For U.S. sports fans used to seeing coaches challenge the officials’ calls, nothing seems stranger than letting World Cup soccer referees decide something as basic as the duration of the game. How can a sport be legitimate if you don’t even know how long a match will last?
A soccer game has 90 minutes of scheduled time, plus allowed time — a couple of extra minutes, added at the referees’ discretion, to make up for wasted time during the game.
This rule left American viewers frustrated during the U.S.-Portugal match last week, when Portugal tied the score with a goal more than four minutes after the game was supposed to end — and less than a minute before the final whistle. Had officials added only four minutes, the United States would have won.
The sport’s governing body, FIFA, says the added-time rule dates back to at least 1913. Until 18 years ago, the process was even more exciting — OK, secretive — because only the referee knew how much extra time was to be added.
Jarring as such discretion may seem to Americans who focus on soccer only during World Cup years, it’s part of the drama for fans elsewhere in the world — where passions for the sport known as “futbol” are limitless. Subjectivity has always been the 23rd player on the futbol field. Some innovations to eliminate human error have been introduced: high-speed cameras to track the ball at the goal line, for example. But on-field decisions of the refs are final.
Allowance for time lost is partially determined by an official who keeps track of dead time due to substitutions, player injuries, foul calls, etc. He then advises the main referee, who ultimately decides how many minutes to add.
U.S. sports aim for greater precision. Anything that can be measured is obsessively chronicled, creating whole new fields of study (sabermetrics, anyone?). Due process is observed: In recent years, pro football and baseball have been expanding the use of instant replay and giving teams more leeway to challenge iffy calls.
But too much emphasis on technology and process comes at the expense of gut, emotion and heart. Futbol brings all three out on the field. You may not trust the referee, but that’s how the soccer ball bounces.
Futbol values are gaining a new foothold in the United States. At least 25 million U.S. viewers watched the U.S.-Portugal game, 10 million more than the average World Series game last fall. I would argue that the human element — the urge to whistle in protest at the referee, even while accepting the finality of his decision — explains the sport’s popularity.
Futbol is neither homogenized nor perfect, and that is what keeps so much of the world glued to the TV set.
Marcela Garcela is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe.