Imagine a heated Cardinals/Brewers game in the bottom of the ninth inning at Miller Park. The Cardinals have a one run lead. Trevor Rosenthal is on the mound. There are two outs and probably at least one runner on base, given Rosenthal’s recent tightrope act. After six tense pitches, Rosenthal finally pushes a 98 mph fastball past Ryan Braun for the strikeout. The crowd goes silent, but before the Cardinals can celebrate the win over their division rivals, the home plate umpire stands up and raises a finger to the sky, indicating that the game will go on for one more inning. With three more outs, and now Seth Maness or a tired Trevor Rosenthal, the Brewers come back to with the game in the bottom of the tenth even though the Cardinals were leading at the end of the ninth.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Like a dystopian nightmare or the fever dream of a power-mad C.B. Bucknor. But something like that happens at the end of both halves of a soccer match. See, time doesn’t stop in soccer. It’s not like basketball, where points and fouls and out-of-bounds halts the game. Or like American football, where some things pause the clock (incomplete pass, touchdown) and others don’t (ball carrier tackled within the field of play). In soccer, the clock keeps ticking away. Then, at the end of each half the referee adds a number of minutes that he believes represents the time lost to events that paused the flow of the game.
As anyone who watched the US team in the World Cup can tell you, the decision about how much time to add to the half is where the system starts to break down for someone who isn’t regularly exposed to it. In the US/Portugal game, the second half of the game ended with the US leading by 2-1 and the referees added five minutes to the half–just long enough to allow Portugal to tie the game and prevent the United States from automatically advancing to the knockout round. And in the latest US/Belgium game, one a single minute was added at the end of extra time, which didn’t give a surging U.S. much of a chance to put together one last attack to tie. Naturally, US fans who aren’t accustomed to this method of timekeeping were furious about both decisions. It seemed arbitrary and, well, it is.