In the NFL playoffs last week, the San Francisco 49ers/New Orleans Saints game had one of the most exciting climaxes to any sporting fixture I can remember for some years. In the last 4 minutes, the lead changed hands 4 times, with the winning points not being claimed by the 49ers until just 9 seconds before the end of the match. And even after that, the Saints went up the other end and almost pinched it with the clock on zero. It was quite incredible and had the sort of feeling to when Manchester United beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League final in 1999.
Why could this happen in the NFL? Because at various points in an NFL match – and in particular when the ball goes out of play, the clock stops. (There are of course other instances too which stop the clock). And thus although there were “only” 4 minutes to go when the above thrills kicked-in, those 4 minutes lasted for much longer in real time. And because the game did stop between plays, the tension was incredible and only increased the excitement.
So could this be replicated in “our” football? Could or should a football match be stopped when the ball goes out of play? Would that increase the electrification of the competition or detract from the natural flow of the game which encourages the excitement in the first place?
Of course, if we did stop the game when the ball went out of play then the games couldn’t be played for 45 minutes of “in-play” action. More likely, a match would be, say, 30 minutes of “in-play” or “timed” action, and each half would therefore probably still take around 45 minutes to complete with all the stoppages.
But everyone would then know where we were in terms of match time, there would be no issues over time-wasting and the tension and excitement at the end of (some) games could be ratched up as per the 49ers/Saints game. It would of course mean probably the fourth, or even a fifth official (?) managing the watch, but that’s just systems.
This isn’t a new concept of course: Gianluca Vialli, in his 2006 book, The Italian Job, mentions this as an idea he likes; Graham Poll promotes it in his newspaper article in 2009; and the Guardian just last year suggested it in their ‘Innovations for the future of football’ post; and I’m sure there are more examples too. Although as Poll says, because of FIFA (Blatter’s?) obsession with keeping football “the same” at all levels, so it can be played the same way in Hackney Marshes as Wembley, this is extremely unlikely to ever happen. (We’ve blogged before about the ridiculousness of this concept in modern football, but hey ho, FIFA apparently don’t read this blog…)
There again, the fact that we don’t actually know exactly when a game is going to end, and we can argue over whether time should or should not have been added on, and we can laugh at or empathise with Fergie whenever he taps his watch at a referee, are all a part of the things which make football what it is. We recognise that and it may just swing us back to keeping things as they are now.
So although it’s a nice/interesting idea, it’s no doubt going to stay that way – just an idea. And we’ll have to stick to the NFL to get our last-minute-lasts-10-minutes thrills for now.