Meet Kottayam native Santhosh, the first professional football referee in India

Image Credit: Manorama

The thrilling match between Calicut University and Jalandhar Sant Baba Bhag Singh University at the All India inter university football championship final, held at Kothamangalam last week, was quite special for Kottayam SH Mount native MB Santhosh Kumar. As he pointed to the centre line and blowed the long whistle, it marked an end to a glorious career in refereeing too. It was the farewell match for Santhosh who has earned name as the most talented referee in Indian football. Interestingly, Santhosh is the first professional referee in India. Meanwhile, Santhosh has hung up his referee’s jersey to wear the khaki uniform of an autorickshaw driver. He will now work as a full-time auto driver in Kottayam town. Santhosh parks his auto named ‘Thrikarthika’ at the Nagambadom auto stan

Santhosh Da
For the football lovers in Kolkata, Santhosh is their beloved Santhosh da. Fans were thrilled when Santhosh ran around the ground controlling the feisty match between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. The two iconic teams, known for their bitter rivalry, had jointly requested Santhosh da to be the referee of the match. Santhosh was unfazed by all the aggression and competitiveness on the ground as he perfectly controlled the match in front of more than one lakh audience.

The professional
Santhosh had refereed at almost all football tournaments in India. India – Bayern Munich exhibition match, India – Palestine match, India – Nepal match and the matches at the SAFF games are some of the international matches that he had controlled. In 2012, he became the first professional referee in India. He has been associated with foremost tournaments like the Indian Super League and the I League. Santhosh even flew to China to control the football matches at Shenyang National Games. He often jokes that airplane is his most frequent mode of travel after his favourite autorickshaw.

Football ‘dada’
Santhosh had controlled three Kolkata derbies in a season and was the referee for the semi – final matches of the IFA Shield Cup in three consecutive seasons from 2012 to 2014. No other Indian referee holds such a unique record. While Santhosh was working as a fourth official at the India – Palestine match that was held on 6 September at Kochi, Indian footballers who are also players of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan came to meet him. A game between the two clubs that was cancelled a few days ago had been rescheduled on 9 September. Santhosh had been assigned as the referee for that match. The players from both the teams requested Santhosh to control the match fairly and efficiently just as he had done it earlier. On 9th September, Santhosh controlled the match at the iconic Salt Lake stadium, in front around one lakh audience, without any untoward incidents on the ground. This indeed is an incredible feat as that match was held after separating the fans of both the teams by a human wall of over one thousand police men.

Trying for job
Even though Santhosh is often hailed as one of the best referees in India, life had often shown him the ‘red card’. He lost the membership to the elite panel of the Asian Football Federation (AFC) twice due to insignificant technical reasons. While other states have been grateful to its sports personnel, Kerala has tuned its back to a prolific football referee like Santhosh. He was promised a government job a few times. However, those promises remained empty. Usually, referees in football retire when they turn 45 years. But, Santhosh got an additional year owing to the pandemic situation. Last week’s match at Kothamangalam was a farewell match for Santhosh who is 46 years old. He wishes to continue in the field of football in various roles including referee instructor. However, he has to take up the wheels of his autorickshaw to make both ends meet. Deepa is his wife. They have two kids – Lakshmi and Govind.

“I have debts; but that is alright. Football and driving are the two jobs that I know. I have no regrets about what I have missed. Isn’t it great that a simpleton from Kottayam had reached such heights in football? So, I am extremely happy,” says Santhosh. 

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