Local referee target of online racism: 'I have become immune to abuse'
Local referee Sukhbir says it takes courage and hard work to carry out his duties
Sukhbir Singh, the man in the middle of a racial-abuse storm, has not read and does not intend to go through the offending tweets or make a police report.
The online racist remarks were allegedly made during and after the final International Champions Cup match Sukhbir had officiated, in which Inter Milan beat Chelsea 2-1 at the National Stadium last Saturday.
The 33-year-old, who has 14 years of refereeing experience, told The New Paper yesterday: "After all these years, I have become immune to criticism and verbal abuse.
"When I first started, these things did affect me but, along the way, you realise it's really part and parcel of match officiating because you make decisions on the field which, more often than not, people will have a different opinion about, especially if it's one that goes against their team.
"You just have to be mentally and emotionally strong and tell yourself not to react.
"In this case, I knew about it only after my friend passed me the link to the Sky Sports story.
"I haven't seen the tweets, and I won't bother. I don't even have a Twitter account.
"This is the first time I have had racial abuse directed at me, and there shouldn't be any room for this kind of behaviour. Racism should not be condoned, not just in football, but anywhere."
During the match, Sukhbir had awarded a contentious penalty to Inter in first-half added time after he adjudged Cesar Azpilicueta had fouled Stevan Jovetic in the box.
The Inter man scored from the rebound after Thibaut Courtois saved his spot-kick.
In the second half, with Inter leading 2-1, Chelsea's Michy Batshuayi had a goal chalked off for offside.
While Sukhbir declined to comment about his decisions during the match, he revealed that he does review his own performances by watching replays and going through the referee assessor's post-match debrief.
It is understood that referees are assessed based on control of game, fitness and teamwork.
These include correct and consistent interpretation and application of the laws of the game, appropriate disciplinary sanctions, tactical approach, game management, stamina, positioning and movement and co-operation with fellow match officials.
After all these years, I have become immune to criticism and verbal abuse...You just have to be mentally and emotionally strong and tell yourself not to react. Sukhbir Singh
Poor performances can lead to fewer appointments, and the referees can be subjected to counselling. Repeated poor performances can lead to suspension.
In Singapore, referees officiate on a part-time basis, and there are total of 15 Fifa-level referees in Singapore - six male referees, seven male assistants and one female referee and assistant each.
They officiate up to two S.League matches a week, earning allowances of less than $300 per game.
For Sukhbir, this means a delicate balance between his day job in the tourism industry and his football passion.
He said: "To juggle both is hard. For my day job, I work 8.5-hour shifts, but I also have to stay in shape to referee.
"To do that, I wake up at 4am to go for 60- or 90-minute workouts three or four times a week before work.
"It does take a lot out of me, but it's a lifestyle that I choose."
Sukhbir, who has an elder brother and younger sister, first got involved in refereeing at the age of 20 when he chanced upon a referee's course on the Football Association of Singapore website.
"I love the game, and was playing it only at a social level. But there are other ways to be involved and to learn about the game, so I felt refereeing was a good avenue," he said.
He soon rose through the ranks and took charge of his first S.League match in 2007 before officiating his first international game in 2009.
Since then, he has officiated at the East Asian Games and numerous AFC tournaments. Like any referee, he dreams of officiating at a World Cup.
Sukhbir said: "More than representing yourself, a race, a referee is also representing his country.
"Not everyone gets to be a national player, so for a referee like me to represent the country in a sport that I have a passion for is a highlight."
To be sure, there have also been unsavoury incidents, such as when former national captain Aide Iskandar accused him and his assistant of corruption during an S.League match 10 years ago, and was subsequently fined and banned.
"There are definitely days when you sit and think why you still do it, or ask whether it's all worth it," said Sukhbir, who revealed he has received encouraging messages from players and coaches following the recent saga.
"I have very good employers who have my back, we have a tight-knit refereeing fraternity, and my supportive parents never once asked me to stop.
"But when I have a match, it's different from players who will invite their families down to watch.
"I have never done that because no family would want to see their children being subjected to abuse, so they usually just watch the games on TV if they can.
"As for racism, an individual has no control over what race he is, only his character. So to put down someone based on his race, that's just wrong.
"Putting an end to racism has a lot to do with education and constant reminders.
"Every referee is in it for the passion of the game. I have yet to meet someone who, in the right state of mind, says he wants to go onto the field and get abused.
"It would be nice if things can be done for people to be in a safe environment to enjoy their passion."