Indian football's Twin Towers (yes, that's a stretched metaphor) - the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League - share little. Not finances, not publicity, not quality of television pictures and from this season onwards, not even players. Except 2017-18 has them in total sync, with vociferous certainty, about one part of their business - Indian referees.
In the ISL, coaches of two teams and an assistant coach have been banned for matches and hit with six-figure fines for criticising referees and, in one case, physically pushing a referee. Coaches of three other teams were removed from the technical area for similar offences. In the I-League, four clubs have complained about the refereeing, the Big Two from Calcutta - Mohun Bagan and East Bengal - have written to the All India Football Federation (AIFF) demanding the appointment of foreign referees and match observers. Replacing Indian referees, it appears, has become the one option to turn around a club's seasonal fortunes and from there, smoothly, improve the standards of Indian football. If only.
Talking about and around Indian referees can be shadowboxing because "football referees don't give interviews." The only person authorised to speak about refereeing in Indian football is the AIFF director of referees, Goutam Kar. The rash of referee criticism this season, Kar says, is not new; referees get criticised everywhere in the world, even in World Cups, and that the viewing public and television experts don't understand the rules and "the perfect referee is yet to be born."
The truth, however, is that of course Indian referees speak. They share their life stories only on condition of complete anonymity. Or else. A series of conversations with referees around the country, current and former, local, national and international became a walk into a world of astonishing abundance and painful scarcity.
The abundance is found in the referees' love for the sport, the job and studied forbearance in the face of invective-spewing players and coaches.
"Players have emotions, have stress, they try to score and when they can't their frustrations spill over. If they fall down and don't say anything, the coach asks them what's happened, your game is not up to the mark, you're not doing a good job. So, they have to raise their hand and shout at the referee. We cannot show them red cards and send them all off."
"We are used to it, we can't get angry, we do yoga. We can't be rash, and have to be careful. Ten minutes into a game, you give a red card, the match is out of your hands. So many times, you have to just ignore angry players -- become deaf to them."
"Afterwards, the players come to us and apologise, 'sorry ref, it was my fault. In that moment, I had to do that.'"
For the referee, it has to stop being about a player's theatrics. One ref said that the only difference in officiating in the two leagues is that the "foreign players do a lot more acting and sometimes the fouls are called on the acting of the foreign player rather a foul on an Indian player. It happens. We've got to be careful."
The referees have formed WhatsApp groups where they exchange videos, discuss errors and solutions. Sometimes the most controversial incidents are not acted upon in the eyes of the public - like a handball or a player seen as physically assaulting a referee. Being dead centre of the incident, referees say, gives them a view of the incident that no one else on the field, not even television, has.
"Is it ball on hand? Or hand on ball? That's a difference only the referee can tell. Only the referee knows if a player assaulted him or if they have collided. These things happen in split seconds."
Referees come into the job inspired by their love for football, truncated playing careers, the example of a family member or a mentor in their workplace. Only the most durable stick around in an ecosystem of scarcity. Scarcity of rewards and opportunity.
The numbers first: India has, by Kar's estimate, 6500 football referees, 4000 still operational at all levels, and he reckons, 150-odd at the top. Japan on the other hand, Kar says, requires every match played even recreationally to be officiated by a certified referee and so the country's referee total is 375,000 in all categories. His dream number for India: 50,000. "In my lifetime I don't think I'll be able to achieve it," Kar says. This is because there aren't enough games happening in the country of any quality because state associations don't have organised leagues or an event calendar to keep the referees working and earning. Without games, the referee earns neither experience to help him progress up the refereeing ladder nor a reasonable salary to keep him in the game.
In the ISL, Indian referees are paid Rs 7000 per match day, and Rs 2500 on non-match days. Foreign referees in the ISL are paid between $400 and $500 (approx. Rs 26,000 and Rs 32000) a day, regardless of whether these are match days or not. On average, every match assignment involves a three-day turnaround, but there are incidents of Indian referees haring around the country this season, because of the two leagues being held simultaneously. Kar says a referee earns Rs 7000 a game in the I-League, Rs 1500 in the Santosh Trophy, Rs 1200 in the second division, Rs 1000 in age-ground matches and in local events, he says, "frankly speaking, there are local matches where referees are paid between Rs 100 and Rs 200."
"You must see that the money they get is respectable... everybody says foreigners are foreigners they have to be paid extra, we have to pay Indians less. We are doing the same job, the laws are the same. The fee is not important - but when I leave my office to do an assignment, I should get better money than what I get in office."
Even if there is an interest in refereeing, can Indian football, as it stands at the moment, keep it alive? Hold a class to pull in referees and in big cities, 80 may apply, 50-55 turn up and 40 would pass the test to begin refereeing at the bottom. Within a couple of years, the numbers start to drop - due to job demands, family pressures, on-field abuse - and in five years, the 40 could be down to 10.
Ask those in the game what they want from refereeing and the conversation is never about money or player behaviour.
"Pay is secondary, getting opportunities is a big thing. There are referees, match assessors who've not got games for two years, they need postings, more matches. It can't be arbitrary."
"There should be an interest what junior referees are doing. Our junior base needs to be strengthened, both in games and the number of referees working in them. The assessors need to work with junior referees on the ground, explain things in practical terms, not to just tell them on their face."
"The quality of the assessors is not up to the mark, only a post-graduate can teach a graduate, not an SSC-pass, that's what's happening now."
"Now no one tells the referees how the errors can be avoided, it's what we learnt from our elders, why it occurred, how it should not occur again."
"AIFF needs to put pressure on states to produce referees."
These are the voices of the much-mocked Indian football referee. Far from not speaking out for their tribe and their calling, it appears they are not heard.