One Simple Rule Change That Would Make Football Great Again

You are watching an important football match, and the score is 1-0 with five minutes to go.  The team with the one-goal advantage will do everything in their power to win the match.  Suddenly players of the winning team start laying on the floor every time they are fouled, often with outlandish theatrics in a clear attempt to waste time.  Goalkeepers take their sweet, sweet time when preparing to take goal kicks.  Players getting substituted off the pitch try to waste every second by pretending to have a limp, going to high five all his nearest teammates, or even going over to the referee to congratulate him on what was apparently a brilliantly refereed match.

You might ask, “Well, the referee is going to keep track of all the wasted time and add it back during stoppage time, right?”  Theoretically, you are correct in that wasted time gets added during stoppage time.  However, the amount of time wasted during a match is vague and is at the referee’s discretion.  The length of stoppage time itself is also vague, as you never know how the referee will add the wasted time that takes place during stoppage time.  To put the referee’s discretion into perspective, the English Premier League typically adds four minutes of stoppage time at the end of a match, but usually one or two at the end of the first half.  The UEFA Champions League typically adds only two or three minutes at the end of a match, but might not add any at the end of the first half.  The Premier League wants to create more late goals, and UEFA presumably wants to make sure that all the Champions League matches run in synchrony with each other.  Each league and tournament is different when it comes to their reasons and methods for calculating stoppage time.

So why do players waste time if it is going to get added back on?  As I just mentioned, some leagues give more stoppage time than others, meaning that some leagues/ tournaments don’t add all of the wasted time back into stoppage time.  The vagueness of how much time gets accounted for and subsequently added into stoppage time still gives players an incentive to waste as much time they can.  The only real way to combat time wasting is to stop the clock during the most significant time-wasting opportunities, such as goals, injuries, and substitutions, and goal kicks.  Clock stoppages for other dead ball situations such as set pieces and throw-ins might not be necessary, but could be useful if applied only in the 80th minute and later.  Players will keep wasting their time and trying to gain every advantage until the rules change.  So why has FIFA been using a running clock all this time?  To be honest, FIFA is not very open to change.

FIFA has implemented very few rule changes in football over last 30 years, but the few rule changes the game has seen have been very impactful.  They have made the game more exciting, as well as more strategic.  For example, substitutes were not allowed (except for injury) until 1965, and the rule eventually expanded to allow three substitutes per team.  FIFA even implemented 4th substitute rule to be used in extra time, as seen in the 2018 FIFA World Cup.  No one has had any arguments over whether substitutions benefit football, and we can’t imagine football without them.

Another rule that changed football altogether is the back-pass rule, meaning that the goalkeeper is not allowed to use his hands to receive an intentional pass from a teammate (unless the pass is made with the chest or head).  This rule was established in 1992 and forces goalkeepers to use their feet to control and pass the ball, a skill that was previously not required for goalkeepers.  It also gives the team that is not in possession the opportunity to press high up the pitch, which is not an effective strategy if the goalkeeper can merely pick up passes from his teammates when they are under pressure.  Goalkeepers picking up back-passes used to completely kill the rhythm of the game and nullified the high press, making it the best rule change that FIFA has ever made.

The latest rule changes have been technological.  Goal-line technology was implemented in 2013 and instantly determines whether a goal is scored.  The information is communicated through the referee’s unique ‘goal-line technology’ watch, which vibrates when the ball crosses the goal-line.  Goal-line technology costs about $250k per stadium and is only used in a handful of European leagues and international tournaments, including the 2014 and 2018 FIFA World Cup.  Goal line technology has had terrific success and since its implementation in 2013.

Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is the second technological rule change in football.  It was football’s most awaited addition when it debuted in 2017 and was used quite often in the 2018 FIFA World Cup.  VAR is still in its infancy, and there are certainly things to improve upon. However, the decision for FIFA to allow the use of VAR is a step in the right direction, considering major professional sports such as basketball, baseball, American football, cricket, and tennis all use video review technology.

Considering FIFA has implemented both tactical and technological changes to the game, nothing is prohibiting the governing body of world football from implementing clock stoppages during the stoppage of play.  Football uses a running clock for one reason: because that’s the way it’s always been.  That doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.  In some ways, football is a victim of its own history and tradition.  In the 1800’s, stopwatches were not widely available, and electronic scoreboards did not exist.  The referees kept time on a watch which could only keep running time.  We have made many timekeeping advancements since the 1800’s, and the fact that we are still using 19th-century methods to keep time in modern football is frankly embarrassing.  What’s more embarrassing are the time-wasting antics that detract from the beautiful game.

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