GOLDEN, Colo. -- In 36 hours, Esfandiar "Esse" Baharmast went from worldwide vilification to complete vindication, a ride that still leaves him breathless.
Baharmast, the only U.S. referee at the World Cup, was criticized when he awarded a penalty kick to Norway in the 89th minute of a deadlocked game against Brazil on June 23. Kjetil Rekdal scored and Norway won 2-1, advancing to the second round and knocking out Morocco.
Television replays initially failed to show the foul, and the media response was brutal. Only when Norwegian television turned up a different angle the next day was Baharmast absolved.
"The newspapers, television -- all of the media -- just went crazy, passing quick judgment," he said Thursday from his home in Golden.
In Morocco, there was a headline, "Norway saved by referee." USA Today published a column that asked: "How about sparing us from all inept referees?" And the International Herald-Tribune and the London Times suggested an American didn't have the experience for an important game.
"To stereotype a referee because of his nationality is unfair," Baharmast said.
A native of Iran who came to the United States in 1972 and became a citizen in 1991, Baharmast refereed the Spain-Nigeria game in the first round of the World Cup and was reserve official for two other games. He officiated three games in the 1996 Olympics, as well as World Cup qualifiers in South America and Asia.
Baharmast made the call when he spotted Brazil's Junior Baiano tugging the jersey of Norway's Tore Andre Floe in the box, pulling him to the ground.
"I was only about six yards away, looking straight at it," Baharmast said. "For me, there's no question. It can't be any more blatant than that. I would make the same call 10 times over.
"In the last minute of a game, if I'm going to call a penalty kick, it's not going to be an imaginary penalty."
Only the following morning, after TV replays from two angles failed to show the penalty, did the controversy overtake him.
"I open up the paper and read: `Imaginary penalty,"' he said. "I'm just dumbfounded. I'm thinking, What are they talking about?"
That night the Norwegian network NRK posted a still frame of the play on its web page, clearly showing the tugged jersey.
"I looked at the picture, I looked up at the sky and said, `Thank you, God," Baharmast said. "I knew I was right, and I thought the truth would come out sooner or later."
David Will, FIFA's head of referees, went out of his way to defend Baharmast.
"The referee, from his angle, took a decision and played it as he saw it, direct and straightforward," Will said. "You can look at television and photographs and pictures on the Internet. But at the end of the day, the referee has to make a decision on the field in a split second as he sees it."
Baharmast, a 44-year-old investment analyst who is a referee for Major League Soccer, said many news outlets acknowledged their mistaken criticism.
"One French paper said the referee deserves the highest matches because he sees something that 16 cameras can't pick up," he said. "The Iran Times from Washington had a headline reading, `Once toast, now toast of the town."'
But some critics still haven't apologized.
"For the media to attack referees without justification and without due process is not fair," he said. "Referees put their lives into this.
"But I'm not angry. I sort of laugh about it now. Everything happens for a reason."
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