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 prestigious Werner Fricker Builder Award.
The Iranian-American who officiated the first MLS match and first MLS Cup, and won the inaugural MLS Referee of the Year award in 1997, is the second referee to receive U.S. Soccer's highest honor after Gerhard Mengel in 2005.
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 awarded in 2002, the award recognizes those who have developed programs that will outlast their own involvement in the sport.
Baharmast will be honored on Feb. 15 at the 2020 U.S. Soccer Annual General Meeting in Nashville, Tenn.
"It's an incredible surprise and I am beyond words," Baharmast said in a statement. "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."
Beyond MLS, Baharmast is 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 FIFA World Cup in France.
He was first appointed to the Spain versus Nigeria match on June 13 at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes, but the most famous assignment came when he was appointed to the Brazil-Norway match played on June 23 at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille.
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 worldwide 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, he officiated several matches during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, including the semifinal match between Portugal and Argentina. The same year, he handled the first MLS match between D.C. United and the San Jose Clash on April 6, and then the first-ever MLS Cup, D.C.'s 3-2 victory in extratime over the LA Galaxy, on Oct. 20.
After retiring from officiating in 1998, Baharmast 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.
The award is named for Werner 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 is widely credited for playing a major role in bringing the 1994 FIFA World Cup to the United States.