There are few jobs in the world that our more thankless than being a referee. When a referee gets a decision wrong, they get put under intense scrutiny. That scrutiny is greatly magnified when the error comes at the World Cup.
However, rarely do you see the media and the fans praise an official for a correct decision. In 1998, Esse Baharmast, an American official, made one of the bravest decisions in the history of the game, and as a result, should be given his proper credit.
Going into the last round of games in Group A, the defending world champions Brazil had already qualified for the second round. Norway were just a single point ahead of Morocco. Norway knew that there was a possibility they would have to beat Brazil if they were to qualify as well. Simultaneously, Morocco and Scotland played their match.
The night started badly for Norway, as Morocco took a big lead against Scotland in the second half. In the 78th minute, Norway looked done for, as Bebeto put Brazil in front.
However, five minutes later, Tore Andre Flo hit back with a beautiful strike to level the score, and suddenly, it was game on. Then, with two minutes of normal time remaining, controversy struck.
Tore Andre Flo went down in the box under a challenge from Junior Biano and Baharmast awarded in penalty. Everyone watching the match was stunned. No one could figure out what he had blown for, as it appeared, Biano had never touched him.
Replays seemed to confirm this decision, and it looked as if Norway had won a scandalous penalty. Kjetil Rekdal stepped up and slotted home the penalty to send Norway through to the next round. The media siege on Baharmast started immediately after the match.
After the game, newspapers and television stations attacked him from around the world. Some people even suggested that the game was fixed. There was an anti-American backlash from the media as well, who said that Americans did not know enough about the game to be able to referee a World Cup match.
Baharmast stood firm to his decision. He stated, “I was only about six yards away, looking straight at it. For me, there’s no question. It can’t be any more blatant than that. I would make the same call 10 times over.” Little did he know that he was about to be proven right to the World.
Days later, a Swedish television station was reviewing their footage of the game. One of the people examining the video realized that they had an angle of the play that no one else had. The angle was from behind the goal and showed that Biano clearly pulled Flo down from behind.
It was a stonewall penalty, that amazingly no other camera angle had picked up. The Swedes passed the footage onto a Norwegian TV station, which broadcast it to the world. Baharmast literally had the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders.
It's a shame that referees are not given more credit when they deserve it. It took incredible courage for Baharmast to make that call at such a late stage in the game in such an important match. In addition to that, he showed great strength in never backing down from his decision.
While a few media outlets retracted their criticism of him, not nearly enough did. Baharmast still does not get the credit that he deserves for one of the best decisions of all time at a World Cup.