This World Cup is operating in both fast-forward and slow-motion.
Whatever else may be wrong with the tournament, and it must be conceded by even its few remaining (paid) supporters that this amounts to ‘quite a lot’, there can be no denying the fact that for UK-based supporters the kick-off times are absolutely first rate. From the enjoyable strangeness of a 10am start through to the obvious merits of a 7pm primetime game with lunchtime and teatime games in between it’s a heady, constant diet of football, football, football.
We’ve already seen half the teams at this World Cup and of course already seen more than enough – certainly at around the 20-minute mark of France v Australia before the French in their typically irritating French way scored four goals and news broke of a Harry Kane Ankle Scare – to conclude with some certainty that It’s Coming Home. Everyone else has been utter shite.
There are still six more days of this before it slows down with the concurrent final games. By Monday night, every single team will have played two games. Many will already be either eliminated or its even worse near relative ‘all but eliminated’, which means the same thing but contains within it that most crushingly painful and hurtful of emotions: hope.
It’s all happening very fast.
But then there’s the games themselves which, as you’ve probably noticed, have taken absolutely f**king ages. Mexico v Poland was the seventh game of the tournament and the first to come in at under 100 minutes in total length. It was a mere 99 minutes and 27 seconds. Which is still longer than the average from the last World Cup.
According to Opta, the five longest halves on record 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 Argentina through 14 nerve-shredding additional minutes.
We sort of knew something like this was on the cards, or should have. Pierluigi Collina said last week referees would be instructed to make up all “unnaturally lost time” and when Collina speaks everyone should pay attention, preferably in meekly terrified silence as no matter their age or standing they find themselves involuntarily transported back to their school days and facing down the scary teacher who haunts their dreams still.
“If we want to have more active time, we need to be ready to see this kind of additional time given,” said Collina, these days chairman of FIFA’s referees committee.
“Think of a match where in a half there are three goals. The celebration normally takes one to one and a half minutes. With three goals, basically you lose five, six minutes. So what we really want to do is to accurately calculate the time to be added.”
In typically FIFA fashion, this is both a long overdue corrective to a definite problem but also a bit f**king mad to just chuck in to an already very different World Cup at the last minute.
This is already a tournament played carelessly – recklessly even – in the middle of a season with absolutely no thought for the players, whether that be those who are here or those who’ve missed out through injury.
With the average game currently 10 minutes longer than the previous norm, further strain will be placed on players and greater emphasis on managing their workloads. Every report of Kane’s ankle scan mentions how he played on after the 48th-minute foul that caused the problem, before being subbed after 75 minutes. But that’s not true, is it? He may have been withdrawn with 75 minutes on the clock, but he’d been on the field for 90 minutes.
Thus far the added time is mainly being observed as a novelty, and of course anyone who doesn’t get a slight twitch at the sight of the clock ticking round to 100 minutes in the top corner of the screen doesn’t have blood in their body and should be viewed with extreme suspicion. And as Gary Lineker observed in extremely Gary Lineker fashion, we’re getting more World Cup football, which doesn’t really seem like a thing to complain about.
But at some point, obviously, the extreme added time is going to have a massive impact on a game, a group, the tournament. It’s only sheer chance that as yet the only eye-catchingly late goals have been afterthoughts: Iran’s 90+13min consolation against England and the Netherlands’ 90+9min rubber-stamper against Senegal. It’s quite literally only a matter of time until that changes, and depending on precisely when and how it changes, you can expect the tone of the conversation to shift.
While some of the lengthier delays have obvious roots in significant injury delays, and the fact the VAR monitors for refs to peer at all appear to have been placed around 50 yards from the pitch is also making that part of the game take longer, other injury-time numbers have marked a very clear shift. If the 14 minutes in the first half of England v Iran was easily explained, the 10 (which became 13 thanks to VAR) in the second half was a clear shift in the way timekeeping is handled.
It really is a strikingly fundamental change to the game to be just throwing in at World Cup time, even if it is broadly a welcome one. Over time (and by time here we mean ‘a bit longer than 14 additional minutes’) things will stabilise and normalise. As time-wasting becomes less beneficial, it will start to happen less. There is already some evidence of that in the slightly shorter games that followed the Saudi-Argentina game.
But you really could do without all this adjustment taking place at the World Cup itself. And there’s a more conceptual argument to be had about whether it’s gone a bit too far in making the game what we think it should be rather than what it actually is. Football has never been a 90-minute game in reality, and is in fact not even a 60-minute one in terms of live action.
What exactly constitutes ‘unnatural’ lost time rather than the natural pattern of the game falls vaguely under the ‘hard to describe but I know it when I see it’ category but it’s reasonable to assume it includes injuries, VAR interventions, celebrations, substitutions and the assorted dark arts of time-wasting. But none of those are as simple as stopping and starting a clock. At what precise point has a player taken too long over a throw-in? At what precise point has a goalkeeper thought a bit too long about a goal-kick?
It’s clearly going to be one of the major talking points of this tournament, which thinking about it means it might be a bit of genius 4D chess from the lads at FIFA because there’s only so much bandwidth for World Cup discussion and this way it isn’t about… anything else. Despite what we’ve seen so far, you’d imagine it ultimately benefits the biggest sides with the deepest squads.
Most simply, more time in play means more time for the ‘better’ side to assert its superiority and more chance for its greater bench strength to make an impact. And whether we like it or not, time-wasting and other assorted shithousery have long been tactics used by teams attempting to upset the odds or protect a lead. With the latter it is in no way merely the reserve of ‘smaller’ teams either.
As with so much about this tournament, teams are having to adjust and adapt on the fly and those that flourish will be those most adept at it. There’s perhaps nothing wrong with rewarding that.
Our closing thought on it all is this. How long until we decide we now need the fourth official to get his or her board out to indicate how much added time there’s going to be at the end of added time?
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