Why do World Cup matches take so long and is this a good thing for football?

This World Cup works in both fast-forward and slow-motion.

Whatever else is wrong with the tournament, and even the few remaining (paid) supporters have to admit that this is ‘quite a lot’, there’s no denying that for British supporters the kick-off times are absolutely first class. From the pleasant strangeness of a 10am start to the obvious merits of a 7pm primetime game with lunch and teatime games in between – it’s an intoxicating, constant diet of football, football, football.

We’ve already seen half the teams at this World Cup and of course seen more than enough – certainly around France’s 20 minutes against Australia before the French scored four goals in their typically irritating French fashion and news broke of a Harry Kane Ankle Scare – to conclude with some certainty that It’s Coming Home. Everyone else has been complete shit.

There are still six days before things slow down with the simultaneous final games. On Monday evening, each team played two games. Many will already have been eliminated or worse yet, almost relative “all but eliminated,” which means the same thing but carries the most crushingly painful and hurtful emotion: hope.

It’s all happening very fast.

But then there are the games themselves which, as you’ve probably noticed, have lasted absolutely damn ages. Mexico v Poland was the seventh match of the tournament and the first with an overall length of less than 100 minutes. It was only 99 minutes and 27 seconds. That is still longer than the average of the last World Cup.

According to Opta, the five longest recorded halves in the entire history of the men’s World Cup took place between Monday afternoon and Tuesday afternoon. Saudi Arabia held on for their stunning victory over Argentinaone to 14 nerve-wracking extra minutes.

We more or less knew that something like this was at stake, or should have been. Pierluigi Collina said last week that referees would be instructed to make up for any “unnaturally lost time” and that when Collina speaks, everyone should pay attention, preferably in meek, terrified silence, because regardless of age or status, they are involuntarily returned to their school days and facing the creepy teacher who still haunts their dreams.

“If we want to have more active time, we have to be ready to see this kind of extra time,” said Collina, now chair of FIFA’s refereeing committee.

“Think of a game in which three goals are scored in one half. The celebration normally lasts one to one and a half minutes. With three goals you basically lose five, six minutes. So what we really want to do is accurately calculate the time to add.

In typical FIFA fashion, this is both a long-awaited correction to an obvious problem, but also a little crazy to just throw in 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 no regard for the players, be they those who are here or those who have missed an injury.

With the average game currently running 10 minutes longer than the previous norm, there will be more pressure on players and more emphasis on managing their workload. Any report from Kane’s ankle scan mentions how he played on after the 48th minute foul that caused the problem, before being substituted after 75 minutes. But that’s not true, right? He may have retired with 75 minutes on the clock, but he had already been on the pitch for 90 minutes.

So far the added time has been seen mostly as a novelty, and of course anyone who doesn’t get a slight twitch at the sight of the clock ticking to 100 minutes in the top corner of the screen has no blood in their body and should be treated with extreme suspicion. Viewed. And as Gary Lineker pointed out in extreme Gary Lineker fashion, we’re getting more World Cup football, which doesn’t really seem like anything to complain about.

But at some point, of course, the extreme added time will have a huge impact on a game, a group, the tournament. It is pure coincidence that the only notable late goals so far have been afterwards: Iran’s 90+13 minute consolation against England and the rubber stamper of the Netherlands of 90 + 9 minutes against Senegal. It’s quite literally only a matter of time before that changes, and depending on exactly when and how it changes, you can expect the tone of the conversation to change.

While some of the longer delays clearly stem from significant injury delays, and the fact that the VAR monitors for referees to peer at all seem to be placed about 50 yards from the pitch also means that some of the the game lasts longer, other injury time numbers have marked a very clear shift. If England’s 14 minutes in the first half against Iran were easy to explain, the 10 (which became 13 thanks to VAR) in the second half was a clear shift in the way timekeeping is handled.

It’s a really remarkably fundamental change in the game to just throw in during the World Cup, even if it’s a welcome change overall. Over time (and by time we mean ‘anything over 14 extra minutes’ here) things will stabilize and normalize. As time wasting becomes less beneficial, it will happen less. This is already apparent from the slightly shorter matches that followed the duel between Saudi-Argentina.

But you could really dispense with all those adjustments at the World Cup itself. And there’s a more conceptual argument to be had about whether it’s gone a little too far to make the game what we think it should be rather than what it actually is. Football has never really been a 90 minute game, and in fact isn’t even 60 minutes in terms of live action.

Exactly what constitutes ‘unnatural’ time lost rather than the natural pattern of the game falls vaguely under the ‘hard to describe but I know when I see it’ category, but it’s fair to assume it’s injuries, VAR interventions, parties, substitutions, and the various dark arts of wasting time. But none are as simple as stopping and starting a clock. At what point exactly did a player take too long to throw in? At what point exactly has a keeper thought a little too long about a goal kick?

It’s clearly going to be one of the main talking points of this tournament, and if you think about it, it means maybe some genius 4D chess from the guys at FIFA, because there’s only so much bandwidth for World Cup discussions and this way is it about… something else. Despite what we’ve seen so far, you’d imagine it ultimately benefits the biggest parties with the deepest squads.

Simply put, more time in the game 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, wasting time and other rubbish have long been tactics used by teams trying to disrupt the odds or protect an advantage. Also with the latter it is by no means just the reserve of ‘smaller’ teams.

As with so much about this tournament, teams need to adapt and adapt quickly and those that thrive will be the most adept at it. There may be nothing wrong with rewarding that.

Our closing thought on all of this is this. How long before we decide that we now need the fourth official to pull out his or her plate to indicate how much extra time will be at the end of added time?

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