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?
Soccer 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.