Once bullied by crowds for being the only girl in an all-men match, Tekcham Ranjita Devi, has crossed all hurdles to become one of the widely respected female referees, not just in India but in Asia as well. Today, Ranjita is the only active female referee in the country with a FIFA badge (Kanika Barman of West Bengal was recently added by FIFA, but is yet to be officiated).
In an interview with The Federal, Ranjita said her recipe for success was sheer mental strength, which has nothing to do with one’s gender. The 35-year-old who is currently living in her hometown of Thoubal in Manipur, says more girls should join refereeing.
“Girls can be mentally stronger than boys. In football, and especially in this profession (refereeing), mental strength is one of the most crucial elements to have. To be physically fit is important, but you also have to be mentally tough. I think mental toughness can’t be determined by gender. I agree that a female can’t meet the physical fitness standards set for men, but when it comes to mental strength, she can overcome that,” Ranjita said.
Refereeing not a cakewalk
Ranjita has officiated in a number of international matches in India and abroad, since her name was approved by the FIFA Referees’ Committee in 2017. At the national level, she started officiating matches from the Kerala National games in 2015.
She says refereeing is no cakewalk, as it involves quick decision-making and staying confident and focused throughout the match despite backlash from players and spectators.
“To make a decision within a fraction of a second and then face the reaction of the players and officials…it’s tough business. Even if you make a correct decision, the players and officials against whom the decision goes, as well as the crowd, tend to react. But you have to be very confident of yourself and stay focused. Say, sometimes we do make mistakes. But at that time too, we have to be confident or else it will have an impact on the next decision. So, to minimise the mistake, one has to be very tough, mentally,” she said.
The youngest of the five siblings, Ranjita started her career in 1999 as a football player, playing for local clubs. Later, she enrolled as State Class III referee in 2007 and passed National Grade (Category II) in 2016.
She stopped playing in 2009 after a kidney-related illness halted her game for several months.
“Like any other kids in the neighbourhood, I was pretty interested to play football along with other sports. I started playing for my district and state. I have also been invited for national camps twice, but unfortunately was not selected. But in 2009, I developed a kidney-related illness for which the doctors advised me not to continue playing. My family also wanted me to leave the game. But for me to live without football was almost impossible. So, I decided to be with the game as a referee,” she recalled.
Before her, Keilyani Chanu from Manipur got the FIFA badge, but she is not active anymore.
Hurdles on way
Ranjita who is now looking forward to officiate in FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023, however, says she had her shares of challenges.
“When I started, there were no girls around who were aspiring to be referees. I used to train with men and also participated in men’s games. I used to be the only female member in the entire match. So, under such situations, it was very difficult…like you need to change and don’t have a separate dressing room or no room at all. Some people from the crowd would hurl abusive language at you… ‘What is a girl doing here’ kind of stuff,” Ranjita said.
She, however, overcame the ordeals with grit and determination. “But I didn’t pay much attention to such things. I was pretty focused at what I wanted to achieve. So, I continued to train and wanted to set an example for young girls. I am thankful to Jadav Chandra Haobam sir, Ajitkumar Meitei Lairenlakpam and Kennedy Sapam for letting me train with them. My brother and my family have also been very supportive,” Ranjita said.
Ranjita is not happy to see more and more girls wanting to train as referees. “Things are changing slowly. I would urge more girls should to join the field and I’m ready to help them grow,” she said.
Chasing FIFA fitness goals amid lockdown
Speaking about the importance of the fitness level of an active referee, Ranjita says, that is exactly what has been keeping her busy during the lockdown.
“Fitness is the utmost thing in any sport. So, it is keeping me busy these days. As per FIFA instructions, every morning I need to practice and then submit the records of those. Then we have online classes to attend. Every Wednesday, I need to attend the fitness test for FIFA which is conducted online. I also need to take part in some programmes of AFC (Asian Football Confederation) in between. Apart from that, I also need to participate in video analysis for AIFF every alternate day,” Ranjita added.