Soccer’s infuriating imprecision

Image by Fauzan Saari via Unsplash

One of the striking differences between the globally beloved game of soccer (or football if you prefer) and sports popular in the United States is its absence of precision timekeeping. The World Cup is a time to reflect on this divergence, which may hold the key to much else besides.

In U.S. football, hockey and basketball, clock management has been elevated to a deviant art. Careers are made and trophies hoisted based on fractions of a second. Conjugal tensions are stretched to the breaking point by husbands assuring impatient wives that only two minutes remain to be played.

That’s because in the National Football League, the final two minutes (well, really any two minutes) can last close to an hour due to tricks to stop the clock — and the advertisements they bring. An incomplete pass stops the clock, as does a player in possession of the ball running out of bounds. A score, a time-out called by the coach, a video review, a penalty called by officials, an injury — they all stop the clock.

In last year’s insane playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills, the teams scored 25 points and traded leads repeatedly in the final “two minutes.” The game appeared over when the Bills scored the last time, leaving the Chiefs behind as they took over the ball deep in their own end of the field with a mere 13 seconds left. But they were NFL seconds. Through clock management the Chiefs scored again and the game went to overtime, where Kansas City — to the relief of all but Bills fans — finally won.

In the NBA, a shot can count after the game has ended if the player sent the ball on its way before the buzzer. I remember my agony when the Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard scored in this way to bounce my 76ers from the 2019 semifinal series (notice the racing clock in the below video clip). But I accepted it was fair — there was 0.1 second left as the ball detached itself from Leonard’s hand. Probably 0.01.

It’s not just a question of time.

American baseball, which has no clock and where in theory games can go on forever, features a genuine obsession with measuring success rates at every conceivable action — statistical analysis so exacting as to appear a parody to outsiders. Players’ offensive output is measured by “slash lines” which feature a series of stats that reach three decimal points. A typical one might read “.289/.416/.573” — and there are many others, denoted by acronyms progressively more absurd (BABIP stands for “batting average on balls in play”).

The below statistic table is real — not a parody. Don’t even try to figure it out. “Wins Above Replacement,” on the far right, requires a nuclear physics PhD. In soccer, good luck discovering how many goals a player has scored in the game, much less the season.

Then there is ball location. In U.S. football especially, is at all times of paramount concern. Special camera angles are devised to examine whether a single molecule of the ball “broke” the invisible plane of the goal line — before the knees of the player carrying it touched the ground, that is; the knees are important.

Archaic poles connected by 10 yards of chain are hauled to the middle of the field to measure the where a player was brought down. OK, that’s pretty low-tech, but they take the sixteenth of an inch pretty seriously in assessing whether he achieved the minimum of 10 yards needed to merit more chances — a so-called “first down.” A millimeter can lose a team the ball, or the game (if Americans used the measure).

Sports have become even more precise because of people watching them now on the leagues’ digital apps, in which statistics dance around the screen, both unbidden and at the behest of the user, even as the game drones on. Even Americans living abroad are drawn into the madness, staying up all hours to suffer with their teams, causing myriad distress; morning meetings, in the Europe time zone at least, become out of the question. I call it Expat Sports Disorder.

Americans — expats or residents in equal measure — can only be perplexed at the imprecision on display in Qatar.

Play is allowed to stop constantly, for many of the same reasons as in U.S. football, yet the clock infuriatingly motors on. At the end of the half, the referee announces how much time is to be added, which is supposed to be the total of all the stoppages. But these are announced in round minutes, causing the American fan to wonder: where are my tenths of a second??

No one ever questions the referee’s calculation, even though in many leagues the time added is pretty much always three minutes. Moreover, the referees basically allow play to continue, even at the end of the time, until a final maneuver has reached its leisurely conclusion. Utterly absent is the concept of a buzzer beater.

When performing inbound passes, players move left and right, changing their position with impunity — and no one cares. They can take their time trying to figure out which way to throw, as precious seconds are wasted, and that’s just fine, too. Will it factor into the added time? No one really knows.

The exception to the imprecision is the newfangled VAR (Video Assistant Referee) whose main function appears to be to render exacting the offside rulings based on complex rules that almost no fans comprehend. There is lively debate on Twitter about whether this innovation helps or hinders.

When I lived in London, I used to argue with Brits about the lackadaisical murkiness of what they called their “beautiful game.” Many argued that therein lay its beauty.

They changed their tune on June 27, 2010, when in a World Cup elimination game against Germany, England’s Frank Lampard scored a goal (see the below video of it) that was disallowed essentially because the referee was the only person watching anywhere in the world who did not see it. It stunned me that such a thing could be possible. But more stunning still were the faces of the enraged fans in the Kentish Town pub. It was the face of public opinion changing before my very eyes. At that moment VAR was born.

Now if only they’d learn the importance of a clock.

Or maybe not.

Could it be that America’s undoubted greatness — economic and military might extraordinaire, most recent scientific innovations, the leading role in digital disruption — is related to this obsession with precision in sports?

On the other hand, is the freer flow of things that soccer offers, and that the entire rest of the world loves, connected to the reason life can be much more pleasant abroad? Why there is such rich culture, such poesy and beauty, such an understanding of how to live life well, in places like Italy and France?

It may be the central question of our times.

(A version of this article appeared originally in Newsweek.)

Image by Linda Perez Johannessen via Unsplash

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Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.