Equal Time: Stop the time-wasting, not the clock
The powers that be in football gather tomorrow in London. FIFA's included in that group, but when it comes to making rather than implementing the rules of the game, they're not alone. Gianni Infantino and company are more like Stan Kroenke at Arsenal before 7 August. That was the fateful day the American bought out Alisher Usmanov's 33% stake in the Gunners to break the 90% threshold, allowing him to also purchase the supporters trust's shares to gain full control over the club. FIFA can't buy out the Home Nations' four seats on the International Football Association Board to wrest complete control over the game from the football associations of England, Scotland, Wales and the ephemeral Irish FA which is both Irish and not as well as Northern Irish and not. In fact, the IFA and FAI might have inspired the old adage, "it's a funny old game."
Neither Stan Kroenke nor FIFA's shotgun marriage to the other IFAB members nor any old football cliches directly contribute to this essay's purpose, which is to discuss how to keep footballers from wasting time during matches. They do illustrate how easily time-wasting can be accomplished, however. If you read the first paragraph and thought, "Can we get on with it?", I don't blame you. We've all felt the same in every football match that wasn't level going into the final half-hour and some that were.
Some people believe the way to solve the problem is to kill the clock rather than the time-wasting. If the fourth official or a time-keeper would stop the clock every time the referee blows his whistle to halt play, just like they do in American sport, then restart it either at the official's signal or when the ball is struck or thrown back into play, we could play exactly 90 minutes of football, end of.
Except it won't be the end of time-wasting. Players will continue to meander off the pitch when substituted so that teammates may catch their breath and the opponent's momentum wither on the vine. They'll continue to arrive in their own good time to the sideline for a throw-in, then pass the ball off to an even tardier mate, who'll then look this way and that, shake his head in disgust, direct traffic and rinse, lather, repeat as often as he feels the match official will allow. They'll dither over corners and free-kicks. Goalkeepers will set and reset the ball, run up as if to take a goal kick but change their mind. The clock won't be running but the game will still drag on in endless tedium. Fans will remain exasperated. Again, it isn't the clock that must stop; it's the time-wasting.
Purists are probably happy to hear me dismiss an American solution to the problem. I hate to disappoint them [not really] but I'm rejecting the proposal because it's the wrong American solution. The correct one is to motivate the players to keep the game moving. Believe it or not, the NFL with its constant stops and starts and the NBA with their seemingly infinite time-outs have the right idea. Each keeps a second clock to prevent time-wasting.
The NFL allows 40 seconds between the whistle to end the previous play and the offensive snap that begins the next. In that time, each team must hustle personnel on and off the field wherever the ball may be spotted. They must huddle to call a play, lineup at scrimmage, run any pre-snap motion and call any audibles all within that span. If the offensive team fails to put the ball in play within 40-seconds, they are penalised a loss of down and five yards.
Surely, a professional football club can replace a single player in half that time, especially if the player exiting the pitch may do so at the nearest point rather than purposely positioning himself as far as possible from the fourth official, then taking the longest distance between two points to reach the touchline, shaking hands, applauding fans and smelling roses. It's permitted for an injured player to exit the game at any point on the pitch's perimeter. Why not a healthy one? Twenty seconds seems sufficient to accomplish the switch. If it isn't done, then the referee can signal the restart and the offending team may play a man down until the next stoppage, with the match official denying entry if the shorthanded team purposely knocks the ball out to complete the exchange.
The NBA doesn't need a play clock for substitutions. It does for inbounds plays. Players used to take their sweet time throwing the ball in if it was knocked out during the run of play so the league implemented a five-second rule. The referee hands the ball to a player, who then has that much time to inbound the ball. If he doesn't, the other team takes possession.
Obviously, a football pitch is too big for the referee to be handing the ball to a player for a throw-in, corner or even a free kick. Instead, simply give the player 10 seconds to arrive at the dead-ball spot, then another five to put the ball in play. This would apply to throw-ins, corners, goal kicks and indirect free kicks. Direct free kicks require the referee to spot the ball, mark off ten yards, then return to his position. More time will be taken to set-up but the five-second restart should still apply. Goal kicks might require ten.
If the players fail to start play on time, the opponent assumes possession. A tardy throw-in or free-kick simply changes hands in the same place. A late corner turns into a goal kick and, worse, a slow goal kick yields a corner. Players defending indirect free kicks will still seek to knock the ball about or stand in the way to milk time. The only solution for this, sadly, is more bookings.
The two drawbacks to the system are the fatigue the quicker pace will produce late in games and officials' willingness to enforce time violations. If players must run more with fewer opportunities to catch their wind, their play will suffer in the final moments. 'At the death' will become a little more literal. Referees tire too. Some may relax the rules late in the match, if not for the players, then for their own sake.
On the whole, however, instituting a play clock to keep stoppages as brief as possible and fill the paying customer's 90 minutes with more football would be good for the game. Rather than just complaining that footballers need to get on with it, support for this change would motivate them to actually do so. I'll give you ten seconds to think about it.