SINGAPORE - While no team from South-east Asia has qualified for the upcoming World Cup, one Singaporean will be in the thick of the action in Qatar from Nov 21 to Dec 18.
On Thursday (May 19), Fifa announced that Muhammad Taqi was one of 129 referees selected to officiate at the World Cup. The 35-year-old will be a video assistant referee (VAR), one of 24 video match officials. He is also the only Asean referee on the list.
Fifa Referees Committee chairman Pierluigi Collina said that the selection criteria was "quality first" and those selected "represent the highest level of refereeing worldwide".
Having missed out on Russia 2018, Taqi was ecstatic to learn of his appointment, and told The Straits Times: "I'm happy and proud to represent Singapore.
"Even though the VAR has yet to be implemented in Singapore, we have shown that with the efforts put in place by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), we can match Asian powerhouses like Japan and South Korea and develop local referees to officiate at the highest level."
FAS general secretary Yazeen Buhari congratulated Taqi, and said: "A massive feather in your cap for all that you have worked and sacrificed for, more often than not missing out on precious personal moments in the process. Thank you for all you do for us and the fraternity."
Taqi, the 2017 Asean Football Federation Referee of the Year, is married with two sons, aged eight and six, and a daughter born last March. He thanked his wife for being "a big pillar of support" as he pursued his World Cup dream.
The FAS Referees Department senior executive said: "To be among the candidates, you have to officiate international games consistently, and this wasn't easy during the pandemic as I was away from my family for a total of six months last year.
"Not only did I have to go overseas for matches, I also had to serve quarantine for 14 or 21 days before I could go home to my family. This appointment has made all the sacrifices worthwhile."
Taqi's road to the pinnacle of football refereeing began when he accompanied his friends - who had fathers and uncles who were match officials - to take his first refereeing course as a 15-year-old at the old National Stadium.
While trials with Clementi Khalsa did not quite work out for Taqi the footballer, he quickly developed a curiosity and understanding for the Laws of the Game, and was actively involved as a Class 3 referee after he completed his O levels.
When he was 19, he was promoted to a Class 2 referee to officiate in Prime League matches, before stepping up as a Class 1 referee the same year to be involved in S-League (now known as Singapore Premier League) games.
Taqi said: "As much as I enjoy playing football, I also derive satisfaction from making correct decisions as a referee, and when any player comes and tells me, 'Thank you, good game.'"
He became a Fifa-listed referee in 2012, and Singapore's first Fifa video match official in 2021.
Later this year, the former midfielder will become a goalkeeper of sorts, as the VAR is regarded as the last line of defence for referees to make right decisions. The VAR is able to intervene in four areas - goals, penalties, direct red cards and mistaken identity - as a team of three officials review decisions by watching video footage of the relevant occurrences.
"The pace of the game has increased rapidly over the last 10 to 20 years, and refereeing has adapted to include VAR to help the officials on the pitch reduce clear and obvious errors," said Taqi.
"The hard skills - knowledge and interpretation of the Laws of the Game - are mandatory, and the soft skills - communication among the video match officials, assistant and replay operator - are just as important."
In the last five years, Taqi has honed his VAR skills at tournaments such as the 2017 Under-20 World Cup, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and the latter rounds of the World Cup qualifiers in Asia.
In the build-up to the World Cup, the referees will participate in several seminars, reviewing and analysing video clips of real match situations, and taking part in practical training sessions with players, which will be filmed to enable participants to receive instant feedback from the instructors.
Taqi, who will be only the fifth Singaporean referee after George Suppiah (1974), Shamsul Maidin (2006), K. Visvanathan (2002) and Jeffrey Goh (2010) to officiate at a World Cup, said: "Any appointed match will be a bonus, and I aim to perform well and inspire the younger generation of referees in Singapore.
"It is a thankless job, but on the bright side, if we work hard and do well, there are opportunities like this to do well and excel on the international level."