The former deputy director of immigration has participated in more World Cup matches than any Emirati in history. He tells us about meeting Sheikh Zayed and what it's like to be the man in the middle surrounded by superstars
Ali Bujsaim interview: Meet the Emirati World Cup referee who kept Stoichkov and Ronaldo in check
The best player Ali Bujsaim has shared a pitch with at a World Cup is Brazil's Ronaldo. His toughest opponent? Hristo Stoichkov, although the pair became, and have remained, good friends. His favourite captain? There were many, but Didier Deschamps probably edges it.
Appearing at three World Cups, Bujsaim has participated in more global-finals matches than any Emirati in history. He played a key role in seven, including the 1998 semi-final between Brazil and the Netherlands, and the opening game four years later when Senegal shocked holders France. And all from the thick of the action, entrusted as the man in the middle.
“An incredible journey,” smiles the retired referee now.
Wasn't it just. An elite-level referee with a fierce work ethic, Bujsaim was a trailblazer not only for Emiratis, but for his continent, too. He was the first Asian to referee a World Cup curtain-raiser, the first to referee a semi-final, the first to take charge of a third-place play-off. He even came close to refereeing the final in 2002.
Bujsaim’s first World Cup was 1994, two years after refereeing at the Barcelona Olympics. Before setting off for the US, he was invited for a special audience with Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s Founding Father. Presumably that added to his pre-tournament nerves. Or maybe not.
“I felt calm,” Bujsaim says. “Because when Sheikh Zayed invites you it’s like you’re going to your father. It’s a very warm meeting. It was me, all the Football Association board-members and other sheikhs; everybody was there. They were happy sport was taking good importance in the government.
“For me, it was a push and support; a psychological preparation for the World Cup. Like: ‘I’m not going to represent myself, but the continent and the country.’
"For my country, it was a success; it added to our reputation. And everybody knew about the meeting with Sheikh Zayed. Even when I went to the World Cup, all the referees knew. They were happy, thinking: ‘Look how they treat who represents the country in big tournament.’”
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Bujsaim didn’t feel quite as at ease once there, though. His first match was Bulgaria against Greece, a tempestuous tussle in Chicago, in front of 63,000 spectators and millions more on TV. He awarded two penalties, which Stoichkov converted, as Bulgaria won 4-0.
“Really, I was nervous,” Bujsaim says. “One of the most famous stadiums, Soldier Field, the same place as the opening match. From the beginning, the stadium was full. And this was Stoichkov, one of the best in the world.
“But I felt the challenge; these two teams you have to be careful. They are neighbours and you know neighbours, they don’t like each other much. It was really tough. For the first time in my life, the first foul arrived immediately with the whistle to start the game. So many fouls.
“But control is the most important thing. Thank God it went well.”
He was rewarded with the play-off for bronze match, Bulgaria against a Sweden side boasting Tomas Brolin and Henrik Larsson, in front of 91,500 people at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Stoichkov needed a goal to move ahead of Oleg Salenko and most probably secure the Golden Boot. Although he never got it – Sweden won 4-0 – it was not through want of trying.
“Stoichkov was killing himself to be top scorer,” Bujsaim says. “He was jumping right and left, trying everything. Until now, he is a friend, but when you say penalty it has to be a penalty, not when you create simulation.”
Spot kick or no spot kick, Bujsaim had already made his mark.
“It was the first time a referee from Asia or Africa had this match," he says. "It was like breaking the wall. It opened a way for us for the next World Cup.”
At the next finals, France 1998, Bujsaim's opening assignment was the group game between Scotland and Morocco. Eight minutes into the second half, he sent off Craig Burley, his first red card brandished on football's greatest stage.
“An easy red card,” he shrugs. “With the tackle, this guy told me: ‘Send me off.’ Tackling from behind with force. The decision was clear.”
In his last-16 tie between France and Paraguay, the game created history – the first World Cup match decided by Golden Goal.
“Before they called it 'sudden death', then they made it nice with 'Golden Goal',” Bujsaim laughs. “[Laurent] Blanc scored and nobody went for the ball in the goal to bring it to the middle. Nobody's waiting for your whistle.
“When France scored, it was really a relief for them, because they were nervous and without [Zinedine] Zidane, who was suspended. He was their leader; without him it’s like a lion without teeth."
Bujsaim’s performance was sturdy, too. He says Fifa marked him 9/10, answering those in the media who had questioned pre-match if that particular set of officials were up to the task.
“There was me, a Sri Lankan assistant, another from Vanuatu,” Bujsaim says. "The media wrote: ‘World Cup, France hosting, but referee from the middle of the desert, one from middle of the ocean, and one from an island of cricket.'
“Then when we did the match, everybody was happy. All this pressure went away.
“Fifa were proud. After the match, they wrote there is no referee from the desert or from the ocean; they are Fifa referees. It gave them strength. Then they gave me the semi-final. A big match, for me and my country.”
In Marseille, Ronaldo scored, Patrick Kluivert equalised and Brazil eventually triumphed in a shoot-out. According to Bujsaim, the Fifa assessor gave him 9.5. After the match, in an unprecedented move, Fifa allowed match officials to speak to the press. So Bujsaim, his assistant and the assessor fronted an inquisitive and difficult media in a cavernous lecture theatre.
His assistant was reluctant, yet Bujsaim, used to giving interviews with broadcasters in the UAE, thrived.
“I’m from a small country and in Europe they want to tease you,” he says. “Then the question came: ‘How come a referee from a country with no professionalism, a small country who only one time came to the World Cup, referees a big match?’
“I don’t know how it came into my mind, but I said: ‘Look, this is personal talent. I give you an example: 1995, the best player in the world was George Weah. His country [Liberia] has never been in World Cup. This is a talent from God. Not everybody has it. This is a small country, but this is personal performance. I worked very hard to get here, everything in my life is structured: work, training, rest. Like what happened with Weah.’
“It was like whoosh, cold water [poured over everyone]. The media treated me differently afterwards, because they respected the answer. And the referee assessor said: ‘With this, I will give you 9.8.’”
Bujsaim would referee at one more World Cup, the tournament in Japan and South Korea granting him perhaps his greatest honour: opening the finals.
“I felt the responsibility of everything," he says. “So I was preparing myself for it. This was my third World Cup; no other referee in history has refereed class-A matches on all six continents.
“[English referee] Graham Poll said to me before it: ‘Master, show me the art.’ I refereed this match, and thank God it was one of the matches that can’t be forgotten. Senegal, formerly under French rule, beat France 1-0. For them, it was national day.
“It was something unbelievable the atmosphere after they won. It’s something I will always remember. I was very happy for this tournament. I have colleagues who are still very good friends – [Pierluigi] Collina and others. They come to Dubai.”
Not only former colleagues. Roberto Carlos, the Brazilian World Cup-winning full-back, has been known to request a meeting with Bujsaim when he visits the emirate; he is a player the former deputy director of immigration cites as incredibly respectful. Ditto Ronaldo.
"Very polite, and he remembered me," Bujsaim says. "I refereed a lot of matches, sometimes as a fourth official. Against China in Korea 2002, Ronaldo wanted to take advantage because he knew me, saying: ‘Let me play with an earring.' I said: ‘Take it out, thank you.' But he’s very respectful, very calm."
Read more on World Cup memories:
Part 1: Gazza's tears at Italia 90
Part 2: The Ronaldo mystery at France 98
Part 3: Roberto Baggio's magic at USA 94
And the very best Bujsaim has seen close up?
“He knew what he wanted to do,” Bujsaim says. “He could score from different positions, different way of shooting, parts of the feet. Against Germany, he scored with the toe of his boot. He knew when to dribble, when to shoot, when to play. This is given by God; this is not something you teach. He had it.”
As a referee, Bujsaim undeniably had it. A pioneer in his field, he proved that a man from the desert, from a small country that has only once been to the World Cup, could succeed at the pinnacle of his profession.
“It's hard work, it’s a goal you set yourself and you have to reach it,” he says. “From the beginning I felt: ‘Why are the others at the World Cup? They are not better than me.’ This was one of the things I worked on before a big match: since a human being can do it, you can do it.
“This was always in my mind: ‘OK, I make mistakes, but human beings make mistakes. Don’t do another one.’ This is my life. My system is like this. Yes, it was a very good journey. A journey of a lot of memories.”