I very much like what Arsene Wenger said about the mystery of stoppage time. Briefly, he's complaining that no one knows exactly how the referees calculate the time to be added on at the end of a game. He says that everyone should know and that there should be a clear set of guidelines explaining the matter.
He's 100 percent right, but he's really about 500 percent right if his point is expanded, as it should be, to include other referee activities that are conducted beneath a veil of secrecy, or at least in a cloud of deliberate obfuscation.
Controversy over those extra minutes of stoppage time has been going on for decades. It was at the center of one of the silliest moments of refereeing I have ever seen, 30 years ago, during the 1978 World Cup. The score was Brazil 1 Sweden 1, with very little (stoppage) time left. Brazil took a corner, Zico rose up and headed the ball firmly home.
A last-ditch 2-1 win for Brazil? Not at all. Welsh referee Clive Thomas had blown his whistle to mark the end of the game while the corner kick was in the air -- before it reached Zico. There were even rumors he had told the Swedes not to worry as the game would be over the instant the ball was kicked from the corner.
The stupidity of such fussiness doesn't bear scrutiny. But Thomas was sure he'd got it right down to the last second. Which is surely ridiculous. But there was one thing that no one could argue about: Thomas was the only person in the world who knew when the -- theoretical -- end of the game would arrive.
Thomas' silliness did cause a reaction, and it's doubtful that such a martinetish decision would be made today. But the deeper matter of how Thomas arrived at his timings -- that was left uninvestigated.
It should be closely looked at as soon as possible. Are we running a billion dollar industry here or an inconsequential parlor game? But it should be looked at in the wider frame of a determination to do away with all the areas where referees (and their close allies, the rule-makers of the International Football Association Board, IFAB) prefer to act clandestinely.
Transparency is a word much admired and used by Sepp Blatter. But it seems to be a word that is frowned upon in refereeing circles.
IFAB, for instance, when making its yearly report on rule changes, carefully marks, in the new rule book, anything that has been added. This is helpful -- but it is also downright deceptive, as it gives an impression of openness when in fact IFAB is not mentioning -- i.e. is concealing -- what it has subtracted from the rules.
There was also the celebrated case of Ruud van Nistelrooy's "offside" goal against Italy in the 2008 Euro championship. While the press and the fans howled at an obviously poor referee decision, the refereeing authorities at UEFA calmly announced that the ref had got it right. They spelled out the reasoning ... but who had known about this beforehand? Only the referees, apparently.
On the field, referees are still under no obligation to let anyone know what they're calling. Not that long ago the 1997 rulebook said "... it is not the duty of the referee to explain or mime any offense that has caused him to give a particular decision ..." That wording has been dropped, but it has not been replaced, as it surely should be, by a requirement that referees signal exactly what they're calling each time they blow the whistle.
In other words, a universal code of referee signals should by now be mandatory. But neither FIFA nor IFAB nor the referees themselves have taken any action. Once again they prefer to act, whenever possible, without telling the rest of us what they're up to.
[A slight aside: may I recommend -- not for the first time -- to MLS that they look into this? The USA would be the ideal place to develop such a set of signals as it is a country where sports fans are used to, indeed expect, clear referee signals. The development and use of such a code would not constitute a rule change, and by my reckoning would not even require FIFA's consent.]
Maybe this time something will be done, at least about stoppage time. How did a stoppage time that had been signaled at four minutes end up lasting almost seven minutes, allowing ManU to score the winning goal against ManCity during those extra mystery minutes?
A scandal in the making! The English newspaper The Guardian, having studied the stats, has found that ManU does get more stoppage time minutes than other teams ... when it is tying or losing a game at 90 minutes. A coincidence?
There's a lot to be explained here if the impression of sheer guesswork on the part of the referee is to be dispelled. Guesswork just doesn't seem good enough. Nor do unpublicized rule changes. Nor do unexplained on-field decisions.
I have a feeling that there are plenty of referees -- perhaps even a majority -- who would vote for more transparency, just as they would vote for replay assistance. Why is it we never hear from them?