Watching the weekend game grants us a few hours of escape, a break from the concerns of the week. But players use that same time for their purposes – stalling to take time off the clock, hurrying to use every last second. They’re taking something that belongs to us.
Fans know that football – aka soccer – is a funny old game. Not just in the way it twists and turns, with fight backs, giant killings and regular surprises, but also in the way it can sometimes make us laugh. And I don’t just mean the humour of the fans. The game itself can be funny.
At Arsenal, I’ve laughed many a time, and for many a reason. A favourite source of laughter is this: the opposition goalkeeper sprints to fetch the ball.
On the face of it, this doesn’t sound that funny. But that’s because I’ve only delivered the punch line. We require some background if we’re to understand why a sprinting goalkeeper would make someone laugh.
All too regularly, at Arsenal, the opposition team takes to the pitch, the referee blows his whistle, and – from the very first minute – it is clear that the opposition is intent on wasting time. Every throw-in, free-kick, and injury is dragged out. Their players roll around, walk slow, or fumble the ball as they prepare to take a throw – just about anything to waste time. Their logic is impeccable: the less time the ball’s in play, the less time Arsenal have to demonstrate their superiority. So the opposition proceed to play the game in slow-motion, maybe nicking a goal, but definitely wasting time in order to reduce their risks and protect a scoreless draw.
The main villain in this charade is the goalkeeper. Every goal kick is painfully slow. The ball is first moved to the other side of the box, the boots are then tapped clean on a post, the pause unnecessarily long as he wipes his face, with the eventual run-up so hesitant it’s almost a crawl.
But every once in a while, after almost ninety minutes of timewasting, the goalkeeper has to sprint. This happens when Arsenal break the deadlock. Timewasting won’t work if you’ve just conceded a goal. The clock now races down, the commodity of time oh so precious, and so the goalkeeper runs, snatching up the ball, and delivering it into play at breakneck speed. The goalkeeping tortoise is suddenly a hare.
Of course, time wasting is found in other sports too. In baseball, for instance, the boos start up pretty quickly if the opposing pitcher, time and again, throws to first base in an attempt to stop the runner. But whatever sport it is, the fans opinion is the same: no one likes a time waster. Consequently, other sports fans will understand my delight – Schadenfreude! – when I see the chief villain race against time. It’s a joy. And that’s because time in sport is so precious – and it’s ours.
The players seem to forget that the time is ours, as do the coaches and officials. But when I go to Arsenal it’s my playtime, a set-aside sphere in which I can escape the humdrum realities of my everyday responsibilities and tasks. Time is one of the ways in which we mark out the distinct nature of this activity, enabling me to flee from my cares and concerns to enjoy the freedom that the sporting spectacle brings. Just as the soccer pitch delineates a spatial realm (a playground), time puts a boundary around the event, ensuring that we know something qualitatively different is occurring here. As a result, we hate it when someone wastes our free time, setting it to serve their schemes, making it an instrument of their ends, using what is essentially a sphere of freedom – they try to make time work. I just wish we could stop them. But I don’t think we can. Self-serving interest runs deep. In fact, it’s endemic.
There is plenty of evidence to back up this claim. In their book The Numbers Game, for instance, Chris Anderson and David Sally calculate the amount of time that is wasted in an average soccer match. Here in England, in the Premier League, during a ninety-minute game, the ball is in play for a little over sixty minutes. A team such as Stoke City, to take a case study, will sometimes play for only forty-five minutes once they’ve used up time with set pieces, long throw-ins, and a bit of rolling around. Anderson and Sally claim that this approach works for Stoke, allowing them to be relatively successful. But therein lies the problem. It works for Stoke. The playful quality of our free time is polluted. It is worked.
Although it’s probably unstoppable, there is one way to bring an end to a related injustice – one that’s irritated me for years. Let me explain. In football, the referee is supposed to add on extra time at the end of a game. This extra time is meant to make up for the time that’s been lost to injuries, substitutions, and also timewasting (though the first two are often forms of the third). So, as the ninety minutes draw to a close, the fourth official holds up an electronic board, indicating how many minutes are to be added: one, two, three, sometimes more. In principle this is good. But it’s often unjust. It means that a team can waste time for the entire game, let in a goal in the closing minutes, and then receive back all the time they’ve wasted as if it were a gift. And that’s not right. If they’ve wasted my time, I don’t want it given back to them just when they need it most. They should lose the time they’ve stolen from us. Otherwise, time is being made to work for them again. And two wrongs don’t make a right.
So here’s a simple proposal. In football, time wasting should be noted, and who is wasting time identified. At the end of the 90 minutes, the extra time should be offered to the team that has not been wasting it. If that team finds itself in the lead at the end of the game, they get to choose whether to accept this extra time or not. But the team that’s wasted the time does not get a say in the matter. It’s gone. They’ve wasted it.
Of course, this rule change would mean I get fewer opportunities to laugh at the opposing goalkeeper. But that’s okay. There are plenty of other reasons to delight in the game. And if we think about it, with less time available after conceding a goal, we might even get to see the goalkeeper run faster. Hard to imagine, but I’m confident they’d try.
Lincoln Harvey is lecturer in systematic theology at St Mellitus College and author of A Brief Theology of Sport.