Life in Columbia is like a layover for Ali Saheli.
During the week, Saheli is a senior programmer and computer analyst at MU. Come Friday, he is off to places such as Los Angeles or Bermuda to referee some of the world’s most high-profile soccer games.
“Last year and the year before, I had maybe 12 or 15 weekends free,” Saheli said. “Every weekend I was someplace.”
Since beginning his refereeing career in Columbia in 1982, Saheli has become one of only eight international-level soccer referees in the United States.
He referees World Cup qualifying matches, Major League Soccer, Major Indoor League Soccer and anything else the Federal International Football Association needs.
Mike Jackson, a local referee who has worked with Saheli for 14 years, said Saheli’s abilities warrant this type of success.
“Anyone who’s spent three seconds on the field with the guy respects him,” Jackson said.
In 2001, Saheli traveled to Saudi Arabia and was the fourth official in the country’s 4-1 win against Thailand that qualified it for the World Cup.
Last summer, Saheli refereed English club Manchester United’s match against Mexico’s Club America in Los Angeles. Manchester United is to European soccer what the New York Yankees are to baseball.
“You’re running around with, literally, a billion dollars worth of assets,” Saheli said. “It’s mind boggling.”
Saheli also referees youth games
Saheli also is active in the local soccer community; he refereed about a dozen youth games in Columbia last year.
“Those are the games I enjoy the best,” he said.
Although his high rank offers exciting matches and experiences, it also brings some pressures and stresses. He traveled almost 40,000 miles last year to 21 cities and officiated 70 games.
Saheli said this type of time commitment has led to lost jobs, failed relationships and severe stress among some referees he has worked with.
“It can easily affect you,” Saheli said. “I know many, many friends of mine, better officials than I would ever be, who had to give it up because they couldn’t deal with the pressure.”
Saheli, who is single, has to give up much of his personal time for work. He said he is not sure if not having a family has made things easier for him.
“Yes, in the sense that all you have to worry about is yourself,” Saheli said. “No, because I am 42 years old and, sometimes, you look back and say, ‘Did you make the right decisions?’ ”
Saheli said he is happy, though, and does not regret his choices.
“Every person has to find that balance,” he said.
Soccer has been a lifelong passion
His soccer journey began in his hometown of Tehran, Iran. Saheli said he grew up playing with his friends and fell in love with the sport early in life. He left Iran after its revolution in 1978 and moved in with a cousin in Jefferson City.
After about a month, Saheli came to Columbia to attend MU and began to connect with other Iranian and international students.
Saheli said they put together a soccer team and many members were recruited to become referees.
“Out of 11 starters, nine of us were state (level) referees,” Saheli said. “Nobody wanted to referee our games.”
Four years after he started, Saheli and some of his fellow local referees were given the opportunity to officiate high-level amateur and professional matches. From there he advanced to professional indoor soccer and, eventually, MLS.
Has been with MLS since its inception
Saheli is the only referee who has been with MLS since its inaugural season of 1996. After Saheli reached grade three in the United States Soccer Federation’s referee rankings (referees begin at grade eight), the U.S. federation nominated him for international status and FIFA approved. Saheli is a grade one referee, the highest level available.
This status gives Saheli the opportunity to referee top-level matches such as Manchester United’s. Although the team lost superstar David Beckham before the tour, Manchester United boasted three of FIFA’s recently released top 100 living soccer players when Saheli officiated it.
Saheli said elite players such as these have high expectations for referees.
“Within the first few minutes of the match, they basically assess you,” Saheli said. “Then you either are OK or they smell blood and they are all over you.”
Jackson said Saheli has the type of personality that allows him to handle high-profile players.
“He knows when to be your friend and when to be the enforcer,” Jackson said.
Even so, Saheli said, he isn’t exempt from the wrath of players and fans.
“You don’t grow as a referee until you’ve had some of those experiences,” Saheli said. “Some of them are worse than others, some of (their anger is) justified.”
Unhappy players are only one of the pressures an international referee faces.
In addition to traveling for games, Saheli spends some of his weekends teaching other referees across the country.
Saheli said the travel and time commitment are reasons many referees have a difficult time maintaining a family life.
“Something has to give,” Saheli said.
Saheli said only the most special relationships can endure this type of work.
Saheli's tenure as international ref coming to close
In about three years, Saheli’s schedule should become less hectic because all international referees must retire at 45. Saheli will be able to officiate professional games and any other level of soccer in the United States after that.
Once Saheli retires, the Central Missouri State Referee Administration might take up much of his time. Saheli is the Central District referee administrator and created an assessment and instruction program for referees across the state. Saheli also said he might consider coaching.
“I can’t see myself separated from soccer,” Saheli said. “It’s part of my blood. It’s embedded in me.”