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Why The Clock Never Stops In Soccer

In many professional sports, teams, and players have to race the clock, and there is something dramatic about counting down to zero before the end of a game. But in soccer, the clock starts with zero and climbs to 90, and then the game is over. 

But it isn’t quite that simple, and we’ll see why the soccer clock is always counting in this article.

Why does the clock not stop in Soccer? The clock in soccer never stops because the wasted time is managed by the referee and assistants. Which is added as stoppage time at the end of each half. In some amateur leagues, the referee is allowed to stop the time to manage time more efficiently.

The Timeline of a Soccer Game

In professional and recreational soccer games the world over, the clock begins at the blow of the first whistle and counts upwards.

  1. 45 Minutes (First Half)
  2. Half-Time (15-Minute Break)
  3. 45 Minutes (Second Half)

A 90-minute game is broken into two 45-minute halves with a 15-minute halftime break in between. That’s the basic structure. However, if there’s no winner after 90 minutes in a knock-out tournament, there will be overtime. Which consists of 2×15 minutes, and then depending on the situation, a penalty shoot-out may occur, which isn’t based on a time.

In those timed sections, the clock keeps counting from zero all the way up, with no ability to pause the clock for things like substitutions or treating players for injuries. Are those moments just ticked away and thrown in the trash? 

Not at all. In fact, they’re tallied and added onto the end of each half in what’s known as stoppage time.

What Is Stoppage Time?

This is the total time where the game clock was still counting up but the game was not actually being played. The international governing body of soccer, The International Football Association Board (IFAB) has given the game officials guidance as to what qualifies to be taken into account as stoppage time.

These include player substitution and injuries, as mentioned previously, but also when disciplinary sanctions are given (yellow and red cards) if players are wasting time, any competition-protocol medical stoppage, interruptions on the field such as stray animals or fans coming onto the pitch, and delays relating to checking and reviewing a game with VAR (more on that below.)

Stoppage time is allotted per half in both the regulation and extra time segments, and it is not allowable that a referee adds additional time onto the end of the game in order to make up for fewer minutes allotted at the end of the first half. They’re tracked and added to the end of the halves independently.

You can read more about stoppage time in this post.

Who Counts Stoppage Time

It may seem that when the timing is so important to the game, especially at the professional level, there would be a dedicated person assigned to solely keep a record of the time.

Unfortunately, this is not the case, and the burden of tracking stoppage time falls on the game referee, who is, of course, also responsible for many other things during the game. This may be because there is a certain amount of discretion from the referee about when and what to count in the stoppage time total.

That may vary from what a dedicated timekeeper might track, who likely wouldn’t be positioned in the action as much as the referee is and thus wouldn’t have the same amount of discretion.

Some referees do have an assistant that helps track and is the one who holds up the number at the end of each half, but that number is simply the minimum amount of time that the assistant has calculated. The referee gets the final call as to how much time is actually added on and when they blow the whistle to officially end the game. 

However, many fans may feel as though the times added onto the end of halves and matches is not accurate or fair, and statistical website FiveThirtyEight actually used a team of timekeepers to track stoppage time in the 2018 World Cup and found it to be wildly under-awarded to every game played except for one. 

How Did This Become the Norm?

It’s not a secret to sports fans that clock management is a huge part of strategic play in many sports. When a clock is counting down to zero in other sports, well, those are some of the most exciting moments in the match. But with soccer, players and managers are not allowed to manage the clock at all, and so that element of strategy has been taken away. 

Instead, the clock is just in the opposite way. The winning team is often faking injuries and wasting time in other ways to get an advantage. Since the clock never stops, it’s a very effective strategy that won’t stop until they change this.

The need for something to be done about relying only on that 90-minute clock came in 1891 at a match in England between Stoke City Football Club and Aston Villa Football Club. As the clock neared 90 minutes, Stoke City was down 1-0 and was awarded a penalty kick. The Aston Villa goalkeeper kicked the ball off of the football grounds, and by the time it was recovered, the 90 minutes had ended, and Stoke City wasn’t allowed to take their penalty kick. 

Since this was quite an egregious example of the need for a rule change, we can only assume that stunts and strategies similar to this were going on well before, but we can all thank Aston Villa for signaling that something had to be done. 

In terms of why the clock counts up, it is also much more simple to tack minutes on at the end when there are limited referees, instead of having a referee continually pause and restart a clock and then signal to the players. Since soccer is played globally, having a streamlined system makes play much more accessible and takes some of the burdens off of referees who are in charge of smaller games.

What About VAR?

Soccer is and always has been a fast-paced game. When the clock doesn’t stop and players and managers alike don’t know how many minutes they will get back the regulation 45 per half, it’s important to keep pressure, control the ball, and not rely on technical rules as is common in other sports. However, technology is changing all sports as we know them, and soccer isn’t immune. 

While goal-line technology has been used in IFAB play since 2012, a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was only officially introduced in IFAB games in 2018. Much like the goal-line tech, it was brought in to reduce human error. But there’s a stark difference between a sensor immediately indicating a goal and having a referee take time to review aspects of the match on a screen. Fears were that it would, of course, impact the stoppage time.

The use of VAR in soccer has garnered many opinions from fans and players alike, but one of the biggest fears about the VAR technology was that it would end up adding excessive time to games, and even though it has only been in major competitions for a few years, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that the VAR is impacting the games in that way, with FiveThirtyEight noting that video review made up only 0.5% of all play in the 2018 World Cup and averaged at just 31 seconds per match. 

In general, timekeeping in soccer may seem straightforward compared to other professional sports, and in some ways, it is. But it is also a system of timekeeping that has a lot of nuances, relies a lot on the referee in charge, and isn’t without its criticisms. As the game and the world evolve, we may see changes to how clocks are managed in soccer. But for now, hit start and keep on playing!