As you may have heard, last Wednesday night Eden Hazard kicked a Welsh toddler to death. Wait, no. Hang on. Last Wednesday night, an ancient Welshman masquerading as a child framed delicate patsy Eden Hazard for a crime he didn't commit. Or something. Anyway, the FA has decided that it was a deathly serious contretemps, and is investigating, which is happy news for those of us who rely on writing opinion pieces to impress the ladies.
But. What the FA should be doing -- apart from issuing a statement that reads "It was silly of the pair of them, quite funny for the rest of us, now return to your lives, citizens" -- is looking at time-wasting not in terms of a disciplinary issue, but as a structural one. As, ultimately, should FIFA. For football is incredibly stupid in a lot of ways, and one of the less generally serious but persistently annoying is that while we all hate time-wasting, we have a remarkable tolerance for wasted time.
Some numbers. At the end of the 2010/11 season, tucked away in the Guardian's OPTA-based statistical review of the year, was the following:
At Premier League matches on average, the ball was in play for 62.39 minutes this season - more than in the much-vaunted Spanish and German top flights (61.48 minutes and 61.22 minutes respectively), but significantly less than in Serie A (65.15 minutes).
So, the actual footballing part of a game of football is not 90 minutes long. It is, in fact, just over an hour, depending on what country you're in. The Guardian also note that it differs from team to team: "the average amount of time that the ball was in play for Stoke games this season was 58.52 minutes. Manchester United offered the most action, 66.58 minutes on average."
Is this a problem? Well, yes and no. That I'm writing this and you're reading it suggests that there are at least two people in the world who've managed to set aside whatever concerns they have about time-wasting in football and carry on. (That or you're my mother. Hi Mum!) But on the other hand, watching footballers waste time is ... annoying. It's ... embarrassing. It makes them look petty, which in turn makes the game look petty, and by proxy us too. It can be funny if done with a bit of wit or verve, or with engaging stupidity, but usually it's just pillocks hiding the ball behind their back while firing their best butter-wouldn't-melt face at the referee. Premier League football is shameful for enough reasons; we don't need the players getting in on the act any more than can be helped.
Two options, then. The first is to insist that referees keep time accurately. We've paid for 45 minutes of football, and by heck we're going to get them. This would be fine, except footballers as we know them now are finely-tuned athletes built to exercising for just over one hour in a just under two-hour period. (There is a certain amount of poetic license there - hello, Anderson! - but you take my point.) Accurately keeping time would increase the work they'd have to do by almost 50%. Which would certainly mean more injuries, might lead to a drop in quality (or at least in pace) and attacking (or at least pro-active) football, and could, taken to its logical conclusion, lead to footballers taking some of those dastardly performance-enhancing substances that they definitely don't take any of at the moment, no sirree.
The other idea is to take this accuracy but retain the amount of football actually played. Two halves of thirty minutes, the clock only ticking when it's in play. This isn't an original idea (Gabriele Marcotti, writing on the subject for ESPN, reckons it's been around since the 70s) but it's one with obvious advantages.
At a stroke, the dispiriting and irritating business of time-wasting is gone. Lie on the ball all you like, son, time's marching on but the clock isn't. Admittedly, it would be something of a shame to miss out on incidents as hilarious as Eden's soft-shoe shuffle, but think of the compensatory good it would do all our blood pressures. Think of the fortune the NHS would save, if millions of people didn't have to spend their lives wincing at endless, tired "Fergie-time" jokes.
It would also remove the grand farce of added injury stoppage overtime, which is less an actual attempt to measure how much time has been lost from a half, and more a kind of vague award based on whether or not been lots of sitting down, or only a bit. Four minutes of added injury stoppage overtime? It should have been at least six minutes of added injury stoppage overtime! Typical Howard bloody Clattenburg.
At the higher tiers of football, the job could even be delegated from the refereeing to a nominated clock-wrangler, thereby removing the responsibility from the pitch completely. Nobody for Alex Ferguson to tap his watch at. No reason for him to tap his watch at all. Just imagine.
The disadvantages? Well ...
I don't think I'm being particularly dense when I say that I genuinely can't think of one, beyond the argument that a game of football lasts ninety minutes, in two forty-five minute halves, because a game of football lasts ninety minutes, in two forty-five minute halves, which isn't really an argument at all, more a kind of verbal shrug, like saying the sky is blue because the sky is blue. Not very satisfying.
A game of football lasts ninety minutes, in two forty-five minute halves, because somebody, somewhere and somewhen, decided that that would be so. (If you know who and when, incidentally, please say so in the comments -- I haven't been able to find out.) The idea of adding time on for stoppages came later: 1891, according to Wikipedia, after Aston Villa's goalkeeper, having conceded a penalty with a 1-0 lead and two minutes to go, hoofed the ball out of the ground and beyond finding. (The online encyclopaedia sadly doesn't record how many outraged opinion pieces that incident inspired.)
Presumably they did so after considerable thought, with a view to ensuring the best experience for both players and spectators. But there's nothing inherently superior or righteous about 90 minutes in itself, as can be seen by the fact that we don't get 90 minutes, and possibly never have. All 90 minutes represents, as things stand, is a convenient amount of time over which to stretch a smaller amount of football. If we can find a way of achieving something similar but better, don't we owe that to ourselves? As Plato once said, tradition is just another word for the collective habit*.
* That could have been Plato, or it could have early-2000s progressive metal band Miocene. I forget.
Naturally, It wouldn't provide a panacea for all football's stoppage-related ills. Hoofing the ball away, or lying on, could still be used by determined berks to sap momentum from the game. But it would certainly remove the primary motivation, as well as robbing outraged managers of one of their more irritating post-game excuses. In fact, the only negative aspect of the whole business - apart from the terrible loss to tradition - would be the sudden emergence of berks doing countdowns as the end of a game drew near. But hey. That's what Tasers are for.