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How does stoppage time work? Added time at the World Cup, explained

What exactly is the time that gets added on to football matches?

Argentina v Croatia: Group D - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Gabriel Rossi/Getty Images

Stoppage time being added to the end of each half of play is one of those strange little things about soccer. It rarely gets explained well, but is seemingly a part of every match.

The World Cup is no different.

Those extra few minutes after each of the two regulation 45-minute halves just appear without explanation, announced just when you think time is about to run out. They can be an important factor of any game, and well worth taking a few minutes to understand.

What IS stoppage time?

Essentially, stoppage time is the sport’s way to help account for time lost during the course of the half when the game isn’t being played. Injuries, goal celebrations, fouls, arguments, set-pieces, and more can all cause breaks in play. With a constantly running clock that doesn’t stop for breaks in the action like it does in the NFL or NBA, soccer uses stoppage time to get some of that time back.

How much stoppage time is there?

That depends on what happened in the match and what the referee decides. Typically, we see just a minute or two at the end of the first half, with three or more at the end of the second half. The second half usually has more fouls and often more goals than the first half of matches do, so there’s more lost time to account for.

Of course, the referee has the right to decide just how much stoppage time to use, as the run of play can sometimes make it difficult to stop the game right at the amount of stoppage time announced, or sometimes the match is just dragging through a slog at the end and the referee can blow his whistle to end it early. Time-wasting or further stoppages after the announcement of time to be added can also wind up causing the referee to extend the match further. Think of the stoppage time amount declared as more a guideline than a hard number.

How is stoppage time determined?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule on how stoppage time amounts are determined, but there are a few different guidelines used to keep track of things. Commonly, the fourth referee — who stays on the sideline near both teams’ benches to give the head referee a second opinion, relay decisions to the managers, and supervise substitutions — will often keep a stopwatch that he runs during every stop in play to keep track of time lost. As the end of the half approaches, he’ll communicate how much time that stopwatch is showing to the head referee, who then determines how much of that time to give back as stoppage time.

Some referees prefer to use a more deterministic approach to stoppage time, giving a certain amount of time for each different type of stoppage: 45 seconds to a minute for goal celebrations, 5-10 seconds for a foul, 15-30 seconds for a substitution, a minute for an injury that requires treatment, and the like. That method isn’t always as accurate as a stopwatch-based method, but it can be easier for the referee to keep track of himself over the run of play.

Ultimately, the final amount of time given is completely at the referee’s discretion. No matter the method used to track stoppages, the amount of time announced is decided by the referee, and he can announce more or less time than “needed” as he sees fit. It’s not terribly unusual to see an absolute blowout of a match with five or more minutes of actual stoppages in the second half only get a minute added on out of sheer mercy from the referee.