If you know anything about soccer and were asked how long a game is, you’d give the simple answer of '90 minutes’ and move swiftly on. After all, according to Law 7 of the rules of soccer, it should consist of two halves of 45 minutes, and simple arithmetic tells us 2 times 45 is 90.
But it isn't quite as simple as that, because while in a perfect scenario a game of soccer would last 90 minutes, there are many reasons why it normally doesn't, and we are about to explain to you why.
Why 90 Minutes?
The honest answer to that question is that nobody is quite sure, and to truly find out we'd have to travel back in time to 1866 in England and ask those who were arranging a soccer match between London and Sheffield, why they chose that duration. Whatever it was, that is how long they agreed to play for, and ever since that game, 90 minutes has been the standard length of a soccer match.
There are levels of soccer, such as games where children or youths play, where the length of the game is reduced to a time more suited to their young age, but for most adult games, be they professional or amateur, the 90-minute duration is normally used.
Referee = Judge, Jury and Timekeeper
The laws of soccer have as their basis the fact that the referee is the sole arbiter of the match. Although he may have assistants running each sideline, and in some cases behind each goal, ultimately it is the referee who is in charge and makes all the important decisions. These include awarding fouls or disciplining players with yellow or red cards, and it is the referee who is responsible for keeping time.
This last aspect of a soccer referee's role differs from other ball sports like American football, basketball, and rugby union, where referees and umpires deal with on-field activities, but the timing of matches is controlled by timekeepers who start and stop the game clock as per the rules.
With soccer, this does not happen, so while they are busy watching for bad tackles and handballs, soccer referees also have to check their stopwatch for when each half is due to end and take account of any stoppages that lead to added time, which we'll discuss in the next section.
Although 45 minutes is the regulation time that one half of a soccer match should last for, it is extremely rare for that to be the case, especially with respect to the second half. The reason for this is stoppage time, which is still often referred to as injury time.
It's called injury by many because it's the time which a referee adds to the end of 45-minute half to take account of the length of time a player received treatment from a physiotherapist or doctor following an injury on the field. The referee is expected to record how long it took and add that to end of the half.
You will often see a referee encourage a player to leave the field to receive treatment if they are able to do so, in order that the amount of time that needs to be added is minimized. In reality, this is not enforced, often because the player simply sits or lies down on the field, and secondly, the referee is not medically qualified to make any decision about a player's injury, and whether or not they are able to walk off the field without risking aggravating that injury.
Other Reasons for Stoppage Time
The reason the extra minutes that are added by a referee to the end of a half has changed from 'injury' time to 'stoppage' time is because there are now a number of other reasons why they are expected to add time on. These are other stoppages that can occur during a game with some having a set length of time to be added, and others at the discretion of the referee.
Most common amongst these stoppages is the time it takes for a substitution to take place. To this day players on a winning team being substituted tend not to run off the field but instead walk at a casual pace. To take account of this, referees are generally expected to add at least 30 seconds to any half for each substitution. As teams tend to make substitutions in the second half, this is why we said the second half is almost certainly guaranteed to be more than 45 minutes.
Other reasons a referee will add time is when players deliberately waste time, such as taking too long over goal kicks or throw-ins. Again, this tends to happen late on in matches where one team is trying to protect a one-goal lead. Most players see the sanction of a yellow card for time wasting to be a small price to pay if it helps their team win the game.
Miscellaneous stoppages that will see time added include pitch invasions by one or more fans that stop the game, repairs to equipment like the goal net, and drinks break, which are often authorized when games are being played in extremely hot weather.
Regardless of how much stoppage time they have added, if a referee awards a penalty, and the added time expires, they must allow time for the penalty kick to be taken. If it is saved and the ball comes back into the field of play, they should then blow their whistle to indicate that time is up.
The Future of Soccer Timekeeping?
A big complaint about soccer is that, even when stoppage time is added, there are unacceptable levels of time wasting and time lost when the ball is not in play. Studies show that the actual time the ball is in play is on average around 30 minutes in each half.
One proposal is that instead of the referee keeping time, a timekeeper does so, and they stop the clock whenever a stoppage occurs. Instead of 45 minutes in which the ball may or may not be in play, a half would last for 30 minutes, but the clock only runs when the ball is in play.
This would mean games would last roughly the same length of time they do today, but antics like players time wasting and fans feeling short-changed by long delays, would not have any effect as the clock would be stopped when these occur.