New Delhi: Indian women referees, having broken through the glass ceiling in yet another field, are going through a tough time in convincing soccer officials - and even players - that they are as good as their male counterparts in this demanding business.
In a long list of FIFA women referees, there are only two Indians: Maria Rebello, 42, on the referees roster and Uvena Fernandes, 32, an assistant referee. And more Indian women are forcing their way into the field to supervise men's matches since there is no organised women's football in the country.
It was no surprise that Chennai girls Ruba Devi and Basanti and Bengal's Kanika Burman and Monica Jana were the latest to qualify as Class II national referees and aim to follow the much celebrated Goan girls.
In India, luckily for the women referees, they have the full support of the All India Football Federation (AIFF). The last month's U-19 women's nationals in Cuttack was manned by an army of all-women referees for the first time.
Former India captain Rebello, who is now a regular in the Goa pro-league, said the nationals in Cuttack were a path-breaking tournament for women referees.
Can they handle men's matches? "Why not," said Maria. Having officiated in the Goa men's pro-league, she knows things can be a bit bad.
"Things can get a bit nasty in Goa where football is a way of life. But I feel women have the ability to keep things under control. I have been verbally abused by players and fans and I also give it back to them," Rebello told IANS on the phone from Goa.
Like Rebellow, fellow Goan, Fernandes, who is an officer with the Indian Air Force (IAF), also represented India before she shifted to refereeing in 2003 and has never looked back since then.
Burman's moment of test came on the last day of 2013 as she officiated in a league match between East Bengal and Railway FC.
Never before scenes were witnessed at the East Bengal ground in Kolkata as the media rushed for Burman's bytes moments after she blew the final whistle. She was intimidated by East Bengal's South Sudan import James Moga but kept her poise.
But success for Burman comes at a cost. She loses a day's salary every time she takes leave to officiate in a match.
"In 2013, I lost a month's salary because I was refereeing in the women's U-19 nationals in Cuttack and the sub-junior boys tournament in Kalyani. It is tough to make ends meet when I lose a day's salary," Burman told IANS on the phone from Kolkata.
Across the river Hoogly in Howrah, the tough financial situation has prompted Jana to change her priorities.
"For the last one year, I have been looking desperately for a job. In the meantime, I also passed the test for Class II referees. A job will certainly give me the security to focus on refereeing," said Jana, who has fought poverty right from her childhood.
Basanti, who is a sub-inspector in the Tamil Nadu Police, has made a name for herself in Chennai's club scene with her no-nonsense style.
"The challenge for the female referees is how we handle male matches. The challenge is to keep things under control. Being a policewoman it helps me to some extent. But on the field things are different and challenging," Basanti told IANS on the phone from Chennai.
For the AIFF, the priority remains to promote women's refereeing. The man behind the rise of women referees is Col. (retd) Goutam Kar, who is the head of the refereeing department.
"We realised that one girl means one family. And since we don't have organised women's football we encouraged them to take up refereeing so that they can have a good future. First we started scouting and then in 2012 we got a good response in the women's only referee course that was attended by 30-34 girls," Kar told IANS.
Kar, who is also match commissioner with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), said the girls have a bright future.
"If these four girls (who have just qualified) make it big, then it will surely inspire the next generation of women referees," said Kar.
Kar said the AIFF wants to catch the girls young so that they can be put through the paces early.
"We are trying them to spot the girls early. The focus remains on the fitness, stamina and their will power. There is interest among the women footballers to become referees but the tests are very tough. Those who pass the test can really make it big," said Kar.