When Santosh Kumar ran out to officiate in the first quarter final of ‘Goal 2013’, on Wednesday, it was also practice for something much bigger. For, the next time this 37-year-old from Kottayam takes to the ground, it will be for the upcoming India-Palestine international football friendly match at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on February 6.
Santosh is the designated fourth official for that match right after which he will fly to West Bengal to take charge of what is perhaps, the most difficult match to officiate in Indian football - East Bengal taking on Mohun Bagan in the Kolkata derby.
But Santosh, one of the three professional referees signed up to a contract by the All-India Football Federation (AIFF), is no stranger to officiate in big games.
“I have refereed matches between the two teams before, as well as a number of international matches. I officiated in an India-Zambia match and was then part of the refereeing team for the Nehru Cup. I was also fortunate enough to officiate in the match between India and Bayern Munich, which was also Baichung Bhutia’s farewell match,” he says.
Santosh got his qualification as a referee at just 19 years of age and became a national referee in 2004. But it was not until 2008 that he began to get really busy. In 2009, he was elected to the AIFF elite panel, before being appointed a FIFA referee in 2011. And when AIFF decided to professionalise refereeing, he was one of the three people signed to a contract.
“Things are looking up for refereeing in the country. The AIFF has told us that more football referees will be signed up to contracts next year. For the first time in history, the Federation’s refereeing department has sponsors, which greatly benefits referees in the country. As the game improves and grows in popularity here, so will refereeing standards,” he says.
Santosh believes he has achieved everything that an Indian referee can realistically achieve but hoped that those who come after him will go on to do bigger things.
“I do not think I will ever get the chance to referee in a World Cup match. But Indian referees are not that far off from going to the World Cup. If we get to host the 2017 U-17 World Cup, then there will be a batch of referees at the tournament, who can go on to officiate in either the 2018 or the 2022 World Cups,” he says.