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ISL refereeing controversy -- no complaints registered by clubs on official feedback forms despite grievances

THE CONCERNS ABOUT sub-par refereeing has been prevalent in Indian football, especially since last season when I-League and ISL took place simultaneously for the first time.

With the Indian Super League opting not to use an outside agency to source referees for its matches, AIFF's Referees Department suddenly had double the matches to cover. This led to referees having too little recovery time between officiating matches in I-League and ISL, and over time the stress began to show as errenous decisions plagued both competitions.

In the past, PGMOL was contracted to provide referees for ISL matches. Photo Courtesy - ISL

Multiple clubs voiced their complaints against the standard of refereeing, and fan groups even raised voices of protest complaining that poor officiating has robbed their teams of hard-earned points.

This season, with the number of matches growing further in I-League and ISL (183 in 2017-18, 203 in 2018-19), AIFF's Department of Refereeing faced an increased challenge as the number of personnel has not increased proportionately with the number of games. While some initiatives have been launched to train more referees, including by AIFF and the Reliance Foundation, the process takes time.

Sensing further complications down the road and responding to the clubs' complaints, AIFF has taken a step to address the clubs' concerns: they have provided a feedback form to the clubs so they can if they find something amiss, they can immediately write back to the Federation about it; and have their perspective become a part of the official documentation regarding the game.

This initiative is being implemented at all football tournaments under the jurisdiction of AIFF: the I-League, the ISL, 2nd Division League as well as U-15 and U-18 Youth Leagues.

The feedback form provides an official channel for the clubs to voice their complaints about any refereeing decisions they dislike; they can review as well as criticise the referee's performance. Any other shortcomings such as lack of security or sub-par facilities can also be mentioned for the relevant authorities to look into. 

But a senior ISL official has informed TFG that in the 34 matches held in the Indian Super League so far, almost complaint about refereeing has been registered through the feedback form so far.

A notable example here is NorthEast United FC, who on 9th November submitted complaints pointing out various poor decisions made by the referee during their home match against Mumbai City FC. They are yet to hear from AIFF regarding that.  

Such a small number of complaints is rather surprising given that a palpable amount of controversies have already taken place in the ISL, most notably in two matches featuring Kerala Blasters.

On 2nd November playing FC Pune City away from home, Kerala Blasters striker Nikola Krcmarevic had his goal disallowed despite the ball having crossed the line, and Emiliano Alfaro using his arm to block the ball earlier which was grounds for a penalty and a red card. The referee seemed to have spotted neither incident correctly; he spoke to the assistant referee and initially awarded the goal, but inexplicably overturned the decision moments later. Kerala Blasters drew the match 1-1, with many blaming poor refereeing for the team being deprived of a victory.

Fast forward to 5th November, in the all-important match between Kerala Blasters and Bengaluru FC, Sunil Chhetri found the net early on but he was clearly offside; the assistant referee was not in position to spot the infringement and the goal stood. KBFC lost the match 2-1.

These poor decisions have led to the Blasters' head coach David James calling for Video Action Replay (VAR) systems to be implemented in the ISL, and prominent fan group Manjappada registering strong protests, calling for better refereeing in the tournament.

Kerala Blasters as well as some other ISL teams are reportedly considering writing to AIFF and the ISL organising committee regarding this matter.

Which is why it's baffling to see the feedback form not being used to voice their complaints. According to the aforementioned official, this is a missed opportunity for the teams who could have alerted the Federation and ISL authorities already, and any subsequent appeal or complaint would hold more water considering their immediate airing of grievance through the form.

David James called for VAR to be used from next season. Photo Courtesy - ISL

It's unclear whether the teams have chosen not to use the feedback form or it's a lack of awareness regarding the process on the team managers' part, but according to AIFF sources, representatives of every I-League, ISL as well as Youth League team were given extensive information and instructions on how to avail this process.

FOLLOW UP: After the publication of this article, a major confrontation took place between the referees and Chennai City coaching staff during their away match against Aizawl FC. The matter allegedly led to threats of violence, and Chennai City FC have lodged an official complaint. Interestingly, a club source claims no feedback form was made available to them for this match. READ THE FULL STORY HERE.

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