Imagine if an NFL coach never knew when to call for the last-second pass, or an NBA star had to guess when to throw up his desperation half-court shot.
Such situations would be unthinkable in other sports, but vagaries of time are the norm in soccer. Games do not end when a clock expires, but only when the referee decides they are over.
In a world where quantities as varied as footsteps and mouse clicks can be measured with scientific precision, soccer is a land where time remains a mirage. The most recent example came in the World Cup game here Sunday night, when the United States scored to take the lead in the 81st minute of a 90-minute match only to see the advantage slip away when Portugal scored - wait for it - 14 minutes later.
For U.S. players and fans, the late goal was devastating. But it was also confusing. Asked afterward about how long the game had lasted, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said: "Too long. Thirty seconds too long," and he was not speaking metaphorically.
In what surely seems bizarre to soccer neophytes (not to mention anyone who has ever successfully operated a stopwatch), Howard was offering an actual opinion about when the game - a timed game, it must be repeated - should have ended. (Muddying matters further, United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann argued that perhaps the game should have been a bit longer.)
That such a debate happens regularly only underscores the strangeness of soccer's rules.
Soccer's elastic definition of time means that no player on the field, no fan in the stands and no announcer on television has any earthly idea as to when the last kick of the ball will come.
"The only thing that matters is the watch on the referee's wrist," said Alexi Lalas, a former defender for the U.S. "He or she is the one who controls your fate."
There are some times that are fixed in soccer. A professional soccer game is 90 minutes long. At the end of each 45-minute half, the referee is allowed to add any number of additional minutes of play at his own discretion. This is known as "stoppage time" or "added time," and it is meant to make up for time lost during substitutions, assessment and treatment of injured players and time-wasting, as well as "any other cause," according to FIFA's Laws of the Game, the official rule book governing soccer around the world.
In the game between the U.S. and Portugal, the referee added five minutes of extra time to the second half.
But "five minutes" could have been 5 minutes 1 second, or 5:59. Like a power-mad dictator, the referee can set the limits according to his whim.
It ended up being 5:28. Either way, Portugal scored its fateful goal before the five-minute mark - Silvestre Varela connected at 4:33. But had the referee added 4:30 of extra time, the U.S. team could very well have spent Monday celebrating.
With no giant clock ticking off the seconds, soccer referees typically wait until a tame point in the action to declare the game over. Sometimes, though, as in the France-Switzerland match last week, the referee is more abrupt; in that match, the official ended the game just before France scored what would have been its sixth goal.
Lalas, who now works as an analyst for ESPN, says he adores that arrangement, adding: "That's where the beauty lies. It's not black and white."
Others would like more clarity. "It seems to me," said Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, "that with a billion-plus people watching a sporting event, we should have a system whereby more than one person knows when the game will end."
The debate has heated up recently because soccer has finally embraced technology, in use at the World Cup, that determines whether the ball has crossed the goal line. If it crosses, a vibrating buzzer that the official wears like a watch goes off. The referee's wrist buzzer is an instrument of precision; his reading of his wristwatch is as muddled as a watercolor painting.
For years, referees did not even have to reveal how much time they were adding on at the end of a half. Jeff Agoos, who played on the national team from 1988 to 2003, recalled referees' simply ignoring questions from players about how much time was remaining. The official just blew his whistle when he decided time was up.
Now there is at least a cursory system in place whereby the referee indicates to the fourth official - who stands between the teams' benches during the game and oversees substitutions, among other duties - the minimum number of minutes to be added on. The fourth official then holds up an electronic board to reveal (roughly) how much time is left.
Losing coaches often lobby - or berate - the officials in an attempt to get more time, a skill mastered by Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United coach.
Fans' reactions to suggested changes to soccer's timing system differ depending on when they are asked. In 2010, for example, when Landon Donovan scored against Algeria in the first minute of second-half stoppage time, it would have been difficult to find an American who was against the current system.
The discussions have become more pointed since Sunday, though, as the Argentine referee, Nestor Pitana, appeared to have initially called for four minutes of added time and then increased it to five after a slow U.S. substitution.
Some soccer leagues play by more precise rules. In high school and college soccer in the U.S., a countdown clock - similar to ones used in other sports - is used, with specific rules as to when time should be stopped.
Agoos, who is now the vice president for competition at Major League Soccer, said MLS was working with the team owners to develop a proposal to FIFA that would allow the league to "give a public view of official match time to our fans."
He added: "We would like to see more accountability. I believe that transparency in terms of the game clock makes a lot of sense."
He is surely not alone, but for now at least, soccer time will remain a fluid concept. Sometimes, members of the same team cannot even agree on whether the referee has added too much time or too little, as was the case Sunday.
When the United States kicked off after Portugal's goal, it appeared that DeAndre Yedlin, a U.S. midfielder, might have been able to immediately break in on goal for one more chance of his own. Afterward, Klinsmann bemoaned the decision to blow the final whistle before Yedlin could make his run.
"I just hoped," Klinsmann said, "that the referee could let it go for another 30 seconds."
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