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Picture: 123RF/BOWIE 15
Picture: 123RF/BOWIE 15

Football should follow rugby’s lead — again! After belatedly adopting the example of rugby and several other sports when it introduced technology in 2018 to help match officials eliminate errors in the form of the video assistant referee (VAR), the time has come for the International Football Association Board (Ifab) to follow the lead of sports such as rugby and basketball by introducing an independent timekeeper.

The issue of time-wasting and gamesmanship has come into sharp focus in recent weeks, though it’s far from being a new phenomenon. Several teams, ranging from Everton and Atletico Madrid to Real Madrid, have employed the tactic to eat up valuable time in seeking to get over the line. Not that these examples are new to the game — it’s been used for decades by teams at all levels worldwide.

Some teams have perfected the dark art, particularly when playing away, to waste valuable time in their efforts to secure a draw, to cling to a precious lead or just to break up play.

Ever since London clashed with Sheffield in 1866 football matches have always lasted 90 minutes comprising two 45-minute halves.  

Since then, this duration has become a rule that has been followed worldwide. But, for a variety of reasons, the action on the pitch never comes close to filling the entire designated 90 minutes. In the modern age in which virtually everything is empirically measured, statistics have shown that actual playing time at the highest levels of the game rarely exceeds 70 minutes.

Downward trend

Statistics recorded at the 2018 World Cup in Russia showed that actual playing time amounted to 52-58 minutes in the 64 matches that were played. Alarmingly, this was down from the average of 60-67 minutes at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

This downward trend is unacceptable, especially given the amount of money, time and effort invested by fans to watch a match live in the stadium. They are being seriously short-changed, as are the vast television audiences.

Of course, the nature of the game makes it impossible for the ball to be in play for the entire 90 minutes plus whatever stoppage time the referee deems fit to allow. The losing team always want more and the team hanging on for a win want less time to be added on. Remember Fergie Time?

Retrieving the ball for a throw-in or corner, stoppages for free kicks and bookings, setting up of walls to defend set-pieces and attending to injuries all eat into the 90 minutes of official playing time. Referees are also advised to add 30 seconds per substitution even though this could be deliberately stretched out to waste time.

The controversy about timekeeping reared its head again in last week’s epic Champions League semifinal second leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City.

After staging a dramatic comeback to force the tie into extra time, and then edging ahead through Karim Benzema’s penalty, Real employed their vast experience by running down the clock in what was a classic exhibition of game management. And who can blame them?

Immediately discarded

They got the job done by frustrating their opponents through wasting time that was never really fully compensated by referee Daniele Orsato. The Italian match official added just three minutes to the second period of extra time when much more seemed plausible and then blew the final whistle 10 seconds early.

All of the controversy around referees’ optional time would be immediately discarded into the dustbin of history if the game’s lawmakers were to adopt the system employed by rugby and basketball. In these sports the clock, which is visible to fans in the stadium and to viewers on their TV screens at home, is paused when there is a stoppage in play for whatever reason, be it treatment for injuries, a VAR intervention or a discussion between referee and players.

The system would make the feigning of injuries and unnecessary stoppages pointless. So players could dive and roll around and scream and shout as much as they like but they would do so in the knowledge that it would get them nothing more than a breather.

Fifa, Ifab and Pierluigi Collina, widely regarded as the best referee in the game yet, are considering the idea of introducing 60-minute matches with time being kept by a stop-clock. It’s high time (excuse the pun) that football moves swiftly to counter the ever-increasing incidence of time-wasting, which has become an unwanted part of the modern game in which winning at all costs trumps fair play.

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