A rickshaw driver now blows the whistle at the highest level of Indian football.

Making a career in football in India is easier said than done, what with the country being obsessed with its cricket. Choosing to be a referee is tougher still given that its not a fulltime role. Making it to FIFA’s elite list of officials is the stuff of dreams.

Football in India is growing, but the country still only boasts six full referees on FIFA’s elite panel. One of the most prominent of these is referee Santosh Kumar, who has been recognized as the country’s top official by the All India Football Federation.

However, not enough has been said about the backstory of the man behind the whistle. Khel Now’s Consulting Editor Joe Williams went behind the scenes to chronicle the life of India’s top official in his own words.

Referee Santosh Kumar during his days as a rickshaw driver

From a small water-logged home to making a decent home for his family, this is what this beautiful game football has given Kumar, a FIFA referee from Kottayam in Kerala who made his living while driving a rickshaw in his native.

“Life has been tough for me, but football has given me all that a father of the family requires,“ said the referee who has officiated in all the four Indian Super League seasons since inception besides other regional and football tournaments in the country.

It was in the year 1996 that Santosh took up refereeing officiated a few games in Kerala and in the year 2011 he was designated as the FIFA referee, and since then it is the whistle which has taken over the rickshaw driver’s seat.

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Father of two children, Santosh’s wife works for a publication as a proofreader and cares for the family when Kumar, who was awarded All India Football Federation referee’s award in the year 2014, who is away on matchday duty.

There is no gain without pain is what the AIFF referee award winner Santosh feels. “One has to sacrifice something to get something, in return and that is what is my motto,” he says. Kumar feels that referees are human and are bound to make mistakes while officiating a match. However., he is happy that both the game and officials’ standards have risen by leaps and bounds.

“Many are of the opinion that this is a thankless job, but I feel otherwise. It all depends on how one takes the job. For me, it is passion for the game and that has helped me on many counts and no matter what the job is, it all depends on the commitment everyone should have in all walks of life.”

A student of Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala, incidentally this is the only university in the country named after the father of the nation, refereeing is a profession and Indians will make the cut in the international level very soon according to Santosh who does not believe in comparing foreign and Indian officials although he feels that the facilities abroad are good for this profession.

It is said that one has to have a Godfather or guiding force in their life to grow. For Santosh, it was Gautam Khar, a retired Colonel from the Indian Army who guided him in the initial stages when he took up refereeing as a profession. “He guided me and taught me all that is required to be a good human being which helped me,” said Santosh of his Khar.

“Stay cool and have a smile on your face no matter what the situation is. This will keep the worst a mile away,” says the official. “There have been many times (on the pitch) when the situation has boiled over, but as a referee I have never lost my temper and handled them with care,” he reflected revealing the secret to his success.