The Right Call: Esse Baharmast and the Making of a Great American Referee

By: Michael Lewis

When he started as a Major Indoor Soccer League referee in the 1980s's, Brian Hall had one big wish. He wanted to work games with Esse Baharmast, the youngest fulltime referee.

"He was that model of the referee that I wanted to be," Hall said. "It was like, please appoint me with him. I want to learn from him. I want to see how he manages these games at the top level."

Hall got his wish, eventually following in Baharmast's footsteps as a national and international referee and working the 2002 World Cup.

Best known for whistling the correct penalty kick call during Norway's win over Brazil that stirred world-wide controversy and headlines at the 1998 World Cup, Baharmast cannot be defined by just that moment. His impact also has been felt domestically and internationally as U.S. Soccer Director of Referees, teacher, FIFA instructor and mentor.

"As an instructor, he's got this use of the language that draws pictures,” said Hall, now the head of Concacaf referees. “He has the ability to use analogies of other parts of life and tie that into reffing. The way he has conducted himself as a role model and as a mentor to so many people around the world it's pretty phenomenal."

Baharmast, 65, will be honored for his contributions to the game as recipient of the 2019 Werner Fricker Award at U.S. Soccer's AGM in Nashville, Tenn. on Feb. 15. The award is named for the late U.S. Soccer president who brought the 1994 World Cup to the USA.

"For Esse to receive this builder award, it is really significant because Esse is really the builder of the referee program of U.S. Soccer," said National Soccer Hall of Famer Dr. Joe Machnik, the award’s presenter. "He's the foundation block. He's the referee who has accomplished the most and has continued to provide leadership."

Baharmast, who came to the U.S. at 18 to study English at the University of Kansas-Lawrence, got into officiating by accident, breaking his tibia and fibula in a game. A professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia suggested he become a referee.

As it turns out, Machnik, the MISL referee in chief, worked Baharmast's first pro game, an exhibition match in Wichita, Kansas many years ago. When a snowstorm prevented a referee from traveling to Cleveland, Baharmast officiated his first MISL game. He quickly moved up the ladder.

Baharmast's most memorable year was 1996. He worked the middle of the first Major League Soccer game between the San Jose Earthquakes and D.C. United, the first MLS Cup played in a nor’easter in Foxborough, Mass., Lamar Hunt Open Cup final and A-League (now USL) final. That likely will never be duplicated.

He also officiated the 1996 Olympic men's semifinal match between Argentina and Portugal, though he was criticized beforehand. Baharmast remembered reading the newspapers: "Why is there an American referee in that game? It's a high-risk game. blah, blah, blah."

Nothing went awry.

He caught FIFA's eye and was asked to ref a game between Japan and Korea in 1997 that would determine which team would qualify for the World Cup.

"There was a lot of history between the two countries," Baharmast said. "For FIFA to trust us with a big game like that, Japan and Korea in Korea at the Olympic Stadium in Seoul, was incredible. That was another game where we had no problems."

Japan won, 2-1. "On the way back to the airport, the Japanese fans going back [home] …  were bowing in respect," Baharmast said. "It was incredible.

"After the semifinal of Argentina and Portugal at the Olympics, FIFA had seen the games that I could do, the high-risk games and they were comfortable giving those types of games to us."

Baharmast's defining moment came in Marseille at France ‘98. Norway and Brazil were tied in the 88th minute when he called Junior Baiano for a shirt-holding foul that denied Tore Andre Flo a goal-scoring opportunity in the penalty area.

"Immediately, I knew my angle was perfect," he said. "I'm looking straight at it. I don't believe he does it. How stupid can he be? Why is he doing it at the last minute? Even I hesitated a little bit because I don't want to call a penalty at the last minute. I am hesitating a little bit to see if an advantage comes. Maybe the ball goes to another Norwegian player who places it into the back of the net.

"No word from Junior Baiano. He was the first one out of there. Nothing out of the ordinary as far as protesting."

Norway converted the penalty for a 2-1 win, qualifying for the next round. Because the proper angle wasn’t shown on worldwide television, it looked like a phantom call.

"To make matters worse, Morocco got eliminated from this and the Moroccan coach was Henri Michel, who was former French national team coach. He has the ear of the reporters who are talking,” he said, adding that television stations showed a “split screen where the Moroccans are celebrating and jumping with joy after beating Scotland and now, they're crying."

"I told the people, 'Hey, all these cameras, tomorrow I'm going to open a newspaper, there's going to be a picture from behind the goal that shows the picture in a clear shot and it would be good to go. No such thing. All it was talking about was scandal. It was a huge controversy. Incompetent referee. FIFA needs to send this referee home."

Vilified for "botching" such an important call, Baharmast remained steadfast. "If I had to do this 100 times over again, I'd do it 100 times over," he said. “I know in my mind and my heart I made the correct call."

A few days later a Swedish television station posted a video and picture proving Baharmast was spot on.

"These things happen for a reason. Every tournament I went to I had to justify my presence there because everybody was cutting down the U.S., telling us 'You guys don't even have football, you call it by the name soccer. What do you guys know about the game? You have no business being here type of thing,’“ he said. “Even after my decision on television I remember that broadcasters who were showing the red card, who were saying, 'Send the referees from non-footballing countries back and the World Cup should have the best referees ... two from Germany, two from France, two from England.’ It was for us to endure the pain and ignorance of the people. ... Then they had to eat soccer crow after the video came out. It has served us well. Had the camera showed the correct angle immediately, it would have just been another penalty."

In 2011, the National Association of Sports Officials awarded Baharmast its most prestigious honor, the Gold Whistle. NASO called his decision one of the top 20 calls of all-time.

Beyond his personal success, Baharmast has been gratified by the growth of game officials in the United States. He is proud that more Americans have been receiving FIFA appointments at World Cups and world championships.

"It’s really incredible because we are getting the respect that we deserve," he said. "The tree that was planted before is bearing plenty of fruit."

Baharmast has played a role in tending that tree. When he decided to hang up his whistle to become U.S. Soccer director of officials, his final match was the 1998 MLS all-star game. Hall was the fourth official. Late in the game, the ball went out of bounds and Baharmast walked off the field.

"He gave me the whistle and I finished the game,” Hall said. “It was like handing over the reins to the next person to follow him."

Sounds just like quintessential Esse Baharmast, paying it forward.