May 032015

That I can recall, I had never deliberately watched any top-level soccer before last year’s World Cup. Like many people, I got interested in following the American team, and made an effort to catch their games.

They were exciting. We had a good time as a family watching them. Unfortunately, however, with this sustained exposure I became acutely aware of a fundamental problem with the game. It is severe enough—broken enough—to prevent me from ever having any real affection for it.

Most sporting events are timed. In a competitive contest, the clock is nearly always a major factor. If you have the lead, it behooves you to find a reasonably safe way to burn time. If you don’t, you take ever-greater risks as time dwindles, enhancing both opportunities for heroism and potential for blunders. The clock can be your deliverance. Or, it can crush you mercilessly.

Some sporting events are not timed. Two examples are baseball and most auto racing. There is no clock, but in each case there remains a significant mechanism of finality. In auto racing, you have a set number of laps to get the job done. In baseball, you know entering the bottom of any inning ninth or later that you can win or lose the game then. Even with no clock, you still run out of time, do you not?

blurrytimeSoccer is timed. But it is not precisely timed. The clock runs continuously with few exceptions. Then, when time expires in a half, the referee adds “stoppage time.” This time ostensibly corresponds to the number of minutes lost to stoppage during the half—injuries, penalties, and so forth.

In truth, in my observation, the time added may not even be accurate to the nearest minute. Moreover, the referee is allowed to extend gameplay if, in his estimation, the circumstances on the field call for it. Game length, therefore, is ultimately somewhat arbitrary. There is a clock. But you may or may not be able to save yourself with it, and neither can you reliably impale your opponent on it.

So when, exactly, is the game over? Well, when that guy says so.

As far as I know, no other sport in the world has a clock, but one to which it is not fully beholden. Half-court shot at the buzzer? Last-second field goal? Blocking a last-second field goal? Exciting moments, yes? That dynamic doesn’t exist in soccer.

Until last year, I thought the sloppy timing at the kids’ AYSO games was just because it was casual recreation, it’s impractical for each soccer field to have a clock, and so forth. Nope! Turns out they do it exactly the same way on the world’s biggest stage.

So when might the referee extend the game on the spot? One common scenario is, believe it or not, when the losing team has an attack going. Day late and a dollar short? Should have found your rally sooner? On the contrary! Let’s see if they can get it done. When do we know they can’t? Well, when that guy says so.

I built a new appreciation for how exciting soccer gameplay can be last year, but the sloppy clock is madness. It is madness that cost the United States a win against Portugal. It is madness that will effectively prevent me having anything but the most superficial interest in the game.

The obvious fix is to time the game rigidly. Barring that, just time the end of the half rigidly. Have the referee add stoppage time with, say, five minutes remaining in the half, and that’s all of the adjustment that happens.

Until then? Yes, billions of people certainly can be wrong.

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 Posted by at 3:24 pm

  6 Responses to “Soccer’s fatal flaw”

  1. There’s also no timeouts, so that might be related. I will say at the top levels, the referee will inform the sideline the number of minutes being added and that is advertised at half and full time. Half time stoppage is usually 1-3 minutes and full time is usually 3-5 minutes added. But even that is inexact. Sorry, but that’s the way it is and forever will be. More exact than baseball at least.

    • “That’s the way it is and forever shall be”? Why is that? Is there any defense of current practice other than one of inertia? Is this better in any way than actually controlling the game with the clock?

  2. Two comments:

    1. The common scenario of “Allowing the loosing team to finish the attack” is actually “Allowing a team to finish their attack”. It will happen for either side. If the winning team happens to be on the attack at the time the referee judges as the end of the game, his qualifications for “when has the attack ended” might be more strict that if it were the losing team. A good ref will also probably take into account what the current score differential is and does it matter how many points the losing team has?

    2. You might enjoy school (at least Alabama) soccer. My understanding is that the clock is the one thing the referee does not control. It’s actually about as opposite as you could get from how the rest of the world does time keeping for soccer. According to a school ref that both you and I work with, there can be a shot in the air, on its way into the goal, but if the buzzer goes off before the ball has completely crossed the goal line: no goal. Which in my opinion, there is no other strictly timed sport (at least one that’s played in any kind of mainstream way in the US) that ever operates that way.

    • Tahm, I just highlighted the scenario of the losing team attacking because it’s the most jarring. A rigid clock dooms them. The sloppy clock leaves them in the game.

      You’re right. Nate’s school games do use the clock on the scoreboard, with no stoppage time. Maybe there’s hope!

  3. I can very much see how the lack of a rigid clock would be frustrating to someone used to watching and playing sports with one. I cannot argue against that, but I can tell you that it makes the sport no less exciting for me to watch. The Portugal goal was “at the buzzer” for all intents and purposes…that was the end of stoppage time. And, yes, it was frustrating (imagine sitting a few rows away from a group of Portuguese fans in the stadium), but it is accepted as part of the game. Games are won and lost in stoppage time and it does not take away from the excitement of the game for me, but I can see how it can for others. I like the idea of having time added back on when another team is “wasting time.” I’ve heard soccer fans observe that if it takes 3 hours to play a one hour game (by the “rigid clock”) of American football then what is the purpose of having a clock anyways? I’m not trying to convince you to become a fan….this may have to be a “to each his own” kind of deal.

    • It just frustrates me that the game is so strategically and tactically similar to basketball, hockey, and even football in a lot of ways, but mostly devoid of this critical dynamic. There doesn’t even seem to be a good answer for why it is like it is. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is a lame reason, all by itself, to continue doing anything.

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