We've all felt the agony of time-wasting in football. Our team is down, chasing an equaliser in the dying embers of a vital league game, only to have any semblance of momentum thwarted by the delay tactics of infuriating gamesmanship. The opposing full-backs practically crawl to take throw-ins; their manger deploys a defender in place of a centre-forward; and valuable time seeps away, dragging residual hope with it. We scream and plead and thrash about, livid at the injustice of it all. Is this really what our game has become?
Apparently so. According to official FIFA statistics, the average match at the current World Cup contains just 55.1 minutes of actual live play. The remaining 34.9 minutes are seemingly reserved for a bouts of biting, cynical substitutions, and an ungodly amount of injuries. Here, we see, more than ever, the importance placed upon winning in this modern football age. We now have a sport swilling in money; a sport which provides a pedestal from which an array of nefarious elements can expound their ideology. Thus, the motivating factors which drive a team to succeed are changing. Now, few want to win for the natural, human jubilation it creates. Rather, they want to win just so a self-congratulatory tweet can be drafted; just so a few more shirts can be sold; just so the incongruous sponsors will stay onside.
In this hyper-charged football era, which exist in a rather contrived bubble of fantasy finance and pathetic pomposity, it's barely acceptable to lose. The commercial and economic consequences are deemed too dire; the ramifications on team reputation too embarrassing. Now, the world of football resembles a beauty pageant where, through intricate "social media strategies" and aggressive "marketing campaigns," every club proclaims perfection. Therefore, any event which may sully this artificial pretence - such as (shock horror!) a defeat - is feared with rare intensity.
Accordingly, whenever a team is presented with the merest opportunity to win, they use every tool in the arsenal to get over the line.
In this regard, the most prominent weapon, indeed the Route 1 of Footballing Gamesmanship, is the late substitution, which has become a defining symbol of this World Cup. Now, we're seeing a rise in mangers actively saving a substitution with the expressed aim of wasting time should his team hold a late lead, almost akin to an NFL timeout! Typically, he will elect to replace the player stationed furthest away from the touchline who, invariably, will proceed to shake the hand of every man, woman and child within a two-mile radius (including the referee, for whom nobody cares except in such situations of boundless tension) before limping and hobbling off the pitch.
In a novel twist, Costa Rica have even taken to replacing captain Bryan Ruiz in recent games, just so he can pass the armband onto his goalkeeper and drain an extra minute from the clock.
The time-honoured method of containing the ball near the corner flag is still a prominent feature of football, but it has been joined and perhaps eclipsed in popularity by goalkeepers taking an absolute eternity to take goal-kicks and collapsing to the floor to punctuate even the merest touch of the ball; ball boys feigning insouciance when visiting teams require assistance; and teams, especially Greece, playing the most mind-numbingly banal brand of conservation football imaginable.
Moreover, we're seeing an exponential increase in players suffering from "convenient cramp," which, again, allows vital seconds to dwindle in the gruesome pursuit of victory. Similarly, many players are fine with completely fabricating an injury in order to leave the field on a stretcher which, of course, takes at least five minutes to be assembled, transported and loaded with said individual.
Quite incredibly, all of this is now totally acceptable in football. How? I have no idea.
What I do know, however, is that things must change. We can't go on watching this septic, petulant charade of strategy. We can't go on paying for 90 minutes of entertainment, only to get 55.1. We can't go on ignoring the problems which are so visible.
Of course, I'd love to eliminate the corporate structures which so influence the football environment and, by extension, this accompanying cynicism, but instinct tells me it's too late for that. In most parts, the soul of this game has long been lost, drowned in an ocean of big business and forced beautification.
In the mainstream, we have little option but to adapt the current model, no matter how unrecognisable it has become. Accordingly, I believe that two rules must be brought into effect to redress the balance and improve the honour and spirit of football.
Firstly, we should reduce the number of permissible substitutions per game to two, in order to cut down on managers deploying them strategically to waste time. Nowadays, we're routinely told that modern footballers are fitter than at any stage in human history. So, why do we need three substitutions per game?
Finally, football should seriously consider introducing an independent time-keeper. To an outside viewer, the way football legislates time during a match must look decidedly comical. No matter what transpires, the clock never stops! Even if a player is injured, a referee falls over, or a streaker leaps from the grandstand to interrupt play, time marches on unabated. Sure, the fourth official supposedly adds the collective time for stoppages and displays it on his large neon board but, as has been demonstrated on numerous occasions during this tournament, that is at best an informed estimation. We expect one guy to keep abreast of how long a game has spent dormant, all whilst deflecting abuse from each dugout, singing into his weird headset microphone, and generally trying not to be killed? Please, be serious.
We need an independent time-keeper who stops the clock every time the ball goes out of play. We need to limit the number of substitutions so managers cannot abuse the system. We need to get real. Perhaps, if we tackle these problems rather than burying our heads in the sand, these multi-million pound players will actually do a full days work, rather than half.
Just a suggestion.