Referee Ismail Elfat (l) congratulates Cameroon striker Vincent Aboubakar on his goal before being shown a red card during their World Cup group stage match. (Courtesy of Ismail Elfat)
Last month, at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Ismail Elfat became the first American referee to be appointed to the most watched sporting event on earth, the World Cup Final. Elphat, whose refereeing career began in North Austin with under-8s, spoke with The Verde Report for more than an hour about his 45-day experience overseeing matches on soccer’s biggest stage. The first part of that interview is below. Some answers have been edited for clarification.
Verde Report: What has been the biggest highlight of your World Cup experience?
Ismail Elfat: I think No. 1 is that we’ve raised the bar and reset the American soccer world’s perception of fairness. Let our officials and referees reach the highest level of sport. We broke the barrier that had never been broken before in terms of playing three matches but being on the field in the final. More importantly, it was the best edition of the World Cup, both on and off the field.
VR: Away from the matches, what was it like behind the scenes in Qatar?
IE: We stayed in the hotel at the FIFA headquarters. It has all the conditions for a 45-day vacation. It’s right next to the cultural and tourist center where there are many activities that we can walk to, which is important to stay away from the competition. We have also had the opportunity to attend many, many matches as spectators and enjoy them as much as any other fan. And we have a new culture and Qatar has done an amazing job of dispelling some of the misconceptions and giving a new, authentic and very positive perspective to the Middle East.
VR: What went through your mind as you walked out of the tunnel to referee your first World Cup match?
IE: Yes, you dream about that moment and play it over in your head a thousand times, but there is nothing like it. The whole world stops, stops, I don’t remember the wanted his! I felt it was an out of body experience. But once you line up and take a deep breath, after a while you pick it all up and go, “I can do it. I’m going to do it. I enjoy it. We are here and no one can ever take that away from us for the rest of our lives.” Once you blow the whistle and the ball rolls around, it’s like a different match.
VR: In the first match between Portugal and Ghana, you scored a penalty against Cristiano Ronaldo, which caused controversy. How would you describe that moment?
IE: We are prepared. We knew how the players play, the FIFA guidelines and what to focus on. Remember that when you bring in 40 referees from 40 countries and teams from all over the world, you need to set the standard of the tournament for consistency. So what is a foul in Brazil may not be a foul in Germany. It was obviously a tough decision for the penalty because it was really high speed. For me, I had no doubts. My VAR [Video Assistant Referee] confirmed the penalty within about 15 seconds, confirming that the defender never touched the ball.
VR: All referees are criticized by fans when they rule against their team. When the whole crowd is calling for your head, is this criticism more noticeable?
IE: I mean, it’s the World Cup. People wait four years, and people sometimes wait decades. Without such passion, the World Cup we love would not exist. As referees, we know this. We accept that. We understand that. We are also fans of our people. But the most important thing is to be honest with ourselves in order to analyze afterwards. If it’s a mistake, we analyze it, learn from it, and move on. If it’s true, it gives us confidence. It’s not something we expect every fan to accept or understand, but for us, it’s what we do.
VR: When Vincent Aboubakar scored a goal to beat Brazil and then tore off his shirt to celebrate at the end of Brazil vs Cameroon, you went viral. He should have been shown a red card and sent off as he had already received a yellow, but first you smiled, shook his hand and congratulated him on his goal.
IE: For me personally, as a fan of the game, it was a natural moment to see a relatively small country score at the World Cup and fulfill a player’s dream. You can feel the emotion. And for me, seeing how happy she is, I wanted to show her that I am also human and that I respect her emotions. And I think everyone understood that.
VR: Is this your favorite red card?
IE: Not just a favorite red card, it’s probably my favorite moment. This is what everyone wants from a game, which is respect, enjoyment, humanity and the beauty of the game.
VR: Did anyone from FIFA speak to you at that time?
IE: In terms of management, they were really happy with our performance in the match. This was one of the highest performances of the referees in the tournament. There hasn’t been much comment on the red card moment, but obviously FIFA wants to humanize referees to the game’s audience, and that helps a bit.
VR: You must have been thrilled that your home country of Morocco was the Cinderella story of the tournament, reaching the semi-finals.
IE: I’m actually surprised I didn’t mention this when you asked me about lasting impressions. Of course, one of the biggest influences was Argentina winning the World Cup trophy while Morocco captured the hearts of the world. So, personally, I couldn’t help it. When we were to watch the Moroccan games, we were the referees and although we expected to be neutral, I couldn’t. I was happy to see Moroccans happy, I cried and I enjoyed the moment. Because I’m Moroccan before I’m biased.
Stay tuned for part two of next week’s edition, where Elfat shares his insights from a classic World Cup final.