FOOTBALL Maria Rebello is making heads turn with her role as referee at fixtures across the country

Maria Rebello is mildly annoyed when asked if she has played the game at any level. “I’ve represented the country,” she stares. “I’ve even captained it once.” Any ignorance of her accomplishments as an inventive midfielder, though, ought to be forgiven. For in her more recent role on the football pitch, Rebello has far surpassed the heights she touched as a player.

In the summer of 2010, when she took charge of Delhi vs. Madhya Pradesh in the Santosh Trophy, Rebello became the first woman to referee a senior national men’s fixture in India. “There aren’t that many women’s games nationally,” she says. “So I was thankful for the opportunity.” Today, she is the country’s premier woman official: currently the only FIFA referee and the only member of the Asian Football Confederation’s Elite Panel.

When she strode out onto the pitch at the Bangalore Football Stadium earlier this week, for the second division I-League, Rebello managed another addition to that list of distinctions. “The first lady to referee a game here,” a long-serving employee of the State football association said to her afterwards. “Very well done.”

But for that fact, Rebello’s stint in Luangmual FC’s loss to Hindustan FC was hardly worthy of mention. To a referee, though, that is often the best compliment that can be paid. “I wanted to be involved in the game even after retirement,” the 42-year-old says. “If I was a coach, I would have had to sit on the bench. I wanted to be on the pitch.”

Rebello hails from Curtorim in South Goa, where she first cut her teeth overseeing men’s games. So when she eventually climbed up to the big league, there was little about strapping, foul-mouthed centre-halves that was intimidating. “Men always lose their temper,” she smiles. “They don’t care whether a man or a woman is the referee. That is only normal. It’s all about how you respond to them and how you control the game. We’re taught how to deal with these things.” Women supervising men’s games are often under incredible – and unfair – scrutiny, as the Amy Hearn and Sian Massey episodes from English football demonstrate only too well. But Rebello remains unfazed by any attention. “I feel no pressure. There are many women taking up refereeing. We have two more national referees now – Uvena Fernandes, an air traffic controller with the Indian Air Force, and Chim Chim Serto from Manipur. Both are doing well. It makes me happy.”

The former Indian women’s captain Chitra Gangadharan, now an established coach, believes attitudes are slowly changing. “Women often don’t take up refereeing because they feel there isn’t a lot of scope for progress there,” she says. “But people like Maria – who I’ve seen officiate international games and I think is a really good referee – have shown otherwise. For FIFA and AFC referees, the career is also financially rewarding.”

Rebello is still the only woman to have refereed in the second division I-League, the number two tier of Indian professional football. No one has reached the top rung, the I-League. Gangadharan, a qualified (albeit inactive) referee herself, appreciates that a beginning has been made, nonetheless. “A referee is like a lecturer in college; to a student it does not matter if that’s a man or a woman, what matters is how well the subject is taught,” she says. “We have realized this. Gautam Kar, Head of the All India Football Federation’s Referees Department, deserves many thanks.”

For Rebello, the road ahead is clear. “I have done many AFC tournaments. But for any referee, the ultimate goal is the World Cup,” she says. “I will always try to be a good referee.”