Whether it’s World Cup or world peace, Austin’s Ismail Elfath in the middle of it


Major League Soccer referee Ismail Elfath gets ready before the start of a game between Austin FC and the Los Angeles Galaxy at Q2 Stadium in May. The Austin native is the only U.S. ref working at the 2022 World Cup.

Ismail Elfath’s dream comes true Sunday.

Well, his second one.

The first came when the native Moroccan won a diversity lottery ticket to relocate to America all alone when he was just an 18-year-old living with a huge extended family in Casablanca with scant command of the English language and only $200 in his pockets but some deep-seated ambitions.

He realized that aspiration in a big way and, now some 21 years later after his arrival here, he travels to the other part of the world where he has scored yet another big accomplishment in his life. That’s because he was selected as one of 36 referees who will take center stage for the quadrennial FIFA World Cup soccer event, which begins Sunday.

Talk about select company.

Of an initial pool of about 350 international professional soccer referees, which were whittled down to 70 and then 36 in a thorough review that lasts 3½ years or almost after the last goal from the proceeding World Cup that France claimed in Russia, he eventually was chosen as the only American referee picked to be a whistle-blower on soccer’s biggest stage.

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In fact, he’s only the eighth American to ever be chosen to serve as a World Cup referee. From 2002 to 2014, no U.S. official reached that event, but Elfath’s credentials are sterling since he just got named the Major League Soccer Referee of the Year for the second time in three years.

He just finished working 28 games this year, counting the playoffs and the MLS Cup final between victorious Los Angeles FC and the Philadelphia Union, and has refereed 193 league matches overall.

“It’s a dream come true,” said the 40-year-old Austinite, who began this professional journey when he started officiating youth soccer games and Sunday leagues and worked his way up to the professional ranks in 2009 and eventually MLS competition. “It’s every referee’s dream. This is the pinnacle. Getting to the world’s biggest sporting event is a big honor. It’s quite surreal.”

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By rule, he won’t be allowed to referee any games involving the U.S. men’s national team or Mexico, Canada or Costa Rica from the same CONCACAF confederation. He arrived in Qatar more than a week ago, and the entire officiating crew has been sequestered in a private hotel apart from the teams after his 14-hour direct flight from Dallas to Doha.

And how busy will he be?

Surprisingly, maybe not all that busy.

Austin’s Ismail Elfath, right, will become only the eighth American to work as a soccer referee at the World Cup.

“You’re only guaranteed one game,” Elfath said. “If you do well, you get more.”

You don’t, you go home.

On average, he said most World Cup referees will be assigned two games, but all are judged on merit and some will advance and officiate as many as four or even five matches. But all of them have to be at their very best if they hope to prolong their stays.

Mark Geiger knows only too well. The current director of the Professional Referee Organization officiated two World Cups in 2014 and 2018, following the lead of David Socha, the first American to be chosen to that event.

“He doesn’t get frazzled on the field,” Geiger told Spectrum News1 about Elfath. “He’s stern. He’s confident, but he also is very approachable, and I think that’s a quality and a trait that the players truly appreciate.”

Elfath’s lengthy résumé includes a FIFA U-20 World Cup, the Tokyo Olympics and a CONCACAF Gold Cup.

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This event is so big that famed soccer coach Ted Lasso even wrote motivational messages to put on billboards at the hometown of players on the U.S. team. The World Cup just oozes cool and big-time.

With it will come immense scrutiny, of course, and he knows he’ll feel the pressure because the entire world will be watching the 32 teams fight it out, only seven of which have ever won a World Cup.

“You have to think about the pressure,” he said. “It’s only human. But we’ve trained ourselves to stay between the white lines and treat it as just another soccer game.”

Elfath’s travels have taken him around the world, starting with his trip from Casablanca where he had grown up in his grandfather’s home after his mother passed away when he was 8. His was a close-knit family, which housed close to 16 people including aunts and uncles and offered very little privacy. So when he moved to Austin in 2001, the first thing that struck him was the fact he had just one roommate. He first lived with a cousin for a week, then shared an apartment with a fellow University of Texas student.

He originally had been given two relocation choices by the U.S. government and chose Texas over Indianapolis where he also had a cousin because of this city’s warm weather and the university’s reputation. He got his degree in mechanical engineering at Texas in 2006 and worked in IT corporate sales.

Members of the Uruguayan team argue with referee Ismail Elfath during a 2018 exhibition match with Mexico in Houston. Elfath is one of 36 referees who will work this year’s World Cup.

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In addition, he’s been more than a little active in the Muslim community, serving on the boards of the Muslim American Leadership Alliance and Austin Soccer Foundation and even taking part in a leadership panel at the Conference on World Alliance.

Fitness, of course, is of the utmost importance for soccer referees as well as the players since it’s estimated the officiating crew will run between six to eight miles per game. The MLS referees meet at fitness camps every two weeks throughout the season at locations in Dallas and Denver and Minnesota to stick to a rigorous regimen.

So no pizza? No cheeseburgers?

“I’ll reward myself now and then,” he said, laughing. “Usually it’s more like barbecue and there will be some Salt Lick if I reward myself.”

But none recently.

“You learn your body even more as you go through this professional journey,” Elfath said. “The first couple of years, you rely on raw power and talent. But I’d say I’m in the best shape of my life now. I’m 6-4 on a good day and 200 pounds.”

Part of that stems from an active lifestyle that began in his home country when he grew up playing organized basketball and also soccer in the streets. He was a striker in his youth but quickly realized a pro career as a soccer player was not in his future.

“So,” he said, “the next best seat in the house is (that of) a referee.”

He has a wife and three boys but spends 140 nights away from home in a typical year. The 5-year-old and 17-year-old play soccer to varying degrees while his 9-year-old wants nothing to do with the sport.

“The 17-year-old is as mean a defender as you can ever play against,” dad said. “The 5-year-old is out there chasing daisies.”

He chose not to reveal their names in part out of general concern for their well-being because, well, not everyone always agrees with referees’ decisions and are known to act out their frustrations. He’s been subjected to negative feedback and verbal abuse that all referees experience on occasion, but he’s also part of the Muslim community in Austin that’s seen its own share of hate and divisiveness, and he welcomed the chance to discuss it.

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Elfath brings up the ugly incident a year ago in Austin on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that leveled the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York City. Someone left a bloody pig’s head mask and a hate-filled message outside the Islamic Center of Greater Austin which includes a Muslim mosque and the Austin Peace Academy school.

That same year before the Sept. 11 anniversary, a poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 53% of Americans had unfavorable views toward Islam, compared with 42% who have favorable ones.

“But the scene I remember most was a testament to the good nature of the people of Austin afterward because the mosque was flooded with flowers after that,” Elfath said. “You can imagine the buses rolling up to school with kids 5 to 12 and seeing that (pig’s head and message) and having absolutely no clue why. Some had never heard of 9/11, and some cannot understand the hate. It’s a conversation Muslim parents had to have with their child.”

Elfath said some negative backlash was expected “from ignorant people, but these (respectful) people proactively showed support. That told me what Americans really think about Islam that happens in our streets and neighborhoods and not just what we see on TV.”

Elfath has stayed actively engaged in the Muslim community through Soccer Assist and the Austin Soccer Foundation, two nonprofit organizations that practice community outreach by building soccer fields, donating equipment, providing scholarships and mentorships and delivering a message of hope and togetherness to youth.

Elfath complains that the media hyper-focuses on bad incidents, which he calls “a small, itty bitty percentage” of interfaith relations while the 95% of good from the Muslim community goes unreported.

He referenced the fact the Islam Center had just staged a free COVID-19 vaccine drive and opened a soup kitchen the day before the intimidating message was left that stated Muslims are “unclean to God.” The center has also hosted Islam 101 classes not to convert people to the Islam faith but to better promote understanding, has worked with the mayor’s office and sheriff’s office and city council to build good relations and held food and clothing drives to better represent the Muslim community.

“I found myself trying to become one of the pillars of the community so some can look up to me,” he said. “For me personally I didn’t face any of the hate, maybe because of my background and my height, but I know tons and tons of friends and family who have faced abuse and discrimination in school incidents.”

He has faced abuse on the pitch, however, and worries that too many young referees just getting into the field have been turned off and left the profession because of ugly incidents from adults only too eager to voice their critiques.

Elfath, however, didn’t embark on this path until he was 23, but said it “shocks me what 40- and 50-year-olds will say” and how the enmity understandably drives some young referees away.

He figures to catch some heat himself during the World Cup proceedings that run through Dec. 18. Already, there have been loud protests from some teams and fans about host Qatar’s poor human rights positions and treatment of migrant workers leading up to the event.

But he’ll work hard to represent his profession and home country the best he can. He has no idea how long he’ll remain in soccer because the extended time away from his family weighs on him.

Besides, as he said, most referees in their entire careers are chosen for just a single World Cup if that. That said, he’d love to play a role in the 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted by 16 cities in the United States, Mexico and Canada including games in Houston and Dallas.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’d like to keep going until the next World Cup cycle. But I’ll just see what my family and my body will allow me to do. But that would be very special.”

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin’s Ismail Elfath to be only U.S. referee at 2022 World Cup



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