A Possible Solution To The Timekeeping Dilema

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Would changing the way time is kept in football be a good thing for the game?

In a recent article for ESPN FC, Gabriele Marcotti suggested that Sir Alex Ferguson's recent complaints about referee time keeping by drastically altering the way football matches are timed. In case you've been living under a rock, Sir Alex complained following his side's loss to Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. The Scotsman felt that it was "an insult to the game" that there were only four minutes of added time.

It's certainly odd to hear Sir Alex complaining about the amount of added time given the notable existance of "Fergie time" in which the referee allows play to continue until Manchester United either equalize or take the lead. Ferguson suggested that the timekeeping duty should be taken away from referees entirely, presumably he wanted the duty to be taken over by a more partial observer, but there is another solution.

Marcotti argues that the referee already has so much to do in the modern game. Referee's like Chris Foy and Howard Webb already have to keep track of 22 players and a ball, which they only do with marginal success. They also have to deal with various infractions, angry managers, and then, finally, the time. Thus, timekeeping and the "calculating" of added time, which the referee must do while doing these other things, tend to fall down the list.

Marcotti's solution is to use a totally new timekeeping format, dubbed "real time". This is, allegedly, a concept that has been around since the 1970's. The basic idea is that teams play two 30-minute halves during which the clock is stopped every time the ball goes out of play, there is a foul, a substitution, etc. Basically football turns into American football or basketball. The argument is that during a regular football match, the ball is in play, on average, between 53 and 60 minutes. Thus, 30-minute halves with stoppages would result in a match of essentially the same length as the current system.

Marcotti argues, and I tend to agree, that this wouldn't fundamentally change the way fans watch the game, which I suppose is a big consideration. The change would also not be terribly difficult to implement. If they can do it at Elementary School basketball games, surely they can do it at professional football matches. He also argues that it could lead to an end to playacting, time wasting, and gamesmanship. Finally, in addressing the idea that this new system would be an affront to the traditions of the game, Marcotti says that the traditional timekeeping format is not one worth having.

It's the last two points I find most objectionable. Anybody that has ever witnessed a basketball or American football game knows that, despite there being firm timekeeping procedures there is certainly playacting, time wasting, and gamesmanship. A change in timing would not quite have the eradicating effect that Mr. Marcotti seems to believe it will. Players and coaches are always looking for ways to exploit the system and it would not take long for players to figure out a way to exploit the new timekeeping methods.

Finally, I understand that tradition is not necessarily a good argument for anything. Generally, I hate the people that back up stupid and archaic policies by saying, "Well, that's the way it's always been done." However, in this case, I think tradition is important. When the laws of the game were codified in the 19th century they came up with the idea of 45-minute halves. For more than 100 years football matches have been carried out in this manner and it's one of the reasons why I love the sport.

For the uninitiated, the idea of stoppage time (or added time) is something that is beyond their ken. They simply don't understand it. Many times I've had friends or girlfriends ask, "So, they just pick a number and then keep playing?" My only response can be: "Yup. Pretty Much." It's part of the excitement of football. You never know what that board is going to say. It could be favorable to your team or it could be detrimental.

Games never really end right at 90 minutes. Even if there was no reason for stoppage time, which rarely happens, referees hardly every blow the whistle at the end of the 45th or 90th minute. They consider if a team is on the attack, is the ball in an advantageous position for one team or is it in the middle of the park. This sort of arbitrary timekeeping might off-putting to some, but for me the idea of a football match ending with crowds counting down the last 10 seconds hopping that the ball crosses the goal line before time expires is much more offensive.

Imagine the controversy that would ensue when Manchester United score rights as the "buzzer" sounds. It's ruled a goal (because Manchester United), but replays show clearly that it crossed the line after time had expired. In my mind, the "real time" system would result in the need for replay and/or goal line technology in football. Certainly you could make the argument that the latter should be included in the game no matter what (I'm indifferent on the subject), but now we're making multiple changes to the game in order to accommodate a perceived desire to change how time is kept.

Maybe I'm just a stick in the mud and a traditionalist. I often decry rule changes in my favorite sports. The new kickoff rules in the NFL and college football are, in my opinion, very stupid rules (though not on par with the NCAA's new "helmet rule"). I don't for a second think that the FA or FIFA would ever seriously entertain the idea of changing the way time is kept in football and for that I am grateful. Timekeeping is part of why football is such a beautiful game and I wouldn't want to change a thing.

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