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The ground beneath Subir Bhattacharjee's restless feet

Bhattacharjee, 50, is a tall, lean, athletic man, with genial but weather-beaten face, he has been working as football referee for more than 25 years

Chandrima S. Bhattacharya | Published 24.07.23, 05:43 AM
Subir Bhattacharjee at Deshbandhu Park in Shyambazar

Subir Bhattacharjee at Deshbandhu Park in Shyambazar

Picture by Subhendu Chaki

Subir Bhattacharjee is there at 5.40pm on the dot. I am late. As I reach Calcutta Referees’ Association, on the Maidan, he greets me in and informs me apologetically that he has to eat, because he is very hungry.

“I have been out since early morning and have played too many matches,” he says. Bhattacharjee, 50, is a tall, lean, athletic man, with a genial but weather-beaten face. He has been working as a football referee for more than 25 years.


He was at Bankim Cup, a local tournament at Deshbandhu Park in Shyambazar, that day. Out of the six matches played, he conducted three.

“Refereeing is a very tough job,” he smiles, as the plates with the plump pieces of dim pauruti, thick bread wrapped in an omelette, a Kolkata staple, arrive for him and me. “Referring,” he resumes, “needs you to run all the time. The player can stand still, but the referee cannot.” He has to be mobile, omniscient and also be able to think on his feet, literally. “You have to take a decision in a split-second. A referee’s decision can cost much. Do you remember August 16?“

On August 16, 1980, during an East Bengal-Mohun Bagan match, at a time when the city was divided into the rival camps of these two teams and would often see bouts of football fanaticism, 16 persons were killed in the violence that followed decisions taken by the referee.

Bhattacharjee has not had the opportunity to referee such a major match. Neither do East Bengal and Mohun Bagan inspire the same passions any more. But the referee’s responsibility, whether the match is big or small, remains the same.

This gives his profession the meaning, dignity and authority, which attract Bhattacharjee. “On the ground, a referee’s word is final,” he says. “I establish my authority from the moment I walk in. They judge you even from the sound of your whistle,” he laughs.

“You should know when exactly to show the yellow card, the red card. When to ask the coach and the non-playing team members to go off the field. The players have to respect you. And you have to respect them back. That way you can referee a match well, for its entire duration, which is my responsibility.”

The money is very little, just not enough. But Bhattacharjee has other compensations.

He had not started out by wanting to be a referee. He had wanted to be a player.

Growing up in Alambazar, Dakshineshwar, he played football from the time he can remember.

“I just wanted to play and kept playing in the neighbourhood grounds, unlike my brothers, who studied,” says Bhattacharjee. “I was mad about football. It is in the blood of Bengalis and it is in mine.”

He was noticed and picked up. He first played for the fifth division club, Sarada Charan AC. Then the fourth division club, Kashipur Saraswati, the third division club Rashbehari, and finally the first division clubs Salkia Friends, Bali Pratibha and West Bengal Police.

“Only for the last I did not actually play a match. For all the others I was a playing member of the team,” he says.

He has also played for well-known local clubs in his area: Dakshineswar Young Men’s Association, Purbachal in Dunlop, Vivekananda Samiti in Agarpara and Ariadaha Sporting Club.

“I have played in their first teams and never had to sit out,” he says.

He was a centre midfielder.

“I always wore the jersey with the number 6, my favourite number. I was not bad as a player,” he says.

But it all ended abruptly when, still in his early 20s, he sustained an injury in the groin. He never recovered enough. His career as a player was over.

“But I couldn’t stay away from the grounds.” When the children played in the neighbourhood, he was around and monitored the matches, an unofficial referee. Then he saw in it an opportunity to remain a part of football.

He took the referees’ test, still in his early 20s, conducted by Calcutta Referees’ Association, and became a referee, which allowed him to officiate in Indian Football Association (IFA) league matches.

Refereeing keeps him very busy. And very fit. Though he has just retired as a league match referee with numerous matches to his credit, now he takes part in private matches and tournaments.

“I have been referee at an under-19 East Bengal-Mohun Bagan match, too,” he says. “I have been everywhere in the state and sometimes outside Bengal,” he says.

His can be the most invisible role, though the referee’s jersey is no longer black, but he feels good when he hears his name announced on the public address system.

And when he is appreciated for conducting a match well. For the discerning football fan knows the difficulty of a referee’s job.

“I was at a match where the local team was being supported by thousands of people. The other team, from outside, barely had any supporter.” There was enormous pressure on him to take decisions in favour of the local team, but he resisted.

“I earn respect,” he says. He is well-known in the neighbourhood. On their retirement, he and his colleague were honoured by the referees’ association with special matches for them.

Bhattacharjee is convinced that outwardly football may have changed in this part of the world, but not intrinsically. He believes that after a downturn, football in India, and Bengal, is reviving. “Resources and infrastructure are improving. Much more money is coming in. The number of players is increasing, as is the number of young men — and women — who want to be referees,” says Bhattacharjee.

India’s rank — though still 99 — is improving. It has a great coach. Sunil Chhetri is scoring.

Bhattacharjee points at the entry of women in the many fields of football as a sign of progress. “We now have many women’s teams and tournaments, as we have a growing number of women referees, who officiate both at men’s and women’s matches. And women come to see matches.”

To accommodate women viewers, the Kishore Sangha tournament in Dakshineshwar has built a separate gallery for them.

“Who says there aren’t enough grounds for children to play football? The Maidan had so many fields. Look at Mankundu, Chandannagar, Chunchura, Kalyani, Kankinara, Naihati…” Maybe sometimes we should look away from the city.

Three times a week, at 5.30am, Bhattacharjee coaches children in the neighbourhood in football. Sometimes in the evenings, too.

But to make two ends meet, he has to give private lessons. A commerce graduate (pass), he teaches students in batches from classes V to XII. “I teach all subjects from classes V to VIII. To classes IX and X, I teach Bengali, history and geography. I teach Bengali to classes XI and XII.”

So till 7am he teaches football, 7am to 9am he teaches students at home, sometimes teaches football again in the evening and from 6.30pm to 8.30pm gives private lessons.

Now he referees during weekends. He is booked for months. He keeps running to keep himself fit.

He does not complain, but stresses that referees should be paid better. “They were paying Rs 90,000 as prize money at a tournament. We wanted Rs 10,000 for a referee and two linesmen, but it didn’t go down well,” says Bhattacharjee.

He brushes the thought away.

“I can’t stay away from football. If I haven’t been to the grounds for a few days I begin to feel restless. On entering the ground, walking, running, whatever, you enter into a different world. It’s free of everything else. It eliminates everything else. It’s like an addiction,” he says.

“So is refereeing. More than money.”

Last updated on 24.07.23, 05:43 AM

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