If you ever happen to talk football with one of India’s most prolific referees and India’s first-ever in the FIFA elite panel, you are very much likely to mistake him for the guy next door. Years after blowing his final whistle as a FIFA referee and later as a national referee, Rizwan-ul Haq still lives and breathes the game that has given him everything but he never wore an aura around him, neither when he was officiating nor when he is associated with the game in an administrative role in the Delhi football circuit.

Rizwan began as a footballer wanting to enter the national team and was even part of the National Under-15 side. He was even named in the senior team probables but when he couldn’t make it to the team, he tried his luck in officiating, much like his father FIFA referee (late) Ikram-Ul Haq and began as a Class III referee in 1988.

In an exclusive chat with The Statesman, Rizwan talked at length about football, his experiences as a referee, and what India needs to do to emerge as the next sporting powerhouse.

Excerpts from the interview:

If you have to choose one, which one would you pick- a career as a football player or a match referee?

I enjoyed both roles. First as a player and then as a referee. There was always a soft corner in my heart for the match referee profession because of my father. Ultimately, I reached where I was destined to reach. So, I enjoyed both the roles and I have achieved everything as a referee.

Talk us through the football culture in Delhi- from the old City Football Club which boasted of players like Iqbal, Nasir and Aslam, to the present day when there is very minimal football culture in the national capital.

The first secretary of the City Club you are talking about was my father. He only made the team and took all the players from Anglo-Arabic School in the team. This was indeed very popular in the city and that time the club was winning the Delhi Championship and it did so for continuously three years.

All the stars of the club like Mr Akram and Mr Aslam belonged to Old Delhi and so there was a massive fan following from that side of the city. Would you imagine stadiums full for a club practice session now? But such was the craze of the City Football Club.

People were interested in the sport back then. Now, the interest has gone. People do not allow their children to play the sport at all. The main reason is the shortage of proper football grounds. Back then there were many grounds especially in Old Delhi- National Ground, Medical Institute Ground etc. Many grounds were there and children used to regularly practice there. But now there are no grounds and facilities and over the years people have forgotten the sport in Delhi.

Explain for a layman how to enter the domain of refereeing.

One needs to qualify as a Category 5 referee first. For that one needs to pass the Test. There are four components of the test- the first being the fitness test which includes tasks like running six sprints of 40 metres in 6 seconds, then there is a theory examination in which one must secure 80% marks to qualify, the other two components are the practical exam which is followed by a viva.

Once you become a Category 5 referee, you have to gradually climb the ladder to be part of FIFA referee panel.

Speaking from your personal experience, could you tell us how do referees prepare for a match?

Right from the moment we are appointed for a match, we start our preparation. It is more mental than physical- which teams are playing, what is their status, are there any players who are known to give referees a tough time and what should be our strategy to handle a game because, in case of a high-intensity game, there is no time to think.

Like our Kolkata Derby- East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, more than 1 lakh spectators are watching the match between the traditional rivals so one needs to prepare oneself for these kinds of pressure games mentally and physical fitness standards should be maintained too.

How did you handle the pressure during your stint as a match referee?

Well, Pressure (Laughs)? I used to feel the nerves only till the time match had not begun. Once the whistle is blown, it is important to stay in the moment and govern the match as per the laws. Easier said than done but that’s exactly what one trains for and strives to achieve.

Does a referee’s preparation change according to venue, team, conditions?

More or less, it remains the same. But yes there will be slight variations say if it is a floodlight game or a day game. Before the game, referees usually inspect the stadium with the lights on and check if there is any problem and whether the markings are visible properly or not under lights from 20 metres or 30 metres distance, whether the penalty area line is clearly visible.

For instance, the Mohun Bagan ground is a slanting ground, so if you are standing at the centre for the kick-off, it is difficult to see the touchlines sometimes so it becomes tricky. But the ground has been made in that way keeping in mind the drainage facility.

Refereeing is teamwork and now there is a communication system in place between the referees but when we were officiating things were different.

What do you make of the ATK-Mohun Bagan merger and how do you think it will impact Indian football?

Well, it is their decision to merge. But let me tell you. ATK also belongs to Kolkata as much as Mohun Bagan and together their fan base would now be a huge boost for a sport like football. But I am not sure what is their roadmap for the future and we are yet to see how this partnership works out in the future.

What do you think football should do to grow as a sport in India which largely remains a single sport nation despite making repeated claims to the contrary?

First of all, football needs to develop a culture in India as cricket has already developed. Even infants can be seen trying playing cricket. On the other hand, it is only recently that football has started to seed some sort of culture in our country. Our academies have started training children.

There are baby leagues, golden leagues, even Under-5 leagues being conducted in India, Under-10. So I can say gradually we are developing along the lines of Europe and it is extremely likely that we will produce the results in future.

How do you look at sports as a career option in India?

Earlier parents were reluctant in India to send their children into professional sports but slowly it is changing. Parents are now beginning to realise that sports could be a viable career option. Not only cricket but with the ISL coming in, even football has more money than ever before.

So parents now want their children to play and be at the top of whatever they do but this too is a gradual change and will take many years for it to become a part of our ethos.

Your thoughts on Video Assistant Referee (VAR)?

In terms of FIFA, it is a huge success since it is implemented on four decisions- goal/no goal, penalty/no penalty, red card/no red card and mistaken identity.

If the VAR thinks that it is a wrong decision, they interfere, which is a good thing for the sport even if it is by the slightest of margins. I can tell you that close to 99 % decisions are now being made correctly, thanks to technology and I think we must accommodate at least 1 % margin of error even if it’s a technology-mediated decision.

Coming back to Delhi, it is one city that has not done well across sports in various leagues. What do you think is the reason?

I think there is a lack of good sporting facilities in Delhi other than cricket. See, in Delhi, one cannot enter Nehru Stadium if one wants to play football. Even somebody like me who has represented India is not allowed to enter grounds and stadiums. When I am not able to enter, imagine how would small children and youngsters enter.

Tell me where are the swimming pools in Delhi? Can you enter any swimming pool without paying money?

Sports is in the hands of the rich but most sportspersons come from a poor background and the government is not being able to do anything and that is one of the biggest reasons why Delhi and even the entire country is not able to excel in sports.

How do you see Indian men’s football team after the era of Sunil Chhetri is over?

See, I must tell you, India in 1960s achieved unprecedented success. That time people asked what will happen after PK Banerjee, Chuni Goswami but football continued. Then people asked what will happen after IM Vijayan. Then after Bhaichung Bhutia what will happen. Same thing with Chhetri. The sport is bigger than the stars and someone else will come and hopefully lead India to greater glory.

How far is India from realising the World Cup dream?

We are slowly moving towards it (with an unforgettable smile on his face) and definitely one day we will reach there. All of our teams are practicing hard and want to make that dream a reality and I want to be alive to see India featuring in a FIFA World Cup. Take it from me, once Indian football team qualifies for the World Cup, football be the next cricket in India.

Proudest achievement of your career

Every match finished successfully is a proud moment for me. I had zero controversies during my career as a referee and I am very proud of it.

Most memorable matches that you have been part of

East Bengal-Mohun Bagan at Salt Lake, Kolkata; terrific atmosphere and I officiated the game.