The curtain came down on the international calendar of 2017 South American club football with the second leg of the final of the Europa League equivalent, the Copa Sudamericana.
Independiente of Argentina held off Flamengo of Brazil to win 3-2 on aggregate, winning the home leg 2-1 before holding their rivals to a 1-1 draw in the famous Maracana stadium.
At the end of regulation time, an extra three minutes were added on by Wilmar Roldan, the experienced Colombian referee. Had he genuinely compensated for wasted time, the teams would still have been out there the following morning.
Time wasting can be a massive problem in South American football, blighting showpiece occasions. When the home side are ahead, it is common for the ball-boys to disappear towards the end of the game – every time the ball goes out of play, it can take thirty seconds rather than five to restart the action.
And another trend which is getting worse by the year is the systematic use of the goalkeeper to waste time. It could well be that this has been pioneered by the experience of playing at altitude – Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Colombia all have stadiums high above sea level, where the rarified air makes it hard for unacclimatised visitors to breathe normally. Their absolute priority is to take the heat out of the game, and to run as little as possible. Every pause is a godsend. It has become normal, then, for the away team goalkeeper to pick up a yellow card for persistent time wasting – usually by taking an eternity over every goal kick.
The growing trend is for the keeper to go to ground and feign injury. Here, of course, the goalkeeper has special privileges. Any other player can be carted off the pitch for treatment while the game goes on. An injury to the keeper, real or faked, requires a pause in play. And there is not the slightest doubt that this special privilege is being abused, and widely so. I recently recall a goalkeeper receiving treatment because he claimed to be suffering from cramp. This is clearly an absurd, extreme case. In the normal way of things there is no need for a keeper to strain credibility in this way; there are usually opportunities to feign injury either in contact with a player when coming out for the ball, or by falling awkwardly trying to make a save.
In the Flamengo-Independiente game, visiting keeper Martin Campana, a Uruguayan international, did it once too often and picked up a yellow card. But that is a price he is more than willing to pay – especially if, as in this case, the referee only added on three minutes when he could easily have added twelve.
But it is not just a case of making up for lost time. Even if the referee had allowed for fifteen extra minutes, the goalkeeper’s time wasting would still have served a purpose. Football is about rhythm, and the constant stoppages disrupt the flow of the attacking team and make it easier for the defending side to regroup.
For this reason, the argument that the problem is solved merely by adding on time is false. Time can be recuperated, but not rhythm. And a decree that exact time is to be played could have a nasty side effect – in effect it would legitimise the disruption of the game’s flow.
Perhaps the best solution is already available to the referee – the use of the yellow card. At present goalkeepers are able to push time wasting past any acceptable limit safe in the knowledge that their punishment will be restricted to a single yellow card – and that they are very unlikely to receive a second one. This could change. Less tolerance could be shown by referees. But this is the kind of approach that requires official backing and prior warning.
Still, we are left with the question of goalkeepers feigning injury. In this case it is harder to place too much responsibility onto the referee. His first priority is to protect the safety of the players, and goalkeeper is a position where contact injuries can occur. It is entirely understandable for the referee to err on the side of caution and allow for treatment. But, as we have seen, this can so easily be abused.
In my wilder moments, I have even contemplated the presence of a substitute keeper, waiting behind the goal, ready to take the field for short periods to keep the game going while the first choice is receiving treatment. It is a crazy idea – one that effectively would legitimise attempts to injure the opposing goalkeeper – but South American football has been providing me with plenty of pauses in the play where I can dwell on such schemes.