This coming season, the Premier League will arm its referees with the so-called ‘vanishing spray’ following its use at the 2014 World Cup to cordon off walls from encroaching free-kicks and prevent the taker from repositioning the ball. But, while this is obviously a step in the right direction in terms of ironing out wrinkles in the game, we are yet to fix a far deeper fissure in football’s fabric that has been caused by a continuous clock.
Matches are 90 minutes long plus added time, as commentators constantly qualify. That is not to say there is an hour and a half of football for fans to enjoy. A few years ago, Sky Sports coverage of matches showed, in its half-time and post-game analysis, how long the ball was in play for per half. (It has since mysteriously disappeared.) In the Premier League, the minutes usually ranged between the high twenties and low thirties.
Statistics collected from Opta in 2011 revealed that the Premier League’s average ‘in-play’ time for matches during the 2010/11 season was 62 minutes and 39 seconds. In Spain’s La Liga and the German Bundesliga, those data were lower at 61:48 and 61:22 respectively, but the most football per match was played in Italy, whose Serie A saw the ball in play for an average of 65:15.
Such discrepancies make it difficult to accurately compare statistical indicators across European leagues. Is a goal in Italy less valuable than one scored in Spain? A lot can happen in three and a half minutes, let alone in the half-hour hidden by all four leagues. Of course, bunging an extra 30 minutes on the end of 90 is counter-productive, since stoppages will almost certainly occur in that added time and we end up with infinite gameplay (and an exhausted board-lifting fourth official).
There needs to be a better, simpler solution. Something that is already part of the game which needs a small but significant adjustment: stopping the clock. Experiment with reducing the length of matches to 70 minutes if players cannot handle the full footballing 90. It is costless and can be implemented across all tiers of football – crucially, too, at grassroots level – with the effortless click of a stopwatch.
It is costless and can be implemented across all tiers of football – crucially, too, at grassroots level – with the effortless click of a stopwatch.
Analysing the problem, we see two symptoms of wasted seconds in football: natural and man-made. Naturally and frequently, the ball goes out of bounds (for throw-ins, corners or goal-kicks) and there are stoppages in play (for free-kicks, penalties, offsides, injuries or, indeed, goals). Substitutions also drag them out. These are all part and parcel of the game, seldom avoidable.
However, footballers – ever the strategic and risk-averse actors – try to use them, at times, to their advantage. They disrupt games on purpose by trudging along unhurriedly when their number is called or to retrieve the ball for a set-piece. They thwart their opponents’ momentum by feigning deliberation over free-kick or throw-in options and dilly-dally unnecessarily. They tap the ball just enough out of their opponents’ reach when they concede a foul, whatever they can get away with. Even spectators and ball-boys hold onto the ball to eat away at the clock unfairly. It is naïve to say that the game flows better under a continuous clock compared to the supposedly-sporadic nature of stopclocks.
It is naïve to say that the game flows better under a continuous clock compared to the supposedly-sporadic nature of stopclocks.
Referees are lenient in that respect. What’s one yellow-card to a goalkeeper who stands by his post for a few extra ticks in added time before a goal-kick? With the allowance for time lost being at the officials’ discretion, precious seconds go past without complete compromise as players look to bend the rules. Actually, it takes even longer to book them.
The dubious nature of the football’s timing rings especially true when perennially-successful teams are under the threat of dropping points at home, which means that refs, daunted by the prospect of media scrutiny and fan abuse, balk at the idea of blowing the whistle too early. Fans of big teams speak loudest, seek scapegoats in the most vulnerable – more often than not, the voiceless figure of one referee – and berate them in their tens of thousands. It is another situation salvaged by a stopclock.
But the biggest injustice comes in the form of simulation.
Pundits, columnists and tweeters alike chastise injury-fakers for ruining the game. Though it is difficult to prove, they are right: it is cheating. And cheating is bad. But this kind of cheating is only encouraged by the parameters of the game. The incentive to fake an injury disappears when the clock is stopped.
The incentive to fake an injury disappears when the clock is stopped.
This is the solution football needs. Considering how long it has taken for goal-line technology to be introduced, it will probably be no quick fix. But it is time to take the first step, wake the footballing fogies from their slumber and modernise furthermore.
Eventually, once clock-stoppage becomes the norm, football at the highest levels will be able to progress seamlessly towards video replay and catch up with other professional sports that have benefitted from it. That way, currently-controversial decisions that must be made on the impulse of officials, concerning offsides or penalties for instance, can be studied closely and quickly in referee review booths so that the correct decision follows. Not only is it fairer, but it also wastes less time compared to the continuous clock. Plus cheating, including that of divers or those who trip up others off the ball, can be expunged once and for all with the presence of more eyes on the pitch and the threat of offenders being easily seen.
As I overheard from commentary on the Eredivisie’s opening weekend, the second tier of Dutch football has been trialling the use of video replay, with each team’s manager being able to challenge one decision per half for official review. Early indications from authorities are favourable towards the system’s future development.
If FIFA thinks some shaving foam can help brush up the beautiful game, it should certainly consider repairing its timepiece. It’s not too late.