Refereeing issue dominates India's NFL launch

Phagwara opens its campaign against Mohammedan Sporting in the inaugural match of India's 11th National Football League at the Ambedkar Stadium on Friday. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be the chief guest for the match, the only one to be held in the capital city, New Dehli, out of the 90 games spread over Kolkata, Goa, Mumbai, Bangalore and Ludhiana. The 10 teams involved in the league, to be played on home-and-away basis, are Mahindra United, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, JCT, Mohammaden Sporting, Churchill Brothers, Sporting Clube de Goa, Dempo Sports Club, Hindustan Aeronautics and Air-Indi and Zee Sports will telecast live 45 matches, including 10 from the first phase of four rounds.

However, the opening game has been overshadowed by discussion of the possibility of foreign referees being introduced to the NFL during the season. At the media launch during the week All India Football Federation president Priya Ranjan said the AIFF "will assess the performance of the match officials after the completion of the first phase and, if necessary, bring in foreign referees for some of the high-profile matches.”

Aditya Kumar of Express India recalled that the 2006 NFL season had been marred "by the unprecedented exit of Fransa Pax of Goa following a controversial decision by the referee. The Goa-based team protested two dubious penalty decisions given by the referee in their match against Mahindra United. Fransa Pax boycotted the NFL by opting out of their next two ties against Sporting Clube de Goa and Salgoacar FC and finally left the league midway. AIFF subsequently disbanded the club. The instances have been only growing in the recent years; no wonder Indian referees find themselves out of favour from the AFC with no opportunity to officiate at any senior-level competitions in Asia."

Dasmunsi, however, has generally defended Indian referees. “In the last 100 matches played in the Santosh Trophy, NFL and Federation Cup there were only six instances of complaints against the referees, whereas at the FIFA World Cup itself there were 15 instances of complaints against referees in 100 matches. So hiring referees from abroad is not an indicator that referees from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Malaysia are better and would be able to do a better job,” he said.