Referee Esfandir 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.
Baharmast had plenty of previous experience as a referee, including being on the field for World Cup qualifying matches, internationals in Copa America and during the semifinal match between Argentina and Portugal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. 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 said. 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 as Baharmast thought. On television, the position of the cameras didn’t see the initial jersey grab, making it look like a dive and the wrong call. The call gave Norway a goal much to the displeasure of Morocco, who would have advanced had the match stayed a draw. Now, the North African nation was eliminated by Baharmast’s call.
“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 Morocco didn’t help Baharmast’s case with the local French media.
“It wasn’t easy. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It was 36 hours of agony.”
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 photo and video 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.
“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.”