This World Cup takes place in both fast forward and slow motion.
Whatever else may be wrong with the tournament, and even its few remaining (paid) supporters have to worry that it amounts to “a lot”, there is no denying the fact that for UK-based fans football Start times are absolutely top notch. From the pleasant quirkiness of a 10am start to the obvious merits of an early evening 7pm match with lunchtime and teatime matches in between, it’s a heady, steady diet of football, football, football .
We’ve already seen half of the teams in this World Cup and of course we’ve seen more than enough already, certainly around the 20-minute France-Australia before the French, in their typically irritating French way, scored four goals and gave the news of a Harry Kane Ankle Scare – to conclude with some certainty that he is coming home. All the others have been total crap.
There are still six more days before it slows down with the final competitor games. By Monday night, every single team will have played two games. Many will already be eliminated or its even worse close relative “all but eliminated”, which means the same thing but contains within it the most crushing and painful emotion: hope.
It’s all happening very fast.
But then there are the games themselves which, as you’ve probably noticed, have taken absolutely fucking ages. Mexico-Poland was the seventh game of the tournament and the first to go under 100 minutes of total duration. It was only 99 minutes and 27 seconds. Which is still longer than the average of the last World Cup.
According to Opta, the five longest halves ever recorded in the entire history of the men’s World Cup took place between Monday afternoon and Tuesday lunchtime, when Saudi Arabia held on for their stunning victory over Argentinato 14 more minutes to destroy nerves.
We kind of knew something like this was in the cards, or should have been. Pierluigi Collina said last week referees would be instructed to make up for any “unnaturally lost time” and when Collina speaks everyone should pay attention, preferably in a meekly terrified silence as, regardless of their age or position, they find themselves involuntarily transported back to their school days and facing the scary teacher who still haunts their dreams.
“If we want to have more active time, we have to be ready to see this kind of extra time granted,” said Collina, currently chairman of FIFA’s refereeing committee.
“Think of a game where there are three goals in one half. The celebration usually lasts from one to one and a half minutes. With three goals in practice you lose five, six minutes. So what we really want to do is calculate precisely how much time to add.”
In typical FIFA fashion, this is both a long overdue fix to a definite problem, but also a bit fucking crazy to jump into an already very different World Cup at the last minute.
This is already a tournament played carelessly – even recklessly – in the middle of a season with no thought for the players, whether they’re the ones here or the ones who lost to injury.
With an average match currently 10 minutes longer than the previous norm, players will be further challenged and more emphasis placed on managing their workloads. Every scan report of Kane’s ankle mentions how he continued to play after the 48th-minute foul that caused the problem, before being substituted after 75 minutes. But that’s not true, is it? He may have been retired with 75 minutes on the clock, but he had been on the field for 90 minutes.
So far the added time has mostly been viewed as a novelty, and obviously anyone who doesn’t feel a slight twitch at the sight of the clock ticking around 100 minutes in the top corner of the screen has no blood in their corpse and should be regarded with the utmost suspicion. . And as Gary Lineker extremely remarked, we’re getting more football than the World Cup, which really doesn’t seem like a thing to complain about.
But at some point, of course, extreme added time will have a huge impact on a match, a group, the tournament. It’s just a pure possibility that so far the only late goals that attract attention have been afterthoughts: Iran’s consolation for 90+13 minutes against England and the rubber stamp of Holland for 90+9 minutes against Senegal. It’s literally only a matter of time before it changes, and depending on when and how it changes, you can expect the tone of the conversation to change.
While some of the longer delays have obvious roots in significant injury delays, and the fact that the VAR monitors for the officials appear to have been positioned approximately 50 yards from the field is also causing that part of the game to take longer, others injury-time numbers have marked a very sharp shift. If England v Iran’s 14 minutes in the first half were easily explained, the 10 (which became 13 thanks to VAR) in the second half were a clear change in the way timing is managed.
It’s really a surprisingly fundamental change to the game to be World Cup-only, even if it’s generally welcome. Over time (and by time here we mean “a little more than 14 more minutes”) things will stabilize and normalize. As wasting time becomes less beneficial, it will start to happen less. There is already some evidence of this in the slightly shorter matches that followed the match between Saudi Arabia and Argentina.
But you really could do without all of this taking place right at the World Cup itself. And there’s a more conceptual argument to be made about whether it went a little too far in making the game what we think it should be rather than what it actually is. Football was never a 90 minute game in reality, and in fact it’s not even a 60 minutes in terms of live action.
What exactly constitutes ‘unnatural’ lost time rather than the natural pattern of the game falls loosely into the ‘hard to describe but I know it when I see it’ category, but it is reasonable to assume that it includes injuries, VAR interventions, celebrations, substitutions and the assorted dark limbs of wasting time. But none of these are as simple as stopping and starting a clock. At what precise moment did a player spend too much time on a lineout? At what precise moment did a goalkeeper think a little too long about a goal kick?
It will clearly be one of the main talking points of this tournament which when you think about it means it could be a brilliant game of 4D chess from the guys at FIFA because there is only so much bandwidth for World Cup discussion and that way it’s not about… anything else. Despite what we’ve seen so far, you’d imagine it ultimately benefits the bigger teams with the deeper teams.
Put simply, more time in the game means more time for the “better” team to assert their superiority and more chances for their greater bench strength to make an impact. And whether we like it or not, time wasting and other assorted bullshit have long been tactics used by teams attempting to flip the odds or protect a lead. With the latter it is by no means only the reserve of “small” teams.
As with so many things in this tournament, teams need to adapt and adapt on the fly and the ones that thrive will be the most skilled ones. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with rewarding him.
Our final thought on all of this is this. How long before we decide that we now need the fourth referee to get his scoreboard out to indicate how much injury time will be at the end of injury time?