A referee looks back...

Age has not deterred his enthusiasm for football. A profile of well-known referee L.R. Natarajan, who is 80 years old now.

A KEEN footballer in his younger days, a notable referee who served on the FIFA panel soon thereafter and much later was acknowledged as an expert on the laws of the game. L.R. Natarajan certainly phased his career meticulously and this love for the game continues. It was his tenure as a referee, trouble-free right through that placed him on a different pedestal and then his knowledge of the game spread his name far and wide. Readers of the Sportstar will remember the series he ran in the magazine on the laws of the game, more than a decade ago. LRN, as he is known to people close to him, reached a personal milestone the other day when he celebrated his 80th birthday in the midst of his kith and kin and friends. Age has not dimmed his enthusiasm for the sport with which even today he is deeply attached.

As anyone connected with football would vouch, Natarajan is synonym with any discussion on refereeing. At an AFC coaches `C' licence course held recently in Chennai under Gabriel Joseph, AFC Instructor, Natarajan was given the privilege of lecturing on the Laws of the game. FIFA Referee S. Suresh, one of the rising officials in the sport from Chennai with growing experience in India and abroad, never misses an opportunity to discuss with Natarajan any tricky situation he would have encountered in his assignment. "I find talking to him not only inspiring but an education by itself. He is so clear in his elucidation," he said, keen to share some of his observations on his latest assignment at the recent Imphal National championship.

Natarajan ended his refereeing career in 1978 and it is a tribute to his endearing qualities and clarity of thoughts on football issues that the All India Football Federation has retained his services on its Disciplinary committee. Modest to a fault, Natarajan sometimes feels he is an odd man out there, for speaking his mind out is his trait and that he perceives is not particularly acceptable quality. It does not upset him when the Committee's decision is not in line with his but he has his perspective. As for instance with regard to the controversial decision that marred the just concluded Santosh trophy nationals in Imphal. He is not convinced that the abandoned semi-final between Manipur and Goa should have been replayed. He said only under certain circumstances as per FIFA rule, was replay possible. But generally when a match got disturbed by the home crowd, the result at the time of the abandonment was what counted. "Perhaps there must have been pressing reasons for the Disciplinary committee to decide on the replay", he said. What happened thereafter is now history. Manipur went on to progress and finally win the title for the first time in the history of the championship.

Perhaps it is such steadfast feelings that have left a left a cynical streak in his thinking and hence in his diffidence. Said his son, L.N. Rajaraman, a software businessman, while mentioning his father's daily routine, "He reserves the better part of the afternoon for writing on football. Yes, he writes on any issue that he finds interesting. His writings have also touched the entire gamut of refereeing and its structuring. But somehow he is not encouraged to publish them, feeling that nobody is going to take interest. So it remains amongst his own collection in his study." Nothing can be a greater tribute to a man, so dedicated to the sport, than for the Federation to come forward and give his treasured thoughts the recognition they deserve.

But then if Natarajan's own experience with regard to recognition is anything to go by then he would prefer to laugh the suggestion away. Here was a conscientious official who had to write to the Federation president to remind him that the FIFA badge meant for him for his services from 1956 to 68 was collecting dust in the cupboard and that the same be handed over to him! Though he was reluctant to go into details about that sordid episode, Natarajan nurses a grievance that he was never given his due as a FIFA referee. For one, he was given just one overseas trip as a FIFA referee in his twelve year term and that too when it was brought to the notice of the Federation that he had all long been overlooked. Indeed he received a note of regret for the lapse but that was little consolation.

Years have rolled by since his student days at the Presidency to his Indian Navy days in Mumbai (he was on the civil side and retired as the Assistant Personnel Manager). Moving with his son to Delhi in1979, he returned with him to Chennai 16 years later. In Delhi, he could not get involved in football, thanks to the Association problems there, but in Chennai he had begun to give the referees body a new orientation, himself becoming the president. Having edited a magazine (Soccer Referee) brought out by the Mumbai Referees Association, Natarajan is making a similar effort with a Newsletter of the Chennai Association.

Even now nudge him into a conversation on his long and continuing tenure in football and Natarajan's eyes brightens and a smile lights his face. Memories go back to the thirties, to the time when he had stood behind the goalposts at the old Engineering college ground during matches just to pick and throw back the away going balls. Soon he grabbed the chance to stand in the goal! "From there I progressed further to be a defender and then as a half back", he chuckled of his early initiation. It was Natarajan's cousin, A.N. Jayaraman six years senior to him and another illustrious personality in the game both as a player and a FIFA referee later, to whom he is indebted for his up-bringing in the sport. He recalled an incident in his early days as a referee, "Jayaraman was on the line. I remember whistling for a goal overlooking that my cousin had raised the flag for a foul. I noticed he had not moved from his position near flag post with his hands raised and rushed to him to verify and reverse the goal decision. But the whole of that night, he bombarded me no end for the lapse," he said, revealing the kind of baptism he had under his senior.

Jayaraman was there at Natarajan's birthday function and surely the two together presented the picture of an era when hard work, dedication and knowledge had no substitute. Jayaraman has the reputation of standing up to the Europeans to prove his mettle both as a player and as an official. "Nothing but fitness and a clear knowledge of the laws" is what Jayaraman believes is the mantra for a successful referee. Natarajan would fully endorse that and why not after going through interruption-free times, in a career that saw him officiate in all major tournaments in the country apart from the national championships. Good work, as the saying goes, never goes unrewarded. In Natarajan's case, it has left him with happy memories and a legion of wellwishers.


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