trials conducted by FIFA the very next year. Imagine, I had become a National referee only the previous year, but was selected and I got the FIFA badge in 1995!
Which was your first match as a referee after you got the FIFA badge?
It was a major tournament, the 1995 SAF Games, held in Chennai. The first match was between Maldives and Nepal. As I was young and hardworking, I was not nervous at all. I think I did quite well. The FIFA instructor, George Joseph of Malaysia, who was there to watch all the SAF Games matches, gave a good report about me. It was because of his recommendation that I was selected for the 1996 Asian Cup.
You won the Asia’s 'Best Assistant Referee' award in 1999. Was it for any particular match?
It was for overall performance. Points are awarded to all the referees and assistant referees as per their performance - like they give to players. Finally, they prepare an 'Elite Asia Referee' and 'Assistant Referee' list. In the year 1997, I was in the 10th position, and by 1999, I reached the top position. That was how I won Asia's 'Best Assistant Referee' award. That was one of the unforgettable moments in my life.
I was in Lebanon to officiate at the Asian under-16 tournament when the award was announced. In fact, there was suspense before the announcement. They had selected four referees and four assistant referees and, according to the votes given by the coaches, committee members, players, etc, the best referee and the best assistant referee were chosen.
Were you expecting to be selected for the 2000 Sydney Olympics?
After participating in the 1996 Junior World Cup, 1999 Confederations Cup and winning the Asian 'Best Assistant Referee' award, I hoped to be selected for the Olympics. The chances were bright. And, finally, when the moment came, I do not know how I felt! It was pure joy.
How was the experience at Sydney?
It was an unforgettable experience. Till then, I had only watched the Olympics on television, and there I was, a part of the Olympics. I couldn’t believe myself first. I was staying at the Meridian Hotel there. On the first day, when I went to the restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised to see the photographs of the Indian football team there. Those were pictures from the 1956 Sydney Olympics. That was the last time India played football at the Olympics!
My first match at the Sydney Olympics was Cameroon versus the United States, and Cameroon went on to win the Olympics gold. Yes, my group was the toughest. Naturally, the matches were also very tough.
Is it difficult to officiate at international matches?
No, I find the local matches the toughest. It is so easy to officiate in international matches as everything is perfect and of high standard there. Punishment is also very severe, and nobody tolerates it if you make a mistake as a referee. I always work very hard so that I will not make any mistakes.
Any match which you cannot forget?
I still cannot forget the South Africa versus Uruguay match at the Confederations Cup. It was a very important match for both the teams. When I allowed the equalizing goal by Uruguay, the South Africans felt it was not a goal. I saw the ball crossing the goal line and then going out. So, I awarded the goal to Uruguay. The South African players protested. One of the players gesticulated at me that I was blind, but I just ignored the gesture. This happened in the first half. In the second half, the same player ran towards me and said sorry. He had seen the replay of the goal on television and found that it was indeed a clear goal.
As an Assistant Referee who has participated in several major international football matches, what do you say are the qualities that a referee needs to possess to perform well at the highest level?
First of all, a referee has to be extremely fit. Mental toughness and high concentration are extremely important. Of course, you have to have the rules of the game on your finger tips. Interpretation of the law is very, very important.
To remain fit, I practice like an athlete. I do work-outs at the stadium for about two hours every morning without fail. I do meditation so that my concentration level is very high. But on the match days, I don’t do any running or training; I do just light work-outs.
Are you following any special training for the World Cup?
Of course, the World Cup is the ultimate as far as tournaments are concerned, and you want to perform your best there.
I am following the FIFA training schedule now. All the 72 selected referees and assistant referees were called to Korea in February this year to undergo a special training course for a week. After the training, they gave us the special FIFA training schedule which we are supposed to follow everyday. Every morning, I run 2.5 kms in 12 minutes. It is excellent if I run 3 kms in 12 minutes.
FIFA has also given us cassettes of all the previous important matches so that we can see what had happened in the past. There will be good decisions and bad decisions in the matches. We are supposed to study those matches and send our analyses to FIFA as a part of the training programme for the World Cup.
I am going to Korea again, as we have to undergo another training programme prior to the World Cup. The training is from the 22nd of this month to the 26th.
India's presence on the international football scene is nil. How do players from different countries look at you, an assistant referee from India?
Initially, many looked at me with suspicion. Their attitude was, 'There is no football in India! How can you be a good referee?' But after seeing me perform, players started respecting me.
I have read that it was because of P.T.Usha that you became a sportsman….
It is true. I was a big fan of P.T. Usha. I was in my 12th standard when I got a chance to meet her. She was here [in Chennai] to participate in a meet. After the 100 metre dash, I went up to her for her autograph. She asked me, "A sports person?" I said, 'Yes'. She then wrote, "Practise, practise, practise. No gain without pain." Those were golden words for me. They still inspire me. I would say she is an inspiration not only for athletes but all other sports persons in India.
From the Junior World Cup to the World Cup to the Olympics, you have participated in all major international tournaments. You have climbed the Everest as far as football is concerned…
Unfortunately, nobody has recognised me in India. I will give you a small example. It was in this stadium [Nehru stadium] that I started my career as a FIFA referee in the SAF Games. And it was the present chief minister who was responsible for constructing this stadium. Every day, when I enter the stadium, I think of the SAF Games. So I wanted to meet her and thank her, but I am still trying to get an appointment with her. I do not want anything from her; I just want to thank her.
You received the Best 'Asian Assistant Referee' award. Has the Indian government recognised your achievements?
[Silent for some time] No. I have not received anything from the state government or the Indian government, but I have no complaints. I am happy with Indian Bank, where I work. Yes, I will be very happy if the Indian government recognises what I have achieved. Yes, it hurts sometimes…
Photographs: SREERAM SELVARAJ