Why 90 minutes isn’t really 90 minutes: the unique math of soccer

Coaches and players often preach the need to play for the full 90 minutes in a soccer game. It makes sense: Soccer matches are 90 minutes long by definition. The clock starts from the opening whistle, takes a break for halftime and winds all the way through to its conclusion.

The problem is that coaches and players are wrong. A soccer games rarely lasts just 90 minutes. Unlike most other major sports, there is no clock on a scoreboard that must be obeyed, and no buzzer that goes off to signal the end. Time, is in fact, just a suggestion to the man in the middle.

It is a concept peculiar to soccer. The referee is afforded complete discretion to maintain the clock on the field as part of the Laws of the Game. Each half is 45 minutes long, but the referee can supplement those allotted periods to compensate for stoppages during the game.

The referee’s watch stands as the final word on the duration of the match. Each referee can add time as desired or as needed. There are guidelines — goals and substitutions usually bump stoppage time up by 30 seconds each, for example — to follow, but the referees operates as the sole arbiter.

And that was put into stark relief during the United States men’s national team’s painful 2-2 draw with Portugal on Sunday. The clock hit 90 and stopped in the stadium — but the match kept on going after the referee added five minutes to compensate for injuries and time lost during the second half. And then, Portugal’s Silvestre Varela broke American hearts four and a half minutes later.

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This painful phenomenon — a heartbreaking twist of fate well after the apparent conclusion of the game — isn’t novel or unusual in soccer.

Greece advanced to the Round of 16 on Tuesday after Georgios Samaras drew and converted a penalty kick to defeat Cote d’ivoire 2-1 — once the referee tacked on some additional time. Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos equalized in the third minute of stoppage time to send the UEFA Champions League final into extra time. Manchester United won the UEFA Champions League 15 years ago by scoring twice after full time. In fact, United scored so often during those periods that the term "Fergie Time" was coined as both a nod to longtime manager Sir Alex Ferguson and a tribute to his side’s penchant for striking after the clock hit 90.

Sometimes, the man or woman in the middle blows the whistle at the assigned end to the game. It doesn’t happen often though. Soccer is a game filled with small stoppages. Most of the time, those interruptions warrant additional time. No other timed sport does this — not hockey, not football, and certainly not basketball. The idea that game time isn’t reflected on a clock visible to all fans? It’s almost un-American.

It also makes the game subject to manipulation. Players often try to influence the clock; winning teams waste time by delaying restarts and feigning injuries; losing teams point out the machinations to the referee in a bid to increase their time. Coaches chirp at the fourth official after he notifies the stadium of the amount of added time and implore him to either increase it or decrease it according to the situation.

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This fly-by-night structure contradicts other major sports, but it is ingrained in the fabric of the game. There are no assigned, in-game stoppages like basketball or football where the clock halts, no complete ignorance of time like in baseball. This approach provides a way to compensate for those moments when the ball is out of play for an unreasonable amount of time or the game is halted for one reason or another. It ensures — at least from a theoretical perspective — that the assigned duration of the game actually coincides with the game itself.

All of those factors may explain why soccer uses stoppage time, but it does not relieve the angst and frustration created by its existence. The application varies from game to game and referee to referee. Similar stoppages in two different matches could produce an extra two minutes on one match and perhaps 30 seconds in another. And the referee can end the game before the posted time or extend it beyond the supplemental period if required.

The uncertainty makes one thing painfully clear, though: Coaches and players cannot plan for just 90 minutes. It isn’t easy. It isn’t necessarily fair. But it is how soccer works and it is how the participants must proceed in order to secure the results they desire.