Growing up with two older brothers, in a Goan village which had given birth to legends like Robert Fernandes and Armando Colaco, it is difficult to remove football from your life. Football was a part and parcel of every child growing up in the village and I spent a large chunk of my childhood playing in the uneven rough terrain of the paddy fields, battling it out with the local boys.
I also happened to grow up at a time when a certain Diego Maradona was leaving the world jaw-dropped. I found myself imitating the Argentine football God, trying to juggle the ball, balancing it and trying out tricks on my head or with my shoulders.
I am pretty sure my seriousness in football as a teenage girl has a lot to do with worshipping the genius that was Diego Armando Maradona. What’s more, I even support Argentina, over Portugal in the world cup despite being a true blue Goan girl.
My brothers were both professional, one of them played for Eastern Railways. Back then, I was into a lot of sports. I played volleyball in school and cricket for the state. But football was always a priority.
I was getting involved in the game pretty seriously but I was not aware of the different positions that existed in football. I just wanted to score goals. My coach read my game and suggested that it was suited best for the position of a midfielder and so began my tryst with competitive football.
But even at that point, I didn’t think that someday I would be taking the field wearing the jersey of the national team, let alone lead it. I gradually realised that whichever teams I played for, my teammates, in a way, depended on me. I feel like this was kind of an awakening that I needed to fully understand that I had found my true calling.
My footballing career could have lasted a lot longer than it did because of how fit and sure of my game I was. I played in several tournaments in several cities, including in heritage leagues like Calcutta Football League. These cities keep reminding us, who are in the game, why football is so beloved.
When I played a season in Calcutta, I remember that I was picked up from the airport by a Mohun Bagan official and from the second that I got into the car, the only thing I was told as if on repeat, was that the sole aim was to beat East Bengal.
While playing in Calcutta I realised the people here were born to support football and since then, even as a referee, I call Calcutta my second home for the passion that they have for football.
But then with time I realised that it was time to move to another route in life. I played professionally till 2001 and I felt that the time was right. I could see the younger crop of footballers coming up and thought that it was time to make room for them.
Becoming a referee was the next step for me and I felt like this was when I should make the move. Although, I feel like I had at least good five years left in me.
The jump from being a footballer to becoming a referee is a little unconventional, I know. Most footballers choose to become a coach in the aftermath of their career. I could do that too, if I wanted.
I am trained to be one, I have a license and I got my training with the likes of Santosh Kashyap, Yusuf Ansari who are associated with some of the biggest clubs of the country. But my hunger is too huge to satiate.
Sitting in the technical area and giving instructions is simply not enough for me. I needed to be closer to where all the action is so refereeing was the logical way out. Moreover, I quit the sport pretty early so I was extremely fit and had a really thorough understanding of the game. But of course I had my fair share of challenges.
Actually, just being the only woman on the field, with 22 men practically twice your size can be pretty daunting. But I used my background in football to make it clear to all who the boss was.
I still remember this one instance where I showed a yellow card to a pretty well known player of the time. He did not take my decision too kindly and he challenged it, followed by an insult. Well, I had no time for considering him so gave him another yellow and off he was sent.
This was followed by his teammate coming up and demanding an explanation and I tried to politely ease the situation out. But he was not one for nicety and he too, hurled a verbal abuse towards me. Guess how that ended? He was sent off too.
Tables turned soon. Instead of the sight of towering men seeming to be intimidating to me, I began to intimidate them and they gradually realised that I was not going to be an easy nut to crack. It was clear to me then. If you make good and strong decisions, you will be taken seriously eventually.
One of the most important lessons as a referee is to learn the importance of fitness, not just in terms of stamina but it is also about your whole body and mind being at piece. A referee runs over 15 kms, sometimes 20 kms during a match. We have such high pressure matches where just one wrong decision can change the entire course of a match and that requires immense concentration.
If I am perfectly candid, I see girls in football wasting away opportunities I could have killed for when I was in their shoes. When I was starting out, I would carry 7 footballs to the paddy fields with me, on my shoulder and I would train on my own.
I had no coach to tell me where I was falling short, what I should do to make it better. I used to everything, doing hurdles, kicking balls to 50 m away, getting my brothers to help me practice, and all of it on that uneven terrain of paddy fields.
I am sorry to have to say this but girls these days are just not serious. I fail to see the dedication in their eyes. Back when we played, we didn’t have coached in every nook and cranny and nor did we have the infrastructure that girls today enjoy.
Yet, we played all year even if it was for one single match. But today, I feel like all of them are delicate darlings who are just not bothered to sweat it out. They practise only when there is a tournament knocking on the door, and it makes me a little sad.
However, that’s not my place of concern anymore. I have had my share as a footballer and I am now only focusing on my career in the refereeing world. I am now an AFC instructor and I have my eyes on becoming a FIFA instructor and seeing our referees at the world cup. Hopefully, with hard work and dedication, that’s where I shall be in a few years.