Sir Alex Ferguson was exceptionally grumpy on Saturday night. His Manchester United side was trying to mount a furious comeback against Tottenham and ran out of time: The referee gave four minutes of injury time, added a handful of seconds and that was that. "The biggest insult is the wasted time," Sir Alex fumed. "It's an insult to the game. It's denying you the proper chance to win a football match."
"That's obvious to everyone today," he added. "It's a flaw in the game in terms of the referee being responsible for time-keeping. It's ridiculous. It's 2012, nearly 2013, and the referee still [has] control of that."
Obviously, it would be churlish to point out to Sir Alex how his team has profited on more than one occasion from the fact that the referee decides -- not entirely arbitrarily, but certainly not scientifically -- how much time to add on at the end of the half. United notches plenty of late winners and equalizers, leading many bitter fans to quip that injury time means "play on until United scores."
But it's also true that Sir Alex has a point. Every time Minute 45 of either half nears, we have no idea how much time the referee will add on. Will it be two minutes flashing on the fourth official's board? Four minutes? Six minutes? Who knows?
However much it is, it likely won’t be an accurate reflection of what happened on the pitch. It will be the result of a referee thinking to himself in the space of a few seconds: "Gee, OK, there were three substitutions ... the striker seemed to be down for a long time after getting kicked in the head ... we had that streaker ... oh, why don't we make it three minutes."
Note that the match official has to figure this out while actually doing his job, which involves keeping track of 22 professional athletes and one ball, and these days, it's as intense and demanding as ever.
We’ve somehow come to accept that barring some cataclysm, there will be one or two minutes added on at the end of the first half and between two and five at the end of the game. Why? Because that's what referees do.
There are three problems with the current system. First and foremost, it encourages time-wasting, whether it's players feigning injury, keepers bouncing the ball endlessly before taking a goal kick or guys walking in slow-motion when they are substituted just so they can eat up a few more seconds of the clock. Sure, referees can book players for time-wasting, but that's sort of irrelevant because nobody ever gets sent off for the offense. In fact, one former Premier League goalkeeper told me last year that getting booked for it was like a license to go and waste even more time at the next opportunity simply because no referee would have the guts to red card a goalkeeper for time-wasting.
The second relates to what Sir Alex was talking about. There is bound to be controversy whenever, in a tight game, somebody scores an injury-time goal or the whistle goes just as a team is about to shoot. Whether it's someone complaining that the official should have given more or less time is the kind of needless polemic we could do without, especially the referees, who have enough on their plate already.
Finally, there's a basic concept of fairness. The game actually only takes place when the ball is in play, right? That's what we pay money for, not to see guys standing around while the stretcher comes on or a keeper waving his arms around like a demented marionette before taking a goal kick. So why do we allow some games to last 50 minutes (in terms of the amount of time the ball is actually in play) and others to last 60 minutes? Why does one team get to rest 20 percent more than another?
How about some uniformity? How about less pointless controversy? (There are plenty of valid reasons to slam the referees; as such, how much time is added need not be one of them.) How about less time-wasting and gamesmanship?
Sound good? How about "real time"?
This concept has been around since the 1970s and, every decade or so, it comes back in vogue. Basically, the idea is this: You play two 30-minute halves and stop the clock every time the referee stops play: goals, throw-ins, corner kicks, fouls, etc.
Why 30 minutes? Because studies have shown it's the ideal amount of time the ball should be in play right now. (Most games average between 50 and 63 minutes, depending on the number of interruptions.)
The idea is supported by many in the game, including referees, managers and players. A few years ago when writing a book with Gianluca Vialli, we talked to dozens around Europe ranging from Arsene Wenger to Jose Mourinho to Marcello Lippi. Opinions ranged from enthusiastic support to indifference. And, in fact, I struggle to think of counterarguments.
Wouldn’t it fundamentally change the game? Not in terms of how it’s played and how the fans watch it. The one big change is less controversy over time-keeping and a lot less play-acting, time-wasting and gamesmanship. Unless you're a fan of those things, your enjoyment won't be affected.
Wouldn’t it be expensive to implement? Nope. You can do it at every level, overnight. All it takes is a guy with a stopwatch. Obviously at the highest levels you'd want an official timekeeper and electronic timing and all that jazz. But heck, they manage to do this at middle school basketball games; cost and logistics really aren't an issue.
Isn't it an insult to the history and tradition of the game? Not at all. First of all, if traditions are stupid or damaging, then they're not worth having. More to the point, I like to think this wasn't introduced when the Laws of the Game were codified back in the 19th century for the simple reason that stopwatches weren't readily available. It's as simple as that. Oh, and by the way, when the Laws of the Game were written up, they didn't have "time added on for injuries," either. They certainly weren't planning on the referee arbitrarily deciding how much time was left to play after the 90th minute.
Wouldn't it wreak havoc with TV schedules? You'd never know when a game is going to end! But you would. Sixty minutes of ball in play is roughly equal to 90 minutes plus injury time today. Not much would change in terms of how long it would take to play the game. Sure, if somebody gets seriously injured and play is stopped for 10 minutes, then the game will take longer to finish. But that's what happens now.
The thing about "real time" is that it's an innovation that would make the game better and has no downside, yet there's no particular impetus for FIFA to do anything about it. A bit like goal-line technology, it would take something egregious for the folks who run the game to get off their behinds and even consider this. Something like, say, Brazil getting knocked out of the 2014 World Cup semifinal because a referee gives five minutes of time added on and, say, Belgium equalizes in the 95th minute and then scores the winner a minute later (remember, it’s always a minimum of "X minutes" added on; the referee could keep it going forever). Or maybe a referee getting busted in the Champions League for letting one big team play on until they score against another big team.
Until then, let's enjoy the spectacle of a poor referee having to run around for 90 minutes, trying to keep 22 guys in line, and then decide -- with no accountability and no guidelines -- for how long to extend the game.