IIn the 76th minute of Manchester United’s victory over Liverpool, Lisandro Martínez started flawlessly and collapsed with cramp. Immobile in his penalty area like a 1917 extra, Michael Oliver stops the game. Fifty-three seconds later, play resumes.
In the 87th minute, a cramp set in coincidentally in Martínez’ taller partner – this time in both legs of poor lad Raphaël Varane. He straightens them up like a Playmobil figurine by falling gently. Roberto Firmino kindly extends his hand. Varane refuses – there is a brief moment when he is dragged inches off the ground on his back like a dog with worms. By the time David de Gea takes the free kick, United are 45 seconds away from victory.
When Mohamed Salah scores a few minutes before Varane is knocked down, we have a classic refusal to return the ball. Bruno Fernandes is holding on – my ball, take yours. Salah launches an attack. Fernandes is somehow blinded in one eye. About a minute later, United kick off.
United’s triple substitution takes around a minute as they go out one by one. It’s a classic waste of time. A minimum downtime of five minutes is suggested. It’s the perfect amount. Both not enough and too much. Five minutes seems to be the shortest acceptable for a game where a team has been running for some time. But realistically, it could well have been much more.
Every team does it, and it fits perfectly with our tribalism. When you win, you hardly notice it; when you lose, the rage boils inside as a goalkeeper places the ball, speeds up its run for a goal kick, then slowly returns to readdress it and move it a centimeter.
There’s an amazing clip making the rounds in the South African league in 2020, where Mamelodi Sundowns – leading 2-1 – have a corner in the 82nd minute. A player stands on it, takes years and is booked for wasting time. He then goes off to find a teammate to do the exact same thing. As he is reserved, he steps aside for a third player to take him. He is also warned – and more than two minutes after the corner is awarded – the original shooter comes back and whips him. It’s great entertainment. The commentators are in hysterics.
And that’s before we consider goal celebrations, late scrums, players faking injury and Kasper Schmeichel refusing to give the ball to a desperate centre-forward who got one back.
Wasting time works – refs don’t add enough. During the 2018 World Cup, the site FiveThirtyEight analyzed 32 matches. In those games, and using Fifa’s advice on stoppages (e.g. 30 seconds for a substitution, etc.), he found that the average time that should have been added was 13 minutes and 10 seconds – about the double what was added at the end of the halves. : just under seven minutes.
A solution for this is simple. Stop the clock. After Barcelona’s goalless draw at home to Rayo Vallecano on the opening matchday of the season, Xavi Hernández became the latest manager to call him up. “For me it’s a ridiculous situation and I don’t choose Rayo here,” he said. “But I think we’re the only sport where we never play regular time. Don’t we want fair play? Well, that would end the cheating.
Mark Clattenburg suggested the same in the Daily Mail in May. “I think there is a solution to all of this and that is 60 minute games with a clock – an idea that Pierluigi Collina, Fifa and Ifab are currently studying. It works in basketball and it could operate in football too.
And on the face of it, that seems like a vaguely sensible idea. But as infuriating as the waste of time is, there is beauty in downtime. Basketball is an interesting Clattenburg comparison, as he has that buzzer-throwing excitement you see in all American movies of the 80s. But the clock doesn’t help rugby or the NFL – where we know all the result but have to wait for someone to throw the ball out of play or sit on it.
Not knowing exactly when the game will end adds drama. Waiting for the fourth official’s advice, no matter what predicament your team finds itself in, with “Where Did It Happen this of?” and “How a lot?” shouted simultaneously from opposite sides of the floor. Why did one of us learn to whistle with our fingers in our mouths?
And the great moments in football history happen in stoppage time. “It’s up for grabs now!” Jimmy Glass. Fergie time. Sergi Roberto against PSG. Anthony Knockaert, Manuel Almunia (how does he get the rebound?) and Troy Deeney. Agüerooooo. Of course, there would still be drama at the end. But there is a psychological moment for players when the board goes up that you would lose. And that roar of hope from the losing crowd when the board shows six minutes.
Last season the ball was in play on average in the Premier League just over 55 minutes. The shortest last season was West Ham against Brentford – 41 minutes and 33 seconds. Stop the clock and do those 60 minutes and you’ll be there forever.
Maybe taking the timing out of the referee’s hands would help with more accuracy – but if we lost it altogether we’d miss David Platt with the ball under his arm, chest bulging with a goal as he steps back and puts it back in the ball in the center place. We would miss the referee, hand in the air, blowing the final whistle. We would miss 90 minutes. That’s 90 minutes of pure hell – not 60. And maybe even miss a cramp – OK that’s overkill (delivered by a furious opponent).