Back in June, PRO official Ismail Elfath marked the 10-year anniversary of his first game as a professional referee by taking charge of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Final.
Last week, nearly six months on, he was busy preparing for a trip to Qatar where he will be leading CONCACAF’s team, full of PRO colleagues who worked alongside him in the summer, at the FIFA Club World Cup 2019 – which kicks off today.
The U-20 final between Ukraine and South Korea was staged in Poland’s Lodz Stadium, his fifth game in the center in only his first FIFA tournament. It fell a decade after his inaugural match in the middle – an NASL game between Austin Aztex and Montreal Impact.
Making up the 37-year-old’s team in the World Cup were familiar faces in Kyle Atkins (AR), Corey Parker (AR) and Alan Kelly (VAR), further acknowledgment of PRO’s ever-growing presence on the world stage.
It was the highlight of a busy period for the crew, with the CONCACAF Gold Cup also in their diaries; their journey back to the US started just four hours after wrapping up the World Cup.
Yet, despite the tight turnaround, officiating the final was a significant milestone in Elfath’s career and a moment he will never forget.
“We found out during a classroom session, where the head of FIFA refereeing, Massimo Busacca, gave us a debrief about how the tournament had been going, and he just very casually said you’re refereeing the World Cup Final, as he continued talking in the same long sentence,” Elfath recalled.
“Even being considered was a testament to not just us, but everyone behind us at PRO, at CONCACAF, at US Soccer, and our friends and families – everybody that supported us to be there.
“Our goal when we went to Poland was to be number one, and we had no doubt that we could do it. Here in the US, we have the framework to be the best in the world.
“It was a surreal moment and I couldn’t have been happier for my crew, they really put in the work and they had everything to do with us being there.”
The team was put to the test inside the opening two minutes of the final, as a potential handball offense in the penalty area was reviewed by Kelly.
“Up to that point, we hadn’t had a single review; we didn’t want to have one, but we knew it was inevitable,” he explained. “What was surprising was how early it happened in the match.
“I had complete trust in Alan Kelly’s ability to intervene. We are fortunate enough in Major League Soccer to have been using VAR for over two years; so, for me, it was just like any other call. It didn’t faze us at all.
“We came up with a game plan for that. It’s things like visualization, focusing on one decision at the time, getting the small things correct and letting the big things fall into place on their own.
“We prepared for everything from when and what we ate to how we got ready. We aimed to replicate every step of the final to the ones that had got us there. That was the advice we got from people that had done big matches and finals.
“We had a little routine FIFA laid out for us, but we also filled time with activities that kept our minds and our bodies fresh. Walking down the beach, visiting nearby cities, watching a movie, things that gave us a break from the game.”
Following the final, Elfath’s duties were far from over. Within 15 hours of blowing full-time on the World Cup, the crew was in Dallas already preparing for the Gold Cup.
In total, the father of three boys spent more than 60 days away from his family, and now he’s heading off for a few more.
“The boys sometimes complained, but having video chats helped,” he said. “They knew what it meant – it’s special for families. They went straight into planning the watch parties and activities.
“When you see what kind of impact it has on your kids and even your small community, it’s all worth it.”
With back to back tournaments, celebrations following the World Cup were limited to a bar of chocolate whilst taking off from Poland to Dallas – an 11-hour journey in which Elfath admitted everyone was asleep within half an hour.
The conclusion of the Gold Cup, therefore, brought some time for Elfath and his crew to honor their accomplishments before restarting their MLS duties.
“We shared that special moment, where we had our laughs, our hugs and our celebration, and it’s something I’ll keep with me all my life. These are the things that justify the solo training sessions, our early wake-ups, and sacrifices.
“I managed to step away from the field to re-energize and rest the mind and body with a short vacation.
“I created a little Poland World Cup shrine in my office, and when you actually step away for a week and look back at all the photos, messages and the memorabilia, you think, ‘Wow, what just happened?’
“They’re the moments that we live for.”
Elfath has continued to pursue his aspirations off the field as well as on it, as an award-winner and inspiring keynote speaker at the Austin Soccer Foundation Awards Gala.
“To be a speaker in such an event that helps us focus on ways to support the underprivileged youths through soccer and refereeing was as poignant as any final. In Austin, we are lucky enough to have many organizations that do that.
“Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at a relatively young age was a surprise; I am very humbled by it, and I will continue to use that in the right way.
“As an American Muslim, I aspire to provide them with an outlet and be a person they know they can talk to, especially with a lot of them being soccer fans.
“Legacy is a big word. It’s a dream if my name is ever in a conversation of such context, but I don’t want it to be about me, I want it to be about the people I help.”