New Delhi: Two Indian women referees being selected to officiate at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, in September may be a cause for celebration as the country embarks on a new phase in professional football.
Maria Rebello and Uvena Fernandes are the first women referees picked by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to supervise Asian Games matches and they are all too excited about the break they have been given.
"I am overwhelmed, this will be my first match abroad and I'm feeling very excited," Fernandes, who received her FIFA certification badge only this year, told IANS.
"I'm not nervous at all. I have faith in my abilities and I have prepared well, I'm just raring to go," said Fernandes, who for the past five-six years has been officiating Subroto Cup matches.
While Fernandes, 32, is a relative new-bee, her partner Rebello has acquired the knack of keeping grown men in check on the field.
Rebello, 42, a former India senior women's national team captain and a regular referee in the Goa pro-league, became the first woman to oversee I-League and Santosh Trophy matches.
"I'm feeling great. It's something of a second coming for me, I had participated in the 13th Asian Games in Bangkiok in 1998 as a player and now I'm back at the Games to referee matches. Playing is completely different from officiating, but I'm confident I will do well," Rebello told IANS.
"We will have a fitness test before the championship and I'm practising and keeping myself in top shape by refereeing the professional Goan league," Rebello added.
One of the challenges a referee faces in international tournaments such as this is the language barrier.
With 45 nations participating in the Incheon Games, English certainly would not be everyone's strong suit.
The Indian duo, however, is ready to deal with such issues and have a well thought out plan to overcome these deficiencies.
"I have decided that before every game, I would get myself well versed with a few important words from the two countries that I would be officiating and then there is obviously gesturing with hands," said Fernandes.
Her more experienced colleague has an even better way of overcoming this challenge.
"Yes, the language barrier would certainly be a challenge, but I have devised plans to address such issues," said a confident Rebello.
"I feel that sometimes not knowing the language is an advantage because you can ignore all the nonsense the players utter in anger when they are upset," she added.
However, the remarkable journey for the two, who are leaving for Incheon Sep 10, hasn't been easy and both have credited the head of the All India Football Federation's (AIFF) referees department, Gautam Kar, for the boom in the number of women referees.
A look at the FIFA list of women referees shows only two Indians whereas a tiny West African nation like Benin with a population of less than 10 million, has seven. Many other smaller African nations have also produced more women referees. India has a lot a catching up to do, but the two Indian referees feel things are improving.
"The development of women referees in India is in the best hands. What he (Gautam Kar) has done for it cannot be explained in words. He has been instrumental for us becoming refs. The fact that the U-19 women's nationals in Cuttack was manned by all-women referees for the first time goes to show what sort of depth there is in the country," said Rebello.
Fernandes feels that with top-level professional leagues like the Indian Super League (ISL) springing up in the country, it's only a matter of time before more and more Indian referees get to officiate in international matches and tournaments.
"Professional leagues will give opportunities to young referees, both men and women, to hone their skills. Hopefully, with that experience and exposure we hope to get nominated for bigger tournaments around the world," Fernandes said.