I buy a ticket for the theatre, at considerable cost, and the actors decide to wander about for much of the play and deliver only half their lines. The audience demands its money back but are told that it’s entirely normal for a 90-minute production to have only 50 minutes of proper action. What’s the problem? Transfer that imaginary scene to football, and specifically to the recent match between Cardiff and Burnley in the Premier League in which the ball was actually in play for just 42 minutes and two seconds of the 90 minutes.
A remarkable eight minutes was spent waiting for Cardiff to take long throw-ins, which was not a hugely thrilling spectacle for the 30,411 fans inside the ground or the 450,000 misguided viewers watching it on television. The ‘time in play’ was the lowest for any Premier League match since the 40 minutes and 50 seconds recorded for a match between Stoke and Aston Villa in December 2013. The average time for the ball to be in play in a Premier League match is about 55 minutes. Over an hour is reasonably commonplace, less than 45 minutes quite rare. The spectators in Cardiff had every right to demand their money back.
The match, otherwise utterly forgettable, has caused the International Football Association Board to look again at the growing problem of time-wasting. One idea is for matches to be divided into two halves of 30 minutes each with the clock stopped for every throw-in, corner or free-kick. Such a fundamental change would outrage the purists, but would at least give the paying fan better value for money.
Football’s relationship with the clock is more subjective than in many sports. The referee is the official timekeeper, in contrast to sports like basketball and American football which are dominated by the real clock. Whether it’s a good game or a bad game, spectators in an NBA know they will get 48 minutes of on-court action for their dollar. With a 15-minute half-time, multiple time-outs and free-throws, the actual duration of a game is more than two hours. Time-wasting is essentially legitimised by the rules of the game, but not to the detriment of the spectator.
Plenty of sports are trying to tackle the problem of slow play: tennis has introduced a 25-second time limit between points, golfers are put ‘on the clock’ if they are playing too slowly and can be punished, captains in international cricket are fined if their team consistently fails to bowl the required number of overs in time, whether that is T20 or Test cricket.
In football, it is deliberate time-wasting by the players that most angers spectators. This can take many forms: the goalkeeper taking forever over a goal-kick, throw-ins nearly taken by one player then left for another, eternal dallying over a free-kick or a corner, long walks to the touchline for a substitution, fake injuries. When one side has a slender lead and time is running out, the tactic is quite legitimate and well understood; most teams will do the same. The real irritant is when sides, often the smaller teams coming to play at a major club, start time-wasting in the first 10 minutes of a match in an attempt to slow the tempo and balance the odds.
Time-wasting is a natural product of the increasing inequality between clubs, between Real Madrid, Barcelona and pretty well everyone else in La Liga, between Bayern Munich and Freiburg in the Bundesliga and between the Manchester giants, City and United, and little Huddersfield in the Premier League. The financial disparity is almost as big in the group stages of the Champions League. As the rich clubs get richer and the lesser clubs struggle to compete, time-wasting becomes not just a tactic but a necessity, one way to combat a technically superior team. Not even Manchester City can score a goal if the ball is out of play.
The referee has the power to add on as much time as he likes to counter persistent time-wasting. Offending players can be booked or sent off. But calculating the amount of extra time is still a bafflingly subjective process. Towards the end of a match, if his side were losing, Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager, would stand on the touchline ostentatiously pointing at his watch. Opposing fans were convinced that referees bowed to the pressure and added a few more minutes, which were dubbed ‘Fergie time’. Perhaps the idea of ‘Fergie time’ should be taken a step further. Two 30-minute ‘time in play’ halves, officially clocked, might be the way forward. Not even football can stem the march of time for too long.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.