One Simple Rule Change That Football Desperately Needs

Imagine you are watching an important football match and your team is down a goal in the 85th minute.  Suddenly players of the winning team start laying on the floor every time they are fouled, often with outlandish theatrics in an apparent attempt to waste time.  The goalkeeper takes their sweet, sweet time when preparing to take goal kicks or fall on the ground with a fake hamstring injury, covering their face and wincing in “pain” all while trying to kill every second they can.  Players getting substituted off the pitch jog as slowly as they can, pretending to have a limp, going to high five all their nearest teammates, or even going over to the match official to congratulate him on what was apparently a brilliantly refereed match all in the name of running down the clock.

You might ask, “Well, the referee is keeping track of all the wasted time and add it back during stoppage time, right?”.  For the most part, this is true.  However, the amount of time wasted during a match is rather ambiguous 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 add four minutes of stoppage time at the end of the second half, but normally add only one or two minutes at the end of the first half.  On the other hand, the UEFA Champions League typically add 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 drama by allowing for more late goals and UEFA wants to make sure that all Champions League matches run in synchrony with each other by reducing the amount of first-half stoppage time.  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 previously 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 lack of clarity for how much time gets accounted for and subsequently added into stoppage time still gives players an incentive to waste as much time they can.  Not only that, but players and fans alike are often unsure about how much time will get added to the already added time.  Often times, the play is still going on in the 95th minute even though only 4 minutes were added, leaving everyone confused about where the extra time is coming from.  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.  Players will keep wasting time and trying to gain every advantage until the practice of using a continuously running clock changes.  So why has FIFA, the governing body of world football, 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 the 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 would completely kill the rhythm of the game and nullified a high defensive press, making it the best rule change that FIFA has ever made.

The latest rule changes have been technological.  Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was introduced in 2017 and has been a huge success.  Being able to review goals, penalties and direct red cards has ensured that key decisions are made correctly.  FIFA has been way behind the technological curve when it comes to the long-awaited video review system since similar review systems were already being utilized in other major sports such as basketball, baseball, American football, cricket, tennis, and rugby.

FIFA has implemented both tactical and technological changes to the game, and nothing is prohibiting FIFA from utilizing clock stoppages during certain dead ball situations.  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 1800s, stopwatches were not widely available, and electronic scoreboards did not exist, so referees kept time on a watch which could only keep running time.  The fact that football is 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.

That being said, not all stoppages in play should require the clock to stop.  A football match sees about 60 to 65 minutes where the ball is in play.  Should the clock stop every time the whistle is blown, there would be about 12 to 15 minutes added to each half, or up to 30 minutes added to each match.  Stopping the clock after all goals, during substitutions, and for injuries where the player needs on-field treatment by a physio would reduce most of the stoppage time that gets added to a match.  Clock stoppages would prevent time wasting tactics such as feigning injury and slow substitutions, and less stoppage time at the end of a match would reduce the uncertainty of when the final whistle will blow, ultimately producing a more fair and watchable game.

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