Referees ● Jun 11, 2018

From the sidelines to the world’s biggest stage


FIFA Fitness Instructor M. Ganesan has been tasked with mentoring Asian referees for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.


In a refereeing journey that has spanned 23 years, this June will finally see M. Ganesan at a FIFA World Cup.


Ganesan, who will oversee referees he has groomed over the past four years, is the only FIFA Fitness Instructor from Asia at international football’s showpiece tournament that takes place in Russia in a week’s time. The other five Fitness Instructors each hail from Europe, Africa, South America and North America.


While the World Cup was not a destination he set for himself, it was a door the 54-year-old had inadvertently closed during his days as a FIFA Assistant Referee.


“As an assistant referee, I officiated a lot of matches with Shamsul Maidin (who officiated at the 2006 FIFA World Cup),” he told the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) website “If I didn’t make the switch (to being a referee), I would probably have (gone with him) but I do not regret choosing to switch.”


Ganesan, who made the switch from FIFA Assistant Referee to FIFA Referee in 2004, remains the only Singaporean who has officiated in international tournaments in the capacities of both an assistant referee and referee.


“Though both roles are important, I wanted to try (to be) a referee… to see what it feels to be the man in the centre making all the crucial decisions,” he explained.


Fitness instructors manage the referees’ fitness levels throughout a tournament.


Like many referees, Ganesan started his footballing journey as a player. At the age of 31, he decided to focus on refereeing and was part of the pioneer batch of referees in the S.League when it was launched in 1996.


He was appointed FIFA Assistant Referee in the same year, up until 2002. Comparatively, his time as a referee was much shorter – only spanning four years – due to the injuries he sustained during his career.


Despite suffering a torn meniscus, a broken collarbone, a heel spur, knee injury and shin splint, Ganesan’s love for refereeing fueled him on to go as far as he could as a match official.


“It was quite taxing on my body and I was getting older, so I decided to stop after my knee surgery,” he said.


“Of course, you can come back (from injuries), but you must realise where you stand at the end of the day – whether you can have a fulfilling career or to give up and concentrate on something else.”


The former army fitness instructor decided to take up the FIFA FUTURO III course after hanging up his whistle in 2008. Impressed by his capabilities, the then-Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Director of Referees Mr Ogawa Yoshimi put forward his name to be a FIFA Instructor.


His career received yet another boost when he was nominated to be a Fitness Instructor for referees at competitions – one of only four Asian nominees. Appointed by FIFA and AFC to train match officials at tournaments, his responsibilities also include monitoring their nutrition, overseeing their recovery and keeping them in peak condition throughout.


Road to Russia
The opportunity to go to the World Cup came when he was at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games as a Fitness Instructor for the referees. Impressed by his performances, FIFA appointed Ganesan to oversee referee candidates for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.


It was a “very proud moment” for Ganesan, who has had to groom and monitor the initial pool of 28 match officials from Asia who were shortlisted for the World Cup for the past four years.


As part of his duties, he has been to several tournaments, including the 2015 and 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand and Korea Republic respectively, as well as the 2017 U-17 World Cup in India.


While fitness instructors are largely invisible to the football fan, his role is vital in ensuring that the referees are able to make the correct decisions every time.


“The closer they are to the play, the higher the probability of them getting into a good position and making the right call,” Ganesan elaborated.


“They need to be fit to get into a good position. We (fitness instructors) are delivering that. We want the referees to be at ease when they go into the field, get into good positions and make the right calls.”


He draws satisfaction from seeing the referees do well.


“More often than not, the referees are very appreciative of us as they become fitter as the tournament progresses because of the way we tailor the training programme for them…they are always at their peak, especially towards the final stages (of a tournament), he said.


“All the referees are very disciplined – the moment they come (for a tournament), we are one big family. The FIFA Head of Referees, Massimo Busacca, always tells the referees to respect the people behind the scenes because they are the ones who are always making sure they (the referees) are at their best on the field.”


Sharing expertise
With his experience as a FIFA Fitness Instructor, Ganesan is able to bring a more global perspective to his roles as a Technical Instructor and referee assessor in Singapore and Southeast Asia. He draws pointers from his counterparts at FIFA tournaments and shares his knowledge during the monthly briefing sessions with the local referees and referee assessors organised by the FAS.


With Singapore being one of the few Asian nations with many qualified Technical Instructors, local referees are in the privileged position of being able to draw on their rich experience. Singaporean referees have also done well on the international stage, with the first-ever Singaporean referee trio being appointed for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2017.


Ganesan names Taqi Aljaafari and Jensen Foo as examples of capable local referees, but also pointed out that there is still much work to be done to ensure that Singapore continues to maintain a high level of match officiating not only at the local level but also at the international level.


For now, Ganesan’s focus will solely be on the referees he has groomed in Russia, with the hope that one day at a future World Cup, a Singaporean representative will be among his protégés.


The FAS congratulates Ganesan on his appointment and wishes him the best at the World Cup.


All photos courtesy of M. Ganesan.