The Qatar World Cup will be remembered as the tournament where Lionel Messi finally got his hands on the trophy – but the length of injury time in matches was also one of the biggest talking points.
The tournament produced some of the longest World Cup games ever after Fifa instructed fourth officials to keep track of lost time and we could soon see the trend spreading to all domestic top leagues from next season expands.
In January, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) met in London. The IFAB monitors the Laws of the Game and their application and wants to “create fairer conditions for both teams in terms of playing time available”.
A change in policy – not law – regarding actual playing time is expected to be ratified at the IFAB AGM on Saturday. But could it change the future of football forever?
60 minute games?
Despite being a 90 minute sport, the length of football played in a match falls far short of 90 minutes. Added time was introduced in 1891 to allow officials to add more time to compensate for unusual stoppages in play.
Originally these were lengthy injury layoffs, but in recent years injury time has factored in multiple substitutions, video assistant referee checks, lengthy celebrations and deliberate waste of time.
But two problems remain – only the referee knows when a game ends, and games have varying lengths of time the ball is in play.
To counteract this, some high-profile figures – including Dutch legend Marco van Basten, former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg and former Arsenal boss David Dein – have proposed making football a 60-minute sport, where the Clock stops at each ball is out of play.
This could indicate less football would be played, but many games see the ball in play for much less than 60 minutes. At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the playing time was only between 52 and 58 minutes.
A stopwatch is such a radical change that it is unlikely to be introduced anytime soon, but the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has highlighted ways more playing time could be allowed. There was a lot more added at the end of each half.
How much time was added at Qatar 2022?
In the first round of group matches, an average of 11 minutes and 8 seconds was recorded as stoppage time – four minutes in the first half and seven in the second. Although these numbers had a small sample size, they slowly decreased as the tournament progressed:
All of the above average times are higher than previous tournaments, and it’s no surprise that the longest games ever – not including overtime – were played at the 2022 World Cup:
Added 30% more playing time in the extreme case of England versus Iran – due to a serious layoff due to injury. But how much of that extra time was actually spent playing, and how much was wasted further?
More time wasted?
Football, often referred to as a free-flowing sport, is very much a stop-start competition. This is illustrated by the number of restarts during overtime.
At least 10 minutes of stoppage time was displayed in the England vs. Iran game. For the first 9:04 of that, the ball was in play for an average of 42 seconds at a time, with play being stopped nine times. Then, with 56 seconds left, after a 3:26 stoppage, a penalty was awarded after a VAR check.
The referee felt there was not enough time to continue the game after Iran scored and missed the full time. Should the remaining 56 seconds have been allowed? What if it was a one goal game? Should it be the referee who decides when to call the time?
Similar problems marred the end of the South Korea vs. Ghana game. South Korea pushed for an equalizer in 10 minutes of allotted time at the end of the second half.
In stoppage time, there were more substitutions and injury stoppages. The two breaks were clocked at 1:42, meaning a minimum of 11:42 would be played. But at 10:52 Anthony Taylor blew the final whistle just as South Korea was preparing for a corner.
South Korea was outraged and coach Paulo Bento received a red card. What happened to the extra 102 seconds? Despite this, South Korea managed to break out of the group and scored an injury-time winner in the last game.
Despite considerable increases in time, only around 50% were actually used for playing football.
What happened in those extra minutes while the ball was in play?
Late goals always have an exciting effect and Qatar 2022 was no different. At previous World Cups, added time in the second half was generally less than six minutes. So what happened in the games that crossed that line in 2022?
Goals scored and cards awarded in the sixth minute and beyond overtime
Six late goals were scored – two doomed Wales to a defeat by Iran, one allowed Tunisia to beat France and one sent the Netherlands into overtime against Argentina.
Looking ahead, what does this mean for domestic football? In the Premier League, ball-in-play time has slowly decreased over the past decade, so the case for more stoppage time is a strong one.
While not a fully scientific assessment, the six goals and 15 cards awarded during the extended minutes of injury time in 64 World Cup games would equate to a further 35 goals and 89 cards awarded in a season of Premier League football .
That would equate to about an extra goal per game week, which in a sport with increasingly fine margins could have major implications for teams at either end of the table. “Fergie time” may be more important than ever.