Meet M. Ganesan, the Singaporean who's a ‘brother’ to match officials in Qatar
Match officials are often thrust into the spotlight, and in high-pressure settings like a World Cup, referees come under extra scrutiny.
But in Qatar, they have a reassuring figure by their side in Singapore’s M. Ganesan, who is now a Fifa fitness instructor tasked with looking after their physical and mental well-being.
He is the only Fifa fitness instructor from Asia in a pool of eight at this year’s World Cup. This is his second stint at the quadrennial competition, with his first coming at Russia 2018.
In a phone call from Doha, Ganesan, who started officiating in 1988 and hung up his whistle in 2008, told The Straits Times that he has happily embraced the role of being a mentor and “brother” to the pool of 129 officials.
The group comprises 36 referees, 69 assistant referees and 24 video match officials.
This is on top of his main role of ensuring the officials are in the best shape.
Ganesan, 58, said: “Referees are human, and we can never forget that. There have been already a couple of times at this World Cup where you can sense and see that the referees are down, mulling over a bad game they may have had. Sometimes, it could be matters away from football.
“You cannot leave them alone, and I step in as a brother and put a hand on their shoulder to motivate them and pick them up. We are a family here.”
The family includes French referee Stephanie Frappart, assistants Neuza Back of Brazil and Karen Diaz of Mexico, who on Thursday created history by becoming the first all-female refereeing trio in a men’s World Cup match.
Ganesan made it a point to get a photograph with them on Thursday before they set off for the Al Bayt Stadium, where the three women presided over Germany’s 4-2 win over Costa Rica.
“I congratulated them and made it a point to tell them that they are where they are because of their ability,” he said.
“Usually, you try not to tell them too many things before a match because they really do not need more pressure than they are already under but I wished them well.
“Frappart is an excellent official. In fact, she is one of the fittest we have here. When you are fit, you can ensure you are always in the best positions on the field.”
The referees are based in the luxurious InterContinental Doha hotel. This is where the likes of Dutchman Danny Makkelie, England’s Michael Oliver and Anthony Taylor, as well as Frenchman Clement Turpin, who all boast years of Champions League experience, come under the watchful eye of Ganesan and his team.
The day starts off with a fitness training session from 9-11am at a pitch near the hotel. Sessions can range between high-intensity sprints, upper body and core strength exercises, to more fun elements like touch rugby and dodge ball.
Lunch is then served at the hotel. Even the food, just like the referees, comes under scrutiny.
Instructors work closely with hotel chefs to ensure that referees maintain a generally healthy diet. At the start of the tournament, each referee’s fat level and weight is recorded and they get weighed again each week during the Nov 20-Dec 18 tournament.
Ganesan said: “More than half of them have actually lost weight during the tournament because of how intense the matches and training have been.
“We track fatigue levels closely. Each morning, we get them to fill up a document to indicate if they had sufficient sleep and if they are feeling mentally fit. The last thing we want is an overworked referee.”
Ganesan and his team must also determine if any individual should be given a day off to take his or her mind away from officiating.
Afternoons are spent analysing matches before the World Cup matches kick off.
Most referees choose to hang out at the hotel and catch the games in front of a big screen in the function hall. It comes as no surprise that chaos ensues here during matches with the passionate referees coming from over 20 countries including Rwanda, Iran, Qatar, Guatemala, New Zealand and in Taqi Jahari’s case – Singapore.
Taqi is the fifth Singapore referee to officiate in a World Cup and the first to represent Asia in the specialised field of a Video Match Official at the tournament. He was the assistant VAR official for the Group E match between Spain and Costa Rica and the Group G game between Brazil and Serbia.
Ganesan said of Taqi: “He has done all of us proud. He has not been afraid to make his opinions known and when he has been called upon, he has done well.
“Taqi has every chance to be involved as a main referee at the next World Cup in 2026. He has the ball at his feet now and if he does well over the next four years, why not?
“Singapore being represented on the main field again, that prospect gets me very excited.”
Ganesan himself knows the feeling of flying the flag for the Republic.
He said: “It is a fantastic feeling. I always make it a point to mention to the referees here that I am from Singapore and you can see the respect that they give.
“To be at the World Cup and represent your country regardless of what capacity it is in, is something that I will always be proud of and never take for granted.”