The Indian whistle blower on a football tour of Asia
- Referee Pranjal Banerjee talks about a few of his favourite things: the game in Iran that allowed women in, Sven Goran Eriksson, Del Piero and snow in Mongolia.
“The Azadi Stadium is huge,” said Pranjal Banerjee stressing on the last word as he negotiated waterlogged Kolkata roads on a long drive to work. The city still reeling from the aftereffects of a cyclonic circulation meant traffic was chaotic and full of angry honks as Banerjee shared his experience of being one of Asia’s top football referees. “I am using a hands-free so we can talk. Once I get to office, I won’t have time,” he said.
Banerjee was referring to being in Tehran for a 2022 World Cup qualifier. He had been to Iran 10 years earlier to supervise an Asian under-13 football festival but this was different. This game on October 10, 2019, was one that had the world’s attention for extra-football reasons. And as part of an all-Indian team, Banerjee would be the man with the whistle. “I reached two days before the game and the city was thick with anticipation, some tension too. My first reaction was: will the match happen,” said Banerjee.
For the first time in 40 years, women were allowed to buy tickets to watch football in Iran. Facing a potential Fifa ban, Iran became the world’s last country to allow women ticket-holders at games, according to an AP report then. Nearly 4,500 fetched up at the iconic stadium. The news agency AFP said 3,500 women had bought tickets but nearly 1,000 more were allowed in halfway through the game.
Banerjee remembers seeing the women making their way to the stadium, faces painted in colours of the national flag, women using the flag as a headscarf and many carrying vuvuzelas. Iran won 14-0 and the cheers of the women echoed around the largely empty stadium, he said. (The official attendance was 15,823 in the dish-shaped stadium that can hold almost 80,000.) Writing for Hindustan Times one day after the game, Iranian journalist Hoda Hashemi said she still couldn’t talk properly because all she and her friends did at the game “was just scream and scream.”
Among his experiences of supervising games in Asia—Banerjee, 35, has refereed at every level barring the final round of the Asian Cup—this stays top, he said. “Next would be a Japan-Philippines game where Sven Goran-Eriksson was the Philippines’ coach. After that, it would be an ISL (Indian Super League) game between Delhi Dynamos and Kerala Blasters in 2014.” Why? “Because Alessandro del Piero was playing for Delhi.”
A Mongolia- North Korea AFC Cup qualifier in Ulan Bator too is memorable because it was the first time Banerjee saw snow and a football pitch sheathed in white. “I was wondering how I would run the game. In minutes though, the snow was cleared, and in temperatures well below freezing, we finished the game.”
Has the occasion or the players and coaches involved ever got the better of him? The Iran-Cambodia game had Sardar Azmoun, who has scored Champions League goals against Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich and had carried his form to Zenit St Petersburg where he had joined that year, notching up a hattrick. “I have always used these games as opportunity to grow. For me every game is about me trying to ensure that a team doesn’t suffer because of an error on my part,” said Banerjee.
“Pranjal has many plus points: height, personality, body language, dedication,” said Goutam Kar. The former Fifa match commissioner and member of the referees’ committee of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) also said: “He has the capacity to be one of the finest in Asia.”
If that hasn’t happened yet, you can blame it on Covid-19. Banerjee is still among six Indian referees on the AFC’s Elite Panel but travel restrictions mean he hasn’t had an international assignment since that game in Tehran. Since then, Banerjee was asked to officiate in two AFC Cup games and a World Cup qualifier but couldn’t travel.
The pandemic hit Indian referees in general and Banerjee in particular, said Kar, who was head of refereeing at the All India Football Federation (AIFF) from 2011 to 2018. “You could make over ₹15 lakh annually from supervising matches in India and in Asia,” said Kar who now heads the referees’ unit in Nepal. “That meant you didn’t need another job for a comfortable standard of living. You could, as they say, eat, drink and sleep refereeing. Your day could start with training, move to analysing games after breakfast and try to execute them in the afternoon training session.”
The problem in India is that it becomes difficult for referees and assistant referees to be full-timers, said Kar. “Covid-19 made it worse.” Not being a full-time referee is an impediment to progress now. Unless they are in the armed forces, where if you are involved in sport you can do your own thing, most referees in Asia are full-timers. At best, they may have part-time jobs as coaches or physical education teachers, stuff that keeps them in touch with the game.”
Banerjee works in the private education sector and since he also holds an MBA it means additional responsibilities. Often that also means less time for refereeing assignments.
“I know money is hard in football in India but AIFF must find a way to invest in developing referees. Qatar may not be the right example in this context but they often pay the difference in travel allowance to ensure that their match officials fly business class on assignments,” said Kar. When the conversation moved to referees in Europe, Kar said the budget of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), the referees’ body in England, would be way more than that of the AIFF.
Founded in 2001 and funded by the English FA, Premier League and the Football League, PGMOL’s revenue in 2020 was 22 million pounds, according to a report in SportsEdTV Soccer.
Refereeing happened to Banerjee by chance after injury ended his football career in 2005 when he was playing for Calcutta University. At the time, former international referee Pradip Nag asked if he would be interested in knowing the rules of the game a little better. The Indian Football Association, which helms the sport in West Bengal, was setting up a referees’ academy and Banerjee was one of the inductees. In 2010, he was selected for a two-year AFC course in Kuala Lumpur. As part of the programme, he supervised games in Japan and in the Maldives league. In the year he graduated from Kuala Lumpur, he became a national referee meaning he could supervise games in AIFF tournaments.
In 2014, Banerjee got his Fifa badge. From 2015, he has been an AFC Elite Panel referee. If that hasn’t yet got him an Asian Cup finals game it is because Banerjee said the tournament is usually to get match officials ready for the World Cup. No Indian has refereed a World Cup finals game but as assistant referee, Komaleeswaran Sankar was part of the quadrennial showpiece in 2002.
As he gets ready for ISL8 which begins on November 19 in a bio-secure bubble in Goa, Banerjee said Indian match officials benefitted from foreign referees being unable to come to ISL last season because of Covid-19. “Anyway, only one or two foreigners were good, among them Ravshan Irmatov,” said Banerjee, referring to the Uzbekistan referee who had the whistle in the 2010 World Cup semi-final between Netherlands and Uruguay. Instead of getting foreign referees, it would help Indians if the referees’ assessors in ISL were from abroad, he said.