Referee Esfandiar Baharmast was living out a dream during the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France, stepping onto the field and taking his place as the lone referee representing the United States during the tournament. But with one call, his World Cup dream morphed into a nightmare.
In a critical Group A match between Brazil and Norway, the final minutes approached with the game tied 1-1. Baharmast watched as Brazil’s Junior Baiano pulled on the back of Tore Andre Flo’s jersey in the box as Flo was attempting to reach a cross. “A clear foul,” Baharmast remembers. He called a penalty and Norway converted in the 88th minute to win the match and advance to the Round of 16.
There was one problem. It wasn’t as clear to everyone else. On television, the position of the cameras didn’t see the initial jersey grab, making it look like a dive and an incorrect call. The call gave Norway a goal much to the displeasure of Morocco, who would have advanced had the match stayed a draw.
A headline of one Moroccan newspaper read: “Norway saved by referee.” A USA Today column that asked: “How about sparing us from all inept referees?” And multiple international outlets including the International Herald-Tribune and the London Times suggested that an American referee didn’t have the experience for an important game.
Even American analysts on ABC thought Baharmast had gotten it wrong and wouldn’t give him the benefit of the doubt.
A native of Iran, who came to the United States in 1972 and became a citizen in 1991, Baharmast was not short on officiating experience. He took charge of three games at the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, had called World Cup qualifiers in South America and Asia and as well as a Spain-Nigeria game in the first round of the World Cup 10 days prior to the incident in the Brazil-Norway match.
However, none of that mattered to the outside world once he blew his whistle to indicate a penalty kick for Norway in the waning moments of what was one of the tournament’s most critical matches.
“I was only about six yards away, looking straight at it,” Baharmast said. “For me, there was no question. It can’t be any more blatant than that. I would make the same call 10 times over. In the last minute of a game, if I’m going to call a penalty kick, it’s not going to be an imaginary penalty.”
“Junior Baiano was the first one that left the scene of the crime.” Baharmast said. “It was the other players that were giving a little bit of mouth, but nothing out of the ordinary. On the field of play there was no problem and at the end of the match there was no problem with the teams. It wasn’t until the journalists and reporters got into it and it became a conspiracy against African nations and things of that nature.”
Convinced that he made the correct call, Baharmast was forced to endure a day and a half of abuse from various publications and news outlets denouncing him as a racist, incompetent and a player in a scandal and conspiracy against Morocco. The fact that former French National Team coach and player Henri Michel was in charge of the Moroccan National Team didn’t help Baharmast’s case with the local media.
“It wasn’t easy. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It was 36 hours of agony.” Baharmast said.
It wasn’t until his wife called him in the early hours of the morning to say that a Swedish television station had published a still frame clearly showing the jersey pull and validating Baharmast’s call as the correct one that the ordeal ended.
The apologies came pouring in from the media that had lambasted him a day earlier and Baharmast was able to continue his successful career as a referee without being haunted by a blown call.
“One French paper said the referee deserves the highest matches because he sees something that 16 cameras can’t pick up.” Baharmast said.
“It’s an unforgettable situation, unforgettable memory and it happened for a reason.” Baharmast said. “Even years later when I go anywhere in the world and people talk about crazy situations in different World Cups, they talk about the ’98 World Cup in France and they talk about it in a positive way. They talk about how the referee was in the right position, had the courage to call a penalty in the last minute, against the World Champions and it was the correct call. So things happen for a reason and I think the reason for this was to give referees from the U.S. an opportunity to continue and move (forward) in the future.”