CHICAGO – Esfandiar “Esse” Baharmast, a former referee, player, coach and current instructor who has been involved in more than a dozen World Cup tournaments and Olympic Games, has been named the 2020 winner of U.S. Soccer’s Werner Fricker Builder Award.
The Iranian-American became the second referee to be awarded U.S. Soccer’s highest honor; 2005 winner Gerhard Mengel is the other. He will be presented with the award at U.S. Soccer’s Annual General Meeting in Nashville, Tenn. Feb. 15.
“It’s an incredible surprise and I am beyond words,” Baharmast said. “When I look at the names of the recipients of this distinguished honor, it’s a who’s who of soccer in the United States that have given so much to the game. To be mentioned in the same breath as them is both a humbling and proud moment in my life.”
The Werner Fricker Builder Award is given to an individual or group of individuals who dedicate at least 20 years of service to the sport, working to establish a lasting legacy in the history and structure of soccer in the United States. First given out in 2002, the award recognizes those who have developed programs that will outlast their own involvement in the sport.
“We owe Esse a tremendous debt of gratitude for all he has done to grow the game in our country,” U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro said. “As someone who has held so many different roles within our sport, he reminds us that it takes highly talented individuals in all areas of the sport to make soccer in the United States what it is today. We are truly thankful for all he has contributed and continues to give to the game.”
Baharmast is a retired FIFA international referee best known for becoming the first American to officiate two matches in a single World Cup as a center referee, an accomplishment he achieved during the 1998 World Cup in France.
He was first appointed to the Spain-Nigeria match at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes June 13, but the most famous assignment came when he was appointed to the Brazil-Norway game at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille June 23. With the match tied at 1-1 and Norway needing a victory, Baharmast whistled Brazilian defender Júnior Baiano for a foul on striker Tore André Flo in the 88th minute that resulted in a 2-1 win for the Norwegians.
Two days of heavy world-wide criticism of the decision by the American referee ensued, until a Swedish television station broadcast unseen footage that clearly showed the penalty decision to be correct. The call was later selected by Referee Magazine as one of the “Best 18 Calls of All Time.”
Prior to that experience, Baharmast officiated several matches during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, including the semifinal match between Portugal and Argentina.
That same year, Baharmast was given the honor of officiating the inaugural match of Major League Soccer April 6, 1996, between the San Jose Clash and D.C. United. He went on to work two conference semifinal matches and was appointed to referee the inaugural MLS Cup. In 1997, he earned the MLS referee of the year award.
After retiring from officiating in 1998, Baharmast embarked on a career of referee education and instruction that continues to this day. He became the director of officials for U.S. Soccer and has been a member of the Concacaf referees’ committee since 2003. He has served as a FIFA instructor, assessor and mentor at the youth and senior levels, including at every men’s and women’s World Cup since 2006. When not traveling the world as an instructor, he currently serves as Director of Referees for the Colorado Soccer Association.
“Do it because you love it,” said Baharmast in response to what the best advice he gives aspiring referees. “That should be your motivation. Don’t do it for the fame; do it for the game. I also tell them that your mentality must be ‘we’ over ‘me.’ That mentality will get you where you want to go.”
The award is named for Fricker, who served as U.S. Soccer president from 1984 to 1990 and was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1992. Fricker played a major role in bringing the 1994 World Cup to the United States. Born in Yugoslavia and raised in Austria, Fricker lived his adult life in Pennsylvania, where he was a star midfielder for the United German Hungarians of Philadelphia soccer club from 1954 to 1969 and was a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic Team.
The U.S. Soccer president appoints the Werner Fricker Task Force to review award nominations. The nomination and consideration process takes place annually with a maximum of one award given each year; however, the selection committee is not required to bestow the award annually.