On Thursday 15 June 2017, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) launched the ‘Play Fair’ initiative which aims to, in partnership with FIFA, ‘expand the football debate with a ‘Play Fair!’ strategy which complements and enhances FIFA’s ‘fair play’ programme so that ideas to develop the game through its Laws reflect “what football wants”’. IFAB, made up of the four British football associations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and FIFA (representing the other 207 national associations), has a mission to ‘serve the world of football as the independent guardian of the Laws of the Game’ and, importantly, is the ‘only body authorised to decide and agree changes to the Laws of the Game’.

Since the release of Play Fair! a number of media reports have suggested that IFAB are considering a radical overhaul of the footballing product including reducing the length of a match from 90 minutes to 60 minutes (see here, here and here). So what exactly have IFAB proposed? And is this really the end of 45 minute halves?

Play Fair! sets out that IFAB has been ‘emboldened’ by the football community’s ‘positive reaction’ to its 2016 decision to approve video assistant referees. Accordingly, IFAB’s strategy for 2017-2022 is to consider potential changes to ‘three crucial areas which affect football at every level and in every part of the world’:

  1. Improving player behaviour and increasing respect
  2. Increasing playing time
  3. Increasing fairness and attractiveness

IFAB goes on to state that each proposal considers three possible levels of change and implementation:

  • No Law change needed (the proposal could be implemented immediately)
  • Ready for testing/experiments
  • For discussion

This blog post will focus only on the second proposal: increasing playing time (EPT). In this respect, IFAB states that ‘[m]any people are very frustrated that a typical 90-minute match has fewer than 60 minutes of effective (actual) playing time (EPT) i.e. when the ball is in play. The Play Fair! strategy proposes measures to reduce time-wasting and ‘speed up’ the game’.

As against the changes to EPT, the levels of change and implementation that IFAB are proposing are, in summary, as follows:

No Law change needed

  1. Stricter calculation of additional time – referees should be required to be much stricter in calculating additional time by stopping their watch each stage active play breaks down e.g. at a penalty kick: from the penalty award until the kick has been taken.
  2. Goalkeeper holding the ball – referee to enforce the 6 second Law strictly.

Ready for testing/experiments

  • Substitutes – require substitutes to exit the field of play at the nearest boundary line (subject to any security issues) as opposed to at the halfway line as ‘much time is ‘lost’ – often deliberately – by a player who is being substituted slowly walking towards the halfway line’.

For Discussion

  1. Effective playing time (clock stops every time the ball is out of play) – either:
    1. In the last 5 minutes of the first half/last 10 minutes of the second half (and the same during extra time); or
    2. For the whole game – ‘this would involve determining that a match would consist of two periods of (for example) 30 minutes EPT. Such a radical change would not only mean that there wold be less point in players wasting time but would also mean that in a competition every club would play exactly the same amount of EPT.
  2. Stadium clocks – connected to the referees watch that allow spectators to clearly see the EPT;
  3. ‘Self-passing’ at a free kick, corner kick and goal kick – a reversion back to the 1863 Laws of the Game that allowed the fouled player to continue dribbling;
  4. Moving the ball at goal kick – remove the requirement for the ball to be stationary; and
  5. Position of the goal kick – require that it is kicked from the same side of the goal area that the ball left the field of play to ‘stop time wasting’.

It is clear that, contrary to certain reports in the popular press, IFAB’s focus is on increasing the amount of actual playing time and not on decreasing the overall time for a match as some of the popular press reports suggest. There are clear benefits to the game in doing so including delivering a purer and higher quality sporting product to offer to market together with creating more peaks in intense periods of play that lead to heightened spectator interest and engagement. This author acknowledges that the first discussion point has attracted the majority of the press commentary owing to its reference to a reduced EPT of 60 minutes. To this author’s mind there is no guarantee that this proposal, without more, the overall match duration would be any shorter: the stopping of the referee’s watch when the ball goes out of play does not mean that the spectators do not continue to sit in the stands/on their couches watching ‘dead time’. However, as a person more suited to courts and points than pitches and goals, this author will finish by saying that in an increasingly saturated sports market and with any number of sports vying for greater TV and digital coverage, it is good to see one of the leading commercial sports take time to evaluate their offering and see where improvements can be made, for the good of the spectators and the game.