Bear with us for a second.
If the World Cup wasn’t so consumed, and harassed, and haunted, by overhanging human rights abuses, legacy corruption, spiked protests, flaky protesters, some spunky protesters, power plays, a meddling host nation and a venal governing body, we would be applauding Fifa for its sudden war on time-wasting, and the long, new, crazy twilight between 90 minutes on the clock and the final whistle. Wouldn’t we?
If it was an inoffensive tournament like, say, South Africa in 2010, when the biggest irritation was the invasive din of the Vuvuzela horns in the crowd, and the biggest pre-tournament controversy was whether cattle should be slaughtered at every venue – as a “true African” way of “blessing” the tournament – this small revolution in time management would have been hailed as good news.
At this World Cup, though, good news has very little traction. That market is too niche.
If you’ll indulge us for another minute, what it reflects, once again, is how all of the major sports are bothered by time: how to mind it, how to count it, how to maximise it, how to monetise it, how to keep it sweet.
More than that, they’re concerned about the balance between time and motion. How many stoppages? For how long? At what cost to the play clock and the paying punter?
On this score, football is not the greatest offender. In Premier League games last season, for example, the ball was in play, on average, for 55 minutes. In contrast, the average ball-in-play time for the major rugby tours last summer was calculated at 34 minutes – essentially no change from the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Other data from those tours paints an interesting picture of how time can just leak, in front of our eyes: on average, there were 27 lineouts per game, with a 25 second hiatus between the ball going out of play and the hooker taking his throw; scrums averaged out at 11 per game, and took a staggering 65 seconds each to complete, including re-sets and pep talks from the ref. Add in pauses in play for TMO reviews, and rugby games at elite level now are lasting nearly as long as a Bruce Springsteen gig, or Doctor Zhivago.
Is that harmful to the spectacle? You would say so, but everything has a context. As recently as the 1995 Rugby World Cup the ball was in play for, on average, just 25 minutes and 45 seconds per game, which clearly shows that, for all our complaining, we’ve never had it so good. You need to show some gratitude.
At this stage, rugby crowds have become conditioned to that long drawn-out, stop-start rhythm; in American Football, the stadium crowds and TV audiences wouldn’t have it any other way.
Games are broken into 15 minute quarters but can take over three hours to complete, with the ball in play for only about 18 minutes, in short, explosive bursts. NFL supporters are comfortable with those numbers. Eating and drinking are integral to the match day experience. Nobody is in a hurry.
The really interesting distinguishing feature of the NFL clock, though, is the “two minute warning” at the end of each half. It was originally designed for the referee to let teams know how much time was left, back in the early days of the league when there were no match clocks in the venues. The practice, though, has continued long after those clocks were put in place, primarily because the television networks had established a lucrative commercial break around the “two minute warning”.
In the NBA, there are mandatory “time-outs” for commercial breaks too. The flow of the game is secondary: the clock stops to keep the money rolling. Everyone seems cool about it.
On the other hand, golf is tormented by time: slow time, dead time, lost time, thinking time, consultation time, indecision time, dawdling time.
When Jack Nicklaus first came out on tour he was regarded as a slow player, but he says that in the prime of his career the final two ball on Sunday at the British Open would conduct their business in about three hours. The television networks would allow the guts of five hours for that now.
Golf knows it has a problem, and it has rules to address it, but the application of those rules is paralysed by deferential cowardice.
In the last eight years, the only player to be penalised for slow play in any of the Majors is Jon Catlin, a repeat-offender and a journeyman, which also made him a soft target. In golf you have 40 seconds to hit your shot. Does that tally with what you see on telly?
The GAA senses that it has a problem too. The amount of stoppage time at intercounty level has swollen in recent years, without aspiring to reclaim whatever time had been lost through incidental wastage.
Ladies football employs a countdown clock, which is paused for stoppages and is transparent to fans and players alike, and the GAA has considered this option twice at Congress over the years. Ultimately, though, the GAA baulked at the jump, afraid of teams making strategic substitutions and wilfully killing the play.
These are precisely the kind of practices Fifa have tried to disarm in this World Cup. The new directive, according to Pierluigi Collina, the chairman of Fifa’s referees committee, is to ensure that all “unnatural lost time” is added – including goal celebrations, VAR events, penalties, red cards, deliberate time-wasting and substitutions.
The impact has been stunning. According to Opta, the average game duration in the opening six matches of this World Cup was 106 mins and 12 secs, nearly nine minutes longer than the average four years ago.
If this directive is adopted by every other league in the world after this World Cup, will it eventually bring about behavioural change? It should, shouldn’t it?
In a World Cup of small mercies, this is the only behavioural change on the table.