You have probably noticed that the clock in soccer works differently from the way the clock works in other sports. In soccer, the time on the clock counts up rather than counting down. The reason for this is actually reasonably straightforward forward and I want to explain the reason to you here in this article.
The clock in soccer counts up rather than down to allow the timekeeping during a soccer game to be as simple as possible. This simplicity enables soccer to be played with a single referee in possession of a simple timepiece anywhere in the world.
The use of a running clock in soccer can be confusing to anyone who is used to the excitement of the final moments of an N.F.L or N.B.A. game. But using a clock that counts up and doesn’t stop not only makes sense for soccer but can add its own excitement!
A Clock that Counts up Enables Soccer to Be Played Anywhere
Soccer is often shown to be the most popular sport in the world and one of the reasons for its popularity is its simplicity. [source]
The use of a clock that counts up rather than down is one area that allows soccer to maintain it’s simplicity and allows soccer to be played anywhere from 100,000 seat stadiums to a dusty field in a developing nation. There are so few barriers to entry and enjoyment of playing the game.
The use of a continuous, or running, clock that counts up means that a single referee can keep the time on the simplest of timepieces rather than relying on a countdown timer as many other sports do.
Imagine for a moment that you are responsible for keeping the time for a soccer game and all you have available to you is a simple analog wristwatch. Using a clock that continuously counts up means that from the moment you start the game, you know exactly what time the game will finish, and all you have to do is keep an eye on your watch, ready to signal when the game is over.
Although, you may say, it’s still possible to use a simple watch as a countdown timer, and that is true, where things become complicated is managing any breaks or delays in a game.
Most, if not all, sports that use a countdown timer stop the timer every time there is a break in play, and when the play restarts the timer restarts.
This is much more complicated to manage on a simple analog watch. The referee would not only have to note the exact time the game stopped and then restarted but would have to take that length of time and add it to the end of the original time the game was due to end.
Doing that once may be ok, but every game has multiple delays. To expect a referee to mentally keep track of all these breaks is a lot to ask. Using a clock that keeps running is far simpler.
A referee’s discretion in the timings
In soccer, any delay or stoppage during the game is simply noted by the referee who will then use their discretion to add on an equivalent amount of time at the end of the half similar to the total amount of time the game was stopped for.
For instance, if a referee thought that the stoppages that occurred during one half of soccer totaled around 3 minutes, then the referee would simply add an extra 3 minutes onto the game at the end of the half. This should be straight forward for anyone refereeing a game of soccer.
Now, although this sounds very fluid and heavily reliant on the judgment of the referee(which it is!) in a professional soccer game this timekeeping is much more carefully managed with an off-field assistant keeping careful track of the length of the stoppages in play.
In the last minute of the half, the referee’s assistant will hold up a number at the side of the soccer field indicating to the referee the minimum number of extra minutes that should be added onto the end of the regulation time due to the stoppages.
But to really understand this, we first need to understand how time works in soccer.
Understanding the Clock in Soccer
Let’s me start by explaining the timings of the game.
A soccer game is 90 minutes long. These 90 minutes are split into two halves of 45 minutes each. And between these two halves, the players are allotted a break of 15 minutes known as half time.
It is ultimately the referee’s responsibility to manage the timings. The referee keeps the time in a game of soccer by using a wristwatch or stopwatch. They will either start a timer or take note of the time when the game starts and when the allotted time is up they will blow their whistle to stop the game.
Where things can get confusing is when watching soccer and you see the timer go past the allotted 45 minutes for a half or the 90 minutes of a game. The reason for this isn’t that the referee has forgotten to watch the time, it’s because soccer makes use of extra minutes at the end of each half known as “stoppage time”.
Understanding stoppage time is key to understanding how the clock works in soccer.
The reason you will see games go over 45 or 90 minutes in soccer is because of stoppage time. Stoppage time is extra time added onto the end of each half to make up for time lost during the game due to any significant delays such as time-wasting, or substitutions. The use of stoppage time allows each team to play for the full allotted time.
Stoppage time was introduced into soccer to prevent teams from deliberately delaying the restart of a game after a stoppage.
When a team is in the lead it is in their best interest for as few opportunities as possible to be given to the opposition allowing them to score a goal. One way of doing this was to delay the restart of a game whenever possible hoping that the other team would simply run out of time to score.
To stop teams doing this, stoppage time was introduced meaning that any delay during a game was simply converted into extra minutes added onto the end of the half. For example, if the game was delayed by 2 minutes at one point then an extra 2 minutes would be played at the end of the half to make up for that delay.
This is also an important fact. Stoppage time is added on to the end of each half, not just at the end of the game. This is why when you are watching soccer you will often see the clock running up to 46, 47, 48 minutes in the first half but at the beginning of the second half, the clock starts at 45 minutes.
This is also why you will see the clock in soccer running up to 92, 94, or 98 minutes at the end of a game despite the fact that a soccer game is only 90 minutes long. What is happening in these situations is that a total of 90 minutes is still being played, but over a longer period of time to make up for any stoppages.
For more information about stoppage time, check out my article – Stoppage Time in Soccer Explained.
Reasons to allow stoppage time
The International Football Association Board(IFAB) is the international governing body for the laws of soccer. In their advice for game officials, such as the referee, they recommend only allowing additional time to be added on to the game when an excessive delay occurs during the game.
They give 7 situations where a referee should allow extra minutes of stoppage time at the end of a half. They are:
- Assessment and/or removal of injured players
- Wasting time
- Disciplinary sanctions
- Medical stoppages permitted by competition rules e.g. ‘drinks’ breaks
- Delays relating to VAR ‘checks’ and ‘reviews’
- Any other cause, including any significant delay to a restart (e.g. goal celebrations) [source]
Stoppages such as throw-ins or goal kicks are considered entirely natural and shouldn’t result in any time being added on to the end of the game.
The use of stoppage time is another reason why the clock in soccer counts up. If the clock counted down it would mean that when it reached zero it would have to be reset to the number of minutes added on for stoppage time. It’s much simpler to just keep the clock running.
Why Don’t They Just Stop the Clock in Soccer?
For many of the reasons we have mentioned the clock isn’t stopped in soccer at least at a professional level.
In professional soccer, the clock is never stopped because of soccer’s use of stoppage time and assistants to manage the timing. At lower level non-professional games a referee may stop their watch during stoppages to allow them to manage time more effectively.
To be more accurate in their timings a referee without any assistance may start and stop their timer at every stoppage and then stop the game when their timer reaches 45 minutes or alternatively they may estimate the stoppage time as we previously mentioned.
During a pro-level game, you never see the clock stop counting up because it is only the referee or their assistant that knows how much stoppage time will be played. And the referee’s assistant is only showing the referee the minimum amount of stoppage time that should be played.
The referee will use their discretion to decide exactly when a game ends. Thankfully most referees wait until a natural break in play to end a game rather than sticking rigidly to an exact second. If a team is in the middle of an attack then the referee will often wait until that immediate attack is completed before ending the game. This is where the referee’s discretion is appreciated by both players and fans.
It is also this discretion that can make the end of a soccer game so exciting as no player, coach, or fan knows exactly when the referee will blow their whistle to end the game. Is that goal scoring opportunity the last chance a team will get to score or will there be one more chance?!
I hope this has answered your questions about the clock in soccer and why the clock counts up rather than down.
To find out more about soccer check out one of my other articles.
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