Few names ring out in the world of American refereeing like Esse Baharmast’s. The first American referee to take charge of more than one FIFA World Cup game, he’s a trailblazer by any measure. Now a FIFA instructor, retired from the high passions and hard decisions out on the pitch, the 63-year-old gave ussoccer.com an exclusive interview from the sidelines of the 2018 National Referee Camp in Chula Vista, California.
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Between classroom sessions, where Baharmast shared wisdom and experience with top young American referees, he took time to chat about some of his favorite topics. Up for discussion were his firmly held belief that soccer is “all about the players,” why “you have to know when to walk away from an angry player,” and that call in the 1998 World Cup game between Norway and Brazil when he “saw something 16 cameras missed.”
ussoccer.com: A lot of your work now is teaching young referees. What’s the first priority you try to instill in them?
Esse Baharmast: This game is all about the players. This is not our game. I say this all the time. We are out there to facilitate a beautiful game. The real actors and creators of this game are the players. It’s like a group of musicians – they are the ones who create the beautiful music. We’re like the conductor of the orchestra. We make sure that someone doesn’t play out of tune. But people go to the symphony to enjoy the music; they don’t go there to watch the conductor. If we know our role, and if we take satisfaction in what we’re doing, which is being part of a beautiful game played with artistry and creativity, then we’re doing our job correctly.
ussoccer.com: There seems to be a true camaraderie here at the National Referee Camp among the referees and referee coaches…
Esse Baharmast: For me this is a family. But it’s not just the Referee Family - for me this is the Soccer Family. The coaches are my family. The players are my family. Without the players, we don’t have anything. We’re not even here without them. Coaches are my colleagues. We work together for the betterment of the game. I might see something different than you, but through communication and dialogue we can find a compromise. Sometimes we can even change the laws of the game if we work together. We need to be a part of making things better, with the players and the coaches.
ussoccer.com: What drew you to refereeing?
Esse Baharmast: I came to it totally by accident. I was a player and I broke my tibia and fibula in college. When I was recovering, a professor of mine at the University of Missouri who was a referee, asked me to help out with some youth leagues. They needed referees. This man knew I had played and coached. He knew I knew the game. He offered me the chance to start refereeing.
(Referee Coaches pose for a photo at the 2018 National Referee Camp.)
ussoccer.com: How long did it take to adjust from being a player to being a ref?
Esse Baharmast: I loved it right away and my progress was quick. I went up the ladder very, very fast. Before I knew it, I was doing college matches and then professional games. After that, I was doing international games and finally, after all that, I reached to the top and was able to referee at the World Cup [1998 in France].
ussoccer.com: Do you have to leave something behind from your playing days to become an effective ref?
Esse Baharmast: Being a player really helped me. I could feel what the players felt during a game. I had empathy for them. I felt their pain. When a tackle went into the Achilles tendon, like was done to me, I remembered what that was like. I really felt the intensity of the match. I could talk to coaches and players because I came from the same family. This gives you a way to communicate with players and coaches – to read the back and forth.
ussoccer.com: Sometimes in the heat of a game, coaches can be a handful for a ref…
Esse Baharmast: Sure. Sometimes you have to agree to disagree. Sometimes I saw something in a different way from my angle on the field. My angle usually happened to be a lot closer to a play than the coach who is maybe 40 or 50 yards away. And he probably doesn’t have the angle I have. In the end, we can have a conversation about it – that’s no problem. As long as it stays civil, we won’t have a problem. We can disagree and move on from there.
ussoccer.com: It can’t always be easy to deal with an unruly player. Passions run high on the pitch…
Esse Baharmast: I understand the emotions of the game. Sometimes there are outbursts when a player’s not happy with something. Sometimes they get frustrated and you can see it and feel it. A good referee knows when to walk away from a player and when to have a quiet word with him. Sometimes you have to say ‘there’s no room for this’ and show a card for dissent or maybe even send them off for using foul and abusive language. Sometimes you have to. But a good referee can recognize the different emotions of the game, and how a player approaches the referee matters.
ussoccer.com: You speak often of an ‘Orange Card’ – something imagined between yellow and red. Can you talk about the power of this for a ref?
Esse Baharmast: It’s important to use common sense. There are some fouls that are clearly red. No ifs or buts – the red card has to be shown because the safety of a player has been compromised. But there are also actions that are right on the bubble. You’re not sure if they’re a red card or close to it. And if the player has been a clean player throughout the game and it’s just a one-off, you can have that conversation. You can tell him, ‘my friend you need to settle down’. You can’t come into a tackle like that’. You can cut him a break as long as he understands it’s not going to be tolerated. What we’re looking for is game control. So, if that so-called Orange Card works, and the player behaves for the rest of the match, then it’s no problem.
(Esse Baharmast guides young minds through the fine arts of refereeing.)
ussoccer.com: You’ve seen it all and done it all – refereed at the World Cup, in MLS Cup finals, Open Cup finals. The list goes on and on. What moment stands out for you?
Esse Baharmast: It’s Norway-Brazil in the World Cup [France 1998]. For sure, this was a defining moment – now it’s almost 20 years ago. I saw something that 16 cameras could not produce – the cameras could not see it. I was vilified for 36 hours because of it [calling a penalty in the last minute of the group game for a shirt-pull that led to Norway beating Brazil]. Everyone told me I was crazy. No one but me had seen it. But I knew what I knew and I knew what I saw. People were cutting me down because I was an American referee. They thought I didn’t know the game. They didn’t know of my background as a player and a coach. But I was vindicated at the end. I made the right call. There’s a lot of good things about the VAR [Video Assistant Referee] system, but in this game in France I was better than the VAR because I had the decision correct and 16 cameras didn’t. You see? The coin has two sides.
ussoccer.com: Was there ever a moment in a game where you simply didn’t know what call to make? It must happen…
Esse Baharmast:If I can’t see it, I don’t call it. I have to have a good angle. If I miss it, I’ll tell the player: ‘listen I didn’t see it. Bear with me and allow me to get where I need to be to see the play.’ I tell him: ‘if a player’s is holding you somewhere I can’t see, let me know. I’ll get there and try to get it right.’ But sometimes, yes, I did miss a call. There’s no question.
ussoccer.com: Referees are usually outnumbered, but here at U.S. Soccer’s National Referee Camp everyone is a ref. What is it like to have young and old officials come together like this?
Esse Baharmast: It is essential to do this. This is about being a team – a part of a team. Teams have training camps together. We, the refs, are a team in the same way. It’s no different from a team that goes to the World Cup or the Olympics. We need to be working together, practicing together. This is our team. We look at mistakes the same way a coach would. We go over mistakes to make sure they don’t happen again. We learn from them and accentuate the positive. We give support to make sure the young referees do more of what makes them successful and less of what causes them trouble.