Time-wasting: why do we tolerate it?

It's a well known fact that time slows down to a tortuous crawl when your team is one goal ahead and there are two minutes left on the clock. It's therefore normal human behavior to exhort your wide players to take the ball and dribble it to the corner flag. Despite having paid a fair few dollars for a ticket, you also won't mind when they shape up to take a throw-in and then think better of it, tossing the ball instead to a colleague to chisel a few more seconds off the watch.

Neither will you complain when your goalkeeper needs half a minute to ensure that the divot in the grass is of the absolute requisite height and consistency to permit them to take a quality goal kick, shortly before a crucial adjustment of the socks. This after they strolled behind the goal to retrieve the ball from the ball boy furthest away from play, having mysteriously overlooked one right under their nose. Whoops.

It's almost 15 years since Venezuelan referee Manuel Andarcia sent off Colombia's goalkeeper Robinson Zapata for time-wasting during a Copa America group game against the US. Zapata's team was defending a 1-0 lead in what was a dead-rubber for third place, both teams having already been eliminated. Andarcia showed the shot-stopper first a yellow, then later a yellow-red card for dithering on restarts, in the 87th minute. The goalkeeper then wasted a further two minutes by protesting before leaving the field.

I wasn't yet a qualified referee, but I remember applauding the official for implementing the game's rules. Time-wasting is an irritating, unsporting and obnoxious blight on soccer, yet it is tolerated at all levels of the game to the point where it's become the absolute norm. Commentaries at the time expressed criticism of Andarcia for being over-zealous. One yellow card for time-wasting — OK. But two? How dare he be consistent when Zapata was treating the match official and the game as a whole with such contempt!

It seems that Andarcia did not referee another game at the Copa America, nor at any other international tournament. Maybe there were good reasons for that connected with this abilities. Still, it seems a strange coincidence that he would be pulled from the tournament right after he set a precedent that the soccer establishment deemed a step too radical. I don't recall seeing a referee double-card a time-waster since, more's the shame.

And so, a decade and a half later, the majority of players continue to get away with this gamesmanship, in much the same way that referees ignore the obligatory dissent that greets a large portion of their calls. Yet just by applying the actual rules we could eradicate dissent and time-wasting with immediate effect. "A player is cautioned if guilty of: delaying the restart of play," states the first line beneath the sub-heading 'Cautionable offences' in Law 12. The very first line. It's impossible to miss, it's right above "dissent by word or action." And I can tell you exactly what happens when you caution a player for delaying the restart of play — the players moan at you for being petty and too stringent by sticking to the letter of the law. A yellow card, just for innocently kicking the ball away a couple of feet to stop an opponent taking a quick free kick? Come on, ref!

And yet, there it is, in Law 12: "A player is cautioned if guilty of: delaying the restart of play."

Maybe the problem is that the rule doesn't go far enough. I suggest this addendum: "For every caution issued for delaying the restart of play, the referee will add two minutes of time to the game." Not only is the player punished, a team in arrears will benefit from the unsporting conduct which is, in any language, simply cheating to win. For good measure, let's add: "Any player penalized for time-wasting in the last 15 minutes of the game shall be dismissed from the field of play."

What about the tedious, game-numbing practice of running the ball toward the corner flag to run down the clock? There's been talk of a delineated no-go zone in the corners of the field, effective during the final minutes of the game, but that requires too much paint and legislation. We all know what players are up to when they head for the corners rather than the penalty area, and it's nothing to do with scoring goals. So add a line to the rules that says: "If a player or players are deemed to be deliberately running down the clock in an unsporting manner while the ball is open play (by dribbling toward the corner flag and shielding the ball there, for example), an indirect free-kick will be awarded, and the player will be cautioned."

As things stand, time-wasting works. Players go mostly unpunished (or are cautioned when it's way too late in the game), and the amount of added time rarely corresponds to the amount of time lost to shenanigans. Soccer's tense final minutes are often deprived of goalmouth action because the ball is stuck in the corner zones and there's no way out. It's indefensible, yet so simple to remedy. Which in FIFA circles means, of course: nothing will be done.

17 comments about "Time-wasting: why do we tolerate it?".
  1. Michael Saunders, May 3, 2022 at 9:12 a.m.

    Timely article as many Federations realize it is a problem.  And we know that the IFAB/FIFA are seeking ways to thwart time-wasting. 

    Let's face it, strategic time-wasting is widespread and is done through delayed restart of the game after goalie capture of the ball, goal kick, throw-in, free kick, corner kick, substitution, feigned injury, etc.  Soccer players (coaches) strategically waste time, which means that the 90 minutes of nominal play time is reduced not only by natural stoppages such as fouls or the ball out of bounds, but also by teams strategically taking advantage of such stoppages.

    Legislating how a team plays on the field of play, as suggested by the author when discussing running to the corner flag to waste time,  is not a workable solution as once again it places the onus for the referee to enforce it.... and as the author correctly points out it often leads to controversy, as it did in the USA vs Canada WoSo Olympic match in 2012....  as well as invariably impacting a referee's career with the Venezuelan referee Manuel Andarcia incident being a clear case in point. 

    Cutting to the chase there are really ony two fundamental ways of addressing this issue: 

    (1) Have officials enforce existing  "time wasting" by stipulation within the current framwwork of "Duration of Play".  To that end, give teeth to officials via punishment and sanctions to be imposed as is largely suggested by the article; or 

    (2)  Changing the rules of the game to one with a shorter effective play time where the game clock is stopped whenever play is halted, which is currently being discussed by IFAB/FIFA.

    As one study suggests:   "Under current rules, effective play time is significantly less than 60 minutes per game, so this change of rules would lead to more effective play time. Because the incentive to prolong stoppages would disappear, the stoppage time would be reduced. The result would be an increase in the proportion of game time with the ball in play, to the advantage of game spectators. But even more importantly, the variability of play time would be eliminated, it would become a more fair game, and unethical behavior of players would be reduced".

    Stopping the game clock when the ball is out of play will require new processes and  adjustments to related aspects within the rules.  It could also lead to unforeseen problems.  Perhaps the biggest issue would be acceptance by stakeholders across the board from players, coaches, fans, etc as they are used to the referee controlling the clock providing hope that a  last minute attacking thrust for a team to tie o even win a game is not negated by an end game whistle or buzzer.   

    As difficult as it may be to gain consensus, sustaining the staus quo must not be an option.


  2. S Nissen, May 3, 2022 at 1:03 p.m.

    Michael Saunders: No, no, No!  One of the reasons I love soccer over American sports is the flow of the continuous clock; I'd hate to see stoppages every breath.

    The only way I'd endorse your recommendation is if it were limited to the last 10 minutes of the game (not stoppage time, not overtime), and only when the goal difference is less than 3 goals.

    Please don't "Americanize" soccer, stopping the clock for every little thought.

    I'd rather see the referees enforce Law 12 as it is, at their discretion. 

  3. Michael Saunders replied, May 4, 2022 at 10:46 a.m.

    5 Nissen:  Understand your perspective.  My  comment did not advocate stoppage time per se nor enforcing the Law on time wasting via stipulation within the existing LoG framework.    

    Of course the Int'l Rules Body can introduce or tweak the current rules to reduce time strategic time wasting.... as they did when it recognized that playing with one game ball facilitated the negative action.  But that by itself did not resolve the problem.  Bottom line  60 minutes of effective game time must be improved.  Most fans do not realize it until tehir team is behind by one goal in the last 10 minutes to he game and stoppage time added.      

    Point is change is always disruptive.  Both fundamental suggestions will definitely cause controversy whichever is implemented.  That said, I think we will all agree that "strategic time wasting"  needs to be addressed as it is inherently unfair.   




  4. Kent James, May 3, 2022 at 10:55 p.m.

    Ian, I agree with your concerns, and some of your solutions are workable (not the concerns about "going to the corner", a tactic I don't like, but one that is not so damaging that we need to change the rules that officials will have trouble enforcing anyway).  Adding time for a caution due to timewasting is appropriate (though you know some smart alec team that is behind will try to waste some time to get the caution and it's added time...).  When I was refereeing, I would tell players who were wasting time that I was going to add 2x as much time as they were wasting, and that usually helped (I just added the time they wasted, but erred on the side of too much rather than too little).  Officially giving referees this authority would be helpful (and the threat should normally be enough).  

    Two things that are related that should be addressed are my pet peeve, delaying the restart by standing in front of the ball (usually more tactical than time management, but clearly something referees could easily do something about), and subs at the very end of the game (3 individual subs in the last few minutes...that's a delaying tactic, not a normal sub). I think a minute should be added for each sub made after the 75th minute.  I hate it when the 4th official says there will be 3 minutes of stoppage time, they sub during the stoppage time, and add nothing to the three minutes, wasting half of the stoppage time with a sub.  

  5. Richard Scully, May 5, 2022 at 9:49 a.m.

    1. Like so many of soccer's antiquated rules, allowing time wasting is ridiculous.  Just stop the clock when the ball is not in play.  Have an actual game clock like every other sport in the world.  Oh, and while they are at it, maybe enforce the six second rule for goalkeepers. 

  6. John Polis, May 5, 2022 at 10:15 a.m.

    The time-wasting that bothers me is not goalkeepers or going toward the corner flag toward the end of the game, it concerns something that happens all though MLS games. It has to do with groups of players surrounding the referee on so many calls, even routine fouls. And, as I watch a lot of games including all of the MLS games here in the Denver area, I see it as a long-standing problem in MLS. It just seems that referees allow players to congregate around them and protest call after call. Seldom do I ever remember a referee totally taking charge and telling players, no more constant dissent. Instead, they seem to placate the perpetrators and finally move them away so the game can resume. I would argue that game-in and game-out, these situations are bigger timewasters than anything else. There's no need for players to protest or discuss every call the referee, who can easily put a stop to it with a few words and a wave of his arm -- and then stick to it.

  7. Drake Delzell, May 5, 2022 at 10:44 a.m.

    Amen to stopping the incessant whining after every call.

  8. William Shine, May 5, 2022 at 11:29 a.m.

    Thank God finally an article about time wasting! Thank you Ian. What is wrong with FIFA? Ian, writers like you can make a difference.  FIFA doesn't change rules because soccer will evolve into American football, but there are "anti-soccer" tactics that have evolved that threaten the beautiful game-- time wasting and faking injury.

    Time wasting ruins the end of every great game. CL overtime yesterday was classic!  I'm not a Man City fan, just looking for a great game.  Rewatch the second 15 mins of overtime. Ruined because of time wasting. Ref does nothing. 3 mins added and ref blows whistle at 2:50. Time wasting works! Not only time off the clock but trailing team cannot establish rhythm or momentum.

    Simple rule change:  The final 20 minutes and OT must be played with "expediency".  If ref sees slowness then LOSS OF POSSESSION.  Stalling in penalty box is a corner for the opposition.  Slow walking of a sub off the pitch (happens every time) equals loss of one of your subs. (Love how a player can sprint lungs out for the entire game and then must slow walk off the pitch and wave to fans as clock runs down).

    FIFA allowing this stuff is a disgrace.  Ruining what should be the most exciting part of almost every game!

  9. Richard Scully replied, May 5, 2022 at 4:38 p.m.

    Why not simply stop the clock when the ball is not in play?

  10. Richard Buck, May 5, 2022 at 2:15 p.m.

    How about starting by cautioning the players on free kicks who move to stand directly in front of the ball once a foul has been called?  

  11. William Shine replied, May 5, 2022 at 10 p.m.

    Yes yellows for blocking free kicks should happen without exception.  It is the rule and every year the refs completely ignore a rule of the game-- anti-soccer evolution.

    Stopping the clock for stalling could be good.  But even with a stopped clock stalling would still interrupt the opposition's rhythm and momentum if they have the defense on its heels.  Also, if your team is getting beat to the ball, stopping the clock gives you a rest and hurts the hustling team.

    I want to take the ball away from the stallers.  Hard to win a game if you continually give the ball to your opponent.

  12. James Krauss, May 5, 2022 at 4:28 p.m.

    Great article.  Here's my vote:

    One minute added for each time wasting warning given by ref.
    Two minutes added for time wasting yellow card.
    One minute for each sub in last 75 minutes and extra time.
    Slow walk substitution or departure that is not to nearest line earns a time wasting warning.
    Any attempt to freeze the ball in the corner results in a change of possission and goal kick for opponent.
    The time consumed by any injury in extra time is added.  Although it's logical that more cramps would occur at the end of a match, they appear to happen far to often in extra time for all of them to be real.

  13. William Shine replied, May 5, 2022 at 10:07 p.m.

    Good ideas.  Regarding cramps, a favorite stalling tactic, the ref should make the player get off the pitch immediately, if he/she doesn't then one minute added and delayed re-entry to the game.

    FIFA please try SOMETHING.  This really hurts the game we all love and it is not a minor thing.  Sucks away so much of the beautiful game.

  14. frank schoon, May 6, 2022 at 8:35 a.m.


  15. Greg Gould, May 7, 2022 at 1:12 a.m.

    Agree with most of the above. Time wasting and faking injuries ruin the game. How many times do you see players hold their face or head after contested headers when replay shows their head/face were untouched?
    Need to put a stop to all this gamesmanship!
    Better and more visible use of a game clock would help. 

  16. Kerry Solomon, May 9, 2022 at 9:46 a.m.

    Add a time limit. Once a foul is called or a free kick is awarded a keeper makes a save, then they have 'x' seconds to put the ball into play or they are carded

  17. Ian Plenderleith, May 11, 2022 at 1:22 a.m.

    Great discussion - many thanks for all your well-considered ideas. 

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