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  • Time for real time


    An important soccer match. Scores level. Down to the wire.

    Thrusts. Counter-thrusts. Scares. Chances.

    … And nobody watching has any real idea of how much time is left.

    Around the world, this quite literally happens all the time. The question never asked is: “Why?”


    Even since my colleague Duane Rollins posted an amusing item on possible rule changes for soccer, I’ve been mulling one he didn’t discuss – and which I’ve actually seen put into effect.

    Actual running time on the scoreboard clock. When the clock hits zero, the half is over.

    Back in 1997, I called play-by-play on cable television for the Toronto Lynx, in what is now USL-1, but then was called the A-League. Everything was normal as the game kicked off, except the clock was running backwards – as it does in hockey, basketball, lacrosse, North American football and tournament Scrabble.

    And I freely admit it felt odd to shout down the microphone that there were 37 seconds left in the game. But there were. And 37 seconds of actual playing time later, it was wrap time.

    One of the most sacred, unchallenged traditions of our game is that the referee alone has custody of the clock. The arbiter is judged a master of 45-minute timespans, and given unquestioned authority over how much sand is left in the hourglass.

    And it doesn’t work.

    Add more than four minutes of stoppage time onto any half of soccer, and the fans get antsy. And if the ref calls for two minutes and ends up adding five, whistles and boos rain down on the park – even if the team that’s a goal ahead has clearly and obviously been wasting time since the “regular” 90 minutes expired.

    And then there’s the whole business of corner kicks. Convention states that if a corner kick is awarded deep in stoppage time, the ref will allow it to be taken. If he doesn’t, the team with the ball will call eight generations of his relatives appalling names before he even makes it to the touchline.

    In fact, time just flows. 90 minutes is 90 minutes, and can end at any arbitrary point in the action. Put in simple scientific terms, the fourth dimension doesn’t stop or fold back on itself to allow for corner kicks.

    Certainly, the sport of soccer predates electronic stadium clocks. When I was watching Toronto Metros NASL games in the 70s, I sometimes heard old-world fans calling for the scoreboard to be turned off, because it wasn’t “authentic.” Even today, there are pro soccer stadiums all over everywhere (except maybe North America) that simply don’t have clocks or scoreboards.

    But MLS does.

    The ref would still decide when time is in or out. All he needs to do is signal the scoreboard operator when it’s out. Exactly like any other sport you grew up with, except for baseball and cricket.

    Admittedly, it didn’t always go smoothly in the A-League back in ’97. Referees would forget. One particularly dim twit of a ref who worked the playoff game at Varsity Stadium that summer would signal time out, and then completely forget he had to whistle time back in again. Exasperated players were standing around, waiting for the whistle, shouting the rule at him, and he just stood there oblivious.

    It won’t be perfect, in other words. And it flies against a century and a half of tradition.

    But real time is far more accurate – and hugely reduces controversy.

    There are perfectly legitimate reasons why a ref might add 10, 12, even 15 minutes to a half. A bad injury, most likely. They don’t. In the vast majority of all cases, a few token minutes get tossed on. Fans then treat that number as a contract, no matter how much time-wasting or gratuitous substitution goes on.

    Can you imagine hockey fans putting up with that?

    Down to the wire in a close hockey game, fans have one eye on the ice and the other on the clock. No clock and it’s up to … the ref? Good luck getting out of the Raging Jackass Falls arena alive during the playoffs!

    Stop time is fairer, cleaner, truer – and hugely cuts down on the slim possibility that a corrupt official (Byron Moreno in Ecuador along about 2005) might tamper with the timekeeping.

    Stoppage time is the most critical time in soccer. Shouldn’t it at least be measured accurately?


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