EDITOR’s NOTE: As we head into the final stretch ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar, our friend and an avid football fan – Christian Celind – returns with an interesting take on what is football’s insufficiently discussed topic. Make sure to have a read.
football is funny.
We live in times of collecting data and measuring statistics – down to the last molecule – that we can then analyze the crap out of. Yet, there is one parameter we treat arbitrarily, that we can use and abuse at will. Controlling and manipulating this parameter to your advantage has become as much a factor as actually developing skills and strategies to outsmart the opponent with the ball or with the feet.
Folks, we need to talk about time.
I like things that can be measured. In football, we measure pretty much everything. Let’s start with the obvious, the object of the game; goals. That’s an easy one – score. We also tally points, calculate goal difference, count yellow and red cards. Cornerstones of the game, necessary for keeping track of who’s winning, who’s getting promoted or relegated, or suspended.
Then we count free kicks, corners, goal kicks, throw-ins, tackles, passes, saves, shots on target, and possession. Numbers most fans may not care much about, but that some poor soul is painstakingly noting down for every match for coaches, gamblers, or stat nerds.
The distance between the ball and the opponents in set pieces. A bit arbitrary, depending on the length of the steps of the referee, but still measured. And I’m all for it. Stealing territory is now being stifled. I would still like to see stats of how many more goals we have witnessed since the introduction of the spray can rule. Maybe it hasn’t had a huge impact, but players had to adapt quickly. And they did.
What can we measure that is not directly part of the game, but still of interest?
Money, obviously. Governing bodies keep a close eye on financial fair play, and for that they need numbers. Transfer fees, ticket fees, spectator numbers, shirt sales, financial turnover. For the regular fan, us foot soldiers, these numbers become abstract, almost absurd. Maybe not always transparent, but the figures are there, in great detail.
But it doesn’t stop there. No, sir. With the introduction of new technologies, we can take things to scientific levels of granularity. With a small chip in the socks of the players we can measure how many meters Andy Robertson (many) or Manuel Neuer (not quite as many) run each match. And with VAR we can now determine, down to the length of Mbappe’s toenail, if he were offside or not. Or down to the width of a grass straw if the ball was over the line or not.
But what is the one thing we approximate rather than nail down to exactness? The laws of the game state that a football match is 90 minutes, plus injury time. So, it’s not entirely true that it’s not measured. Someone starts a clock at kick-off, and 45 minutes later the timer beeps. You know that regardless of what happens, whatever you fit into those 90 minutes plus some change, that’s it. Unless something extraordinary happens, a football game fits comfortably into a two-hour window. An optimal scenario, commercially anyway. One we have gotten used to.
So why don’t they stop the clock when the ball isn’t rolling?
Stopping the clock when the ball is out of play works in other sports, most notably basketball and ice hockey. Why wouldn’t it work in football?
Traditionalists would argue that the rules must be the same all over the world, regardless of the level. Anyone who has ever played the game at grass-root level knows this is simply not the case. But let’s disregard that fact for a moment. Another argument could be the additional costs associated with more efficient time measuring devices worldwide. Bollocks. I’m sure that the almighty FIFA could get a pretty good bulk deal on stop watches. Maybe they would even find it in their hearts (and pockets) to sponsor local associations with simple technology. I’m quite confident technology could be enhanced to facilitate this. An app maybe, or a simple smart watch? Just putting ideas on the table here.
But if we stopped the clock at each free kick or throw-in, wouldn’t we then invite commercial forces to capitalize on this? Would TV broadcasts switch to commercials every time the ball is out of bounds? Would we go all American? Would we have to start calling it soccer? Maybe. But would you rather watch a bunch of players standing around drinking water than a beer commercial? Think about it.
What about the already overwhelmed referees?
They are already adding injury time, you say. In theory, yes. But does it make up for all the time lost due to stalling and injury? Partially. But in modern football it seems like they apply a standard template rather than a reflection of the actual time wasting. A goal with celebrations – add one minute. Tactical substitution – add one minute. Player down – add one minute. Neymar down – add three minutes. We never see the fourth official announcing 4 minutes and 37 seconds of injury time, which might have been the actual time that should be added.
But I could live with this. All other things being equal, I could accept that the length of a football game is boxed into a time frame, to fit into TV schedules and the routines of the live audience. I could come to terms with getting only 57 minutes of action although I paid for 90, considering I’m paying for a wholesome experience, including the atmosphere, seeing the stars in the flesh on the pitch, the potentially a nail-biting thriller of a match, while enjoying a beer and a hotdog. The user experience, speaking in business terms, can be priceless.
What I do have a problem with, though, is that time wasting has become systematic, a tactic to gain an advantage in important games. In my humble opinion football should be played out on the pitch. It shouldn’t be a match against the clock. Time shouldn’t be a factor. Everyone in the sport – players, teams, audiences, referees, investors – deserve a fair game. Teams should be rewarded for their skills with the ball and ability to outplay the opponent, and not for their skills at stalling the game. With the technology at hand, and the granularity with which we are measuring everything else…
…the lack of proper time keeping is frustrating.
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But it’s part of the game, you say. Yes. It has become part of the game. Players faking injury, substituted players sauntering off the pitch, goalkeepers stretching the six seconds they can hold the ball to sixty, and hogging the ball after a goal so that the opponent can’t take it. That last one looks ridiculous, by the way. Grown men – for you don’t see this in women’s football nearly as much – displaying kindergarten behavior and being regarded as heroes for it. Only to gain a few seconds.
Introducing effective playing time would only result in players and teams finding other ways to beat the system, some would argue. Undeniably so. There would still be an incentive to stop the flow of the game. A tired team would still welcome a break in the game and do everything in their power to stop the momentum of a better team. Players are creative, and if the option of time-wasting would be eliminated, they would find new ways. Faking injury would still be worthwhile if it could penalize the opponent with a yellow or red card. Hogging the said ball, thereby frustrating the opponent to get them out of balance, could still be a tactic, silly as it may look. Snail-paced walking at a substitution could still give your team valuable time to regroup. But the advantages wouldn’t be nearly as beneficial as they are today.
Maybe we would see more time-wasting with the ball actually in play. If the clock would annoyingly keep stopping at every interruption, then the next best strategy for running down the clock would be to keep the ball away from the opponent. Maybe the action would move from the center of the park to the corner flags. Or perhaps the passing game would develop to new levels as a strategy for keeping the opponent from gaining possession. I could even imagine a scenario where, like in American football, a team would punt the ball as far away from their own end zone as possible, handing the initiative over to the attacking team, focusing solely on defense. I could also imagine parking the bus would become standard, with lesser skilled teams putting eleven players behind the ball on their own penalty box perimeter, hoping that an opportunity for a counterattack would present itself at some point. Maybe the better team wouldn’t always win, but then it would be due to their inability to score rather than their inability to stop time.
How would the players feel about this? I could imagine it would be a mixed bag of emotions. Players with a more cynical mindset wouldn’t be very happy. What’s the fun in playing if you can’t cheat? And instead of running for some 60 minutes, I actually have to run for 90 minutes? Who am I, a marathon runner? I need a raise.
How many minutes of football are actually played each match?
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I don’t have good stats – as it’s not measured – but I would guess a maximum of two thirds. I’m just waiting for the day a disgruntled football fan decides to sue a club or stadium for not getting value for their money. I paid for 90 minutes of football, but I only got 60. No respectable lawyer would take on the case, but it’s a court case I would follow.
I would take these scenarios over time wasting any day of the week though. I dare speculate that with effective time, stalling tactics wouldn’t be sustainable. For a transitory period, we would see teams trying to figure it out. Teams would have to find methods for matching opponents with the ball in play. Some would fare better than others. Potentially there would be a shift on the football map. The better teams would remain on top, whereas anti-play teams would quickly fall through the ranks. We would see fewer upsets, and maybe the game would become more predictable and – lo and behold – boring. The role of the manager would become more important, as the game would favor possession and the players would need more guidance of the strategy. The demand for defensive players might skyrocket. Maybe we would see teams specialize more on set pieces. The less adaptive players and teams would suffer. But it’s a shift I would like to see.
Could football learn from other sports?
Rugby comes to mind. Two times 40 minutes, which in reality also means close to 80 minutes of action (if you consider a scrum an action, that is, but technically the ball is in play). But rugby players stall the game all the time – said no one, ever. They just get on with it. We already mentioned basketball, the only other sport that comes close to football in popularity worldwide. They stop the clock down to a tenth of a second, and you often see the games being exciting down to the last second. Not suggesting we go OTT and introduce a shot clock – hurry up Lionel, stop dribbling, you only have twelve seconds to score. But I’m sure FIFA could overcome their pride and get together with their peers in FIBA, maybe over a drink, and just put a feeler out: Hey guys, how do you do this? Is it working out for you?
I’m not saying we should revolutionize the game overnight. Can’t teach old dogs new tricks. But wouldn’t it be worth at least trying? I’m sure some tournament would volunteer to be a guinea pig in this crazy experiment if asked (or compensated) nicely. Or is everyone else happy with the way things are? Am I a bitter old fart for getting worked up about this? The World Cup is around the corner. I invite everyone to observe and at least consider if the game would maybe be a little bit more enjoyable with effective time.
If you ask me, it’s time to change.