© 1998 jointly in the following individuals: Jim Geissman, David Graham, Jim MacQueen, Connie Matthies, Jim Meinhold, Chris Mohr, Gary Rue, Ken Smith, Dave Teetz, Ron Tremper, who are together known pseudonymously as the SOCCER-COACH-L LOTG COLLECTIVE

Law 7 - Timekeeping and Duration of the Game

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Leave your expectations from other sports behind: soccer timekeeping is different.

  1. Game structure: A soccer game consists of two halves that must be of equal length in their prescribed duration, with a required timeout for halftime in between. In adult soccer, the prescribed duration is 45 minutes. Local organizations can prescribe shorter, though still equal-length halves (and therefore, games) for youth and adult recreational games.

  2. Center referee as official timekeeper: The center referee acts as official timekeeper, and has flexible discretion that is perhaps unique in team sports to determine and extend the amount of official time remaining in the game, as will be explored in more detail below.

  3. Continuous, nonstop clock: The official clock starts at 0:00 and runs upward continuously except at halftime, starting in the second half where it left off at the end of the first, stopping again only at the end of the game. The following important rules are outgrowths from the nonstop nature of the clock:

    1. No rule exists allowing clock to be stopped: The rules give no authorization for the referee to ever stop the official clock from running, except for halftime.
    2. No timeouts (none!): Neither players nor coaches have any right to call a timeout, nor is the referee authorized to recognize or call timeout on his or her own initiative.
    3. Fouls or ball out of play: The clock does not stop for any stoppage in active play, whether it be for a player foul or to retrieve and place a ball that has gone out back into play.

  4. Referee's discretion to add time to game: Instead of stopping the clock, the referee is authorized to add extra time to each half to compensate for time lost through:

    1. attending to injuries on the field;
    2. completing player substitutions;
    3. delays in putting the ball back into active play after it goes out, whether through deliberate time-wasting tactics, or accidental causes like having to retrieve the game ball when it goes out and rolls down a slope into dense brush;
    4. any other cause for interruption to active play the referee deems sufficient.

    The amount, if any, of time to add is at the discretion of the referee, as s/he deems appropriate. The exact language of LOTG 7 would seem to indicate that it is mandatory for the referee to extend this discretion for appropriate causes, but in practice the referee's decision to not extend, or very restrictively extend time is not truly subject to challenge except maybe in rare instances (perhaps, such as adding no time when a severe injury stops play for 30 minutes). Most referees do not add time for ordinary momentary delays, such as a few efficiently accomplished substitutions or a few stray balls that must be chased, but rather only when one particular delay or the cumulative effect of several delays becomes substantial. Although the prescribed length of the halves must be equal (and must be played out to at least this length), each half (and the game) may run longer than the prescribed amount due to this discretionary power to add time.

  5. No one but the ref really knows what time it is: In practice the only official clock is usually the stopwatch in the referee's hand or a digital watch on their wrist (called "keeping time on the field"), and there is no particular requirement that the referee inform teams how much time remains. Even if a publicly visible scoreboard clock is available, this at best only tracks official time elapsed, and not official time remaining, because of the discretionary power of the referee to add time to compensate for time lost through delays.

  6. Game's only over when the ref says it is: Remarkably, the rules do not require the referee to inform anyone, not even the assistant referees, how much, if any time s/he intends to add to the end of the game, and no one but the referee knows when time will run out and s/he will end of the game with the distinctive triple signature of the whistle, tweet-tweet-tweeeeet!

  7. Halftime break is mandatory: The players have a mandatory right to a halftime break, which neither the referee nor coaches may waive, of not longer than 15 minutes. The preset rules of the particular competition can stipulate a shorter halftime break, which can only be altered with the consent of the referee.

  8. Shortening the game: Provided both teams and the referee mutually agree before the game starts, both halves may be shortened by equal (never uneven) stipulated amounts. This might be done, e.g. if an afternoon game without lights might extend at full length until after dark.

  9. Effect of prematurely ending the game: A game which is terminated prematurely by the referee for any reason, such as a persistent thunderstorm, the field becoming waterlogged by rain, or excessive spectator interference, is considered abandoned and is a nullity unless the preset rules for that particular competition provide that the score at the time of stoppage stands. Otherwise, a game ended prematurely must be replayed in its entirety, regardless of what was the score or the cause for its premature end.

  10. Temporarily suspending game: The referee may temporarily suspend a game instead of terminating it. A game that is temporarily stopped e.g. to try to wait out a passing storm is not necessarily abandoned after any specific amount of time, but rather becomes so by the referee's surrender of the possibility of waiting it out.

  11. If the first two halves end in a tie: Soccer games are allowed to end with a tie score. However, the preset rules for a particular competition may provide that ties be resolved through using either of the following, or even both ( (a), followed by (b) if the tie still persists):

    1. a mini-game of two overtime periods of equal prescribed length (usually stipulated much shorter than regular halves) is played in its entirety, and not as sudden death;
    2. a contest of alternating penalty kicks is held (see FAQ supplement)
    3. in some competitions, sudden victory ("golden goal") overtime is played. NOTE: this means of breaking ties has been tried on an experimental basis in FIFA competitions, but is not yet officially sanctioned by the Laws.

  12. If time expires before penalty shot can be taken: If a referee calls a foul before time expires for which the referee must award a penalty shot (and not merely a free kick) and the time remaining in the (half or) game then expires before the penalty shot can be taken, the (half or) game cannot end until the penalty shot has been taken and completed. In such time-expired penalty kicks, the attacking team only gets the one touch of the penalty kick itself, even if the shot rebounds off the goalkeeper back into the field, so only the kicker and the goalkeeper participate. The (half or) game is over when either the ball goes out of play or its momentum is spent, having either scored a goal or not.

Commentary: Coaching Points

  1. Track time mainly with your own stopwatch, not by asking the referee: Coaches should have a stopwatch to independently track passage of time during a game, and should only infrequently ask the referee about time, mainly to check that they are reasonably in sync with the referee. Occasional requests about time remaining from players and on-top of it coaches are expected by refs, but too-frequent requests can become pestering and make the coach appear to refs as ill prepared and disorganized. Asking once in the middle of the half and once with about two or three minutes to go is about right.

  2. Referee's response to "how much time" may be approximate and cryptic: Soccer referees are often inclined to give only approximate answers to questions about how much time is remaining, so 'three minutes' may mean + or - to the nearest 30 seconds. Also, such a question may be answered not with how much time remains, but rather with how much time has elapsed. This reflects that referees are accustomed to discretionary latitude in deciding when the exact appropriate moment has arrived to end a half or game and how much extra time will be extended for delays, and these types of answers tend to help preserve that discretion.

  3. Determining how much "additional" time the referee intends to allow: Referees are often inclined to play their cards close to the chest about letting anyone know just how much additional time past the prescribed time they intend to allow. This tends to discourage a team that is ahead in a close game from being falsely encouraged, by any seeming commitment by the ref to end the game at a certain time, to incrementally step up delaying tactics. There is no requirement in the rules that referees disclose or commit their intentions to coaches, players or anyone about discretionary additional time, so this matter cannot be forced upon a recalcitrant referee. See questions 7.04 and 7.05, suggesting productive ways and moments to ask referees about their intentions for adding extra time.

  4. Ref may be under practical constraints against extending time; have extra game balls approved: If your game is part of a succession of consecutive games scheduled on a particular field on a particular day, the practical ability of the referee to add discretionary time may be constrained, particularly if there are only short breaks scheduled between games or they are running behind schedule. You can minimize a significant source of time leakage by seeking the referee's approval, before the game, for multiple (specific) game balls to be used, so that a new ball may be readily substituted rather than having a player chase the old one down an embankment, across an adjacent road, or into the woods. Most referees who are receptive to this will likely be agreeable to having one or preferably both teams designate one or more non-players to both have the extra balls immediately ready and to act as ball-chasers for long strays. To the extent this works out, referees are more likely to take the initiative to discourage players from running off after strayed balls and delaying the game, accidentally or deliberately.

  5. Make sure your ref knows how long halves last for your age group before the game starts: This sounds at first silly, but referees may often do successive games for different age groups and be mixed-up about exactly which particular age group is on the field or what the proper time length is for that age group. So, politely ask your ref before the game to make sure what length halves s/he is contemplating, and gently suggest a correction if you get the wrong answer. This prevents surprises by way of unintentionally abbreviated or extended halves when you and your players expect something different.

Questions on Law 7

7.01 Isn't this much discretion by the referee to extend the game arbitrary and unfair? Why hasn't this part of the rules changed more in line with other sports?

The referee timekeeping practices are deeply seated traditions in soccer that many traditionalist aficionados of the game actually love, cherishing the heightened suspense it engenders in close games. Others detest them as arbitrary, unfair relics badly in need of rules changes. Fortunately, most soccer referees enjoy deserved respect for fair timekeeping and exercise of this discretion. In practice usually the 'additional time' usually involves no more than two or three extra minutes, or less.

7.02 I have been to some college and high-school soccer games where they kept time on an official scoreboard clock, and stopped it for time-outs or when players were injured, and the game ended right on the 90th minute with the scoreboard horn, not the referee's whistle. Doesn't this contradict what you've told me about soccer timekeeping?

The rules described herein are based on FIFA rules, which are used in most international, amateur, and youth soccer competitions, other than NCAA , various high school associations, and a few anomalous local amateur soccer leagues. The rules of these other bodies track FIFA rules in a majority of respects, but may differ on details like timekeeping. There is nothing anomalous to FIFA rules by using a scoreboard clock rather than a handheld stopwatch, so long as the clock runs continuously and it is the referee who decides how much discretionary time to add and when it is the appropriate time to end the game. It's possible that there may be a long-term trend favoring eventual rules changes toward using officially stoppable public scoreboard clock but, even if so, the economics of youth and amateur soccer in most places may help provide strong inertia for existing, traditional timekeeping rules for quite awhile.

7.03 Despite what you said about the clock never stopping in soccer, I saw the referee in my last game discreetly turning off and on their stopwatch whenever the ball rolled out down a slope into a patch of woods at the field, and again when they stopped play for an injured player. Doesn't this contradict how they are supposed to do it?

Purists will cringe but many referees for amateur soccer in fact choose to do this in preference to formally 'adding' time in the manner the rules contemplate, figuring the net effect to be the same as adding additional time to a running clock, and easier to keep up with. This is not something to worry much about, and more likely reflects conscientiousness than ignorance on the part of the referee. The only problem is that if they stop their watch too often too early for too small causes in retrospect, they may be stuck with the dilemma of whether to call the game a bit 'early' by their watch.

7.04 How might a coach most productively probe the referee's thinking about whether they may intend to extend additional time past the prescribed length of the game?

You can sometimes get good information simply by asking, but it may be best to pick your moments well:

  1. Wait for some sort of clear break to the normal flow of the game, most optimally at least midway along in the second half, such as a goalkeeper change by the other team or the third time a ball has rolled down an embankment and has to be chased. Simply ask: 'ref, are you considering adding time for this ?' Unless the referee's answer hints a willingness to tell more, it might be wise to refrain from adding 'how much?'
  2. When there are perhaps two or three minutes left in the prescribed length of the game (according to the coach's stopwatch), that is a good time to to ask politely: 'ref, please how much time is left and will you be adding any?' They'll tell you what they'll tell you ;=), and accept what you get (or don't) gracefully. The last thing you want to do is to inadvertently irritate the ref while attempting to relieve your suspense.

7.05 The other team appears to be deliberately wasting time putting the ball back into play, and we're behind one goal in the last few minutes of the game. What can I do to help insure that the referee more likely recognizes responds to what's going on by adding time?

Your best counter-tactic is choose some appropriate opportunity when your opponent is actively engaging in obvious delay in putting the ball back in play is to politely ask the referee whether time is being added. A common throw-in delay tactic you will likely encounter which can present you a good opportunity to do so goes as follows. A first player unspeedily retries the ball and then holds it for several seconds along the touch line, as if contemplating a suitable target to throw it in to. Following this, the first player then hands the ball to a second player who has slowly trotted over to the touch line, to then actually make the throw. Most refs have seen this ploy before and recognize it for what it is, so the moment when the first player hands the ball to the second player is a good one to politely ask: 'ref, would you consider adding extra time?' It's unwise to encumber your polite request with extraneous barbs toward the opposing players such as the tempting but poisonous 'they should get a yellow card for that'. Many refs do not react well either to barbs against opposing players by coaches or to their requests to give opposing players yellow cards, even if the rules seemingly call for a card. Remember that you are pleading for the ref to use their discretion to intervene for you in the interest of fairness under the rules. Referees frequently adopt a shell of seeming superficially unresponsive as a defense mechanism against being ruffled by criticism or lobbying from the sidelines, even when sympathetic to your request. It's imperative to not alienate the referee, so stay polite even if you feel ready to explode inside.

7.06 We're behind one goal in the last few minutes of the game. The other team is deliberately burning time with the following tactics; which of these constitute the types of delay for which it is appropriate for the referee to add discretionary time under the rules?

  1. deliberately kicking balls out of touch with great force, necessitating lengthy retrieval of the only readily available game ball;
  2. shielding the ball near a touch line or corner with their body and making no attempt to advance the ball from such position;
  3. kicking long clears to empty space;
  4. playing keep-away with no attempt to score.

Only (a) above truly constitutes the type of time loss through delay which the rules authorize the referee to compensate for with additional time. The rest are considered legitimate forms of active play, in the course of which the pursuing team could, with skill and effort, regain possession. However, for (b) (shielding) to be legitimate, the player must keep the ball within playing distance (about two or three steps) while shielding, or else this would constitute illegal obstruction (impeding) for which the other team should be awarded an indirect free kick.

7.07 A late afternoon game was begun under the assumption that daylight would last long enough to complete a normal-length game. The first half lasted a normal, prescribed length, but during halftime thick clouds moved in.

7.07.01: We are behind 3-0 and the referee wants us to be agreeable to playing a shortened second half. Can s/he make us agree to this?

No, because the rules require the halves to be of equal prescribed length. Before too joyously contemplating the referee terminating (abandoning) the game and rendering it a nullity that must be replayed entirely from 0-0, you had better check your league's or tournament's rules for letting partial results stand or when games can be merely suspended and later resumed (e.g. tomorrow morning).

7.07.02 We are ahead 3-0 midway through the second half and the referee calls the game fifteen minutes early on account of darkness and the threat of lightening approaching the area. Do we win anyway?

Although the default rule is that any game prematurely terminated is an abandoned nullity (you don't get the official win), you should check your league's or tournament's preexisting rules for when the results of a partial game officially stand, since these can modify the default rule on the consequences of abandoned games.

7.08 The referee blew the halftime whistle mistakenly at the wrong time, under an incorrect assumption about how long the prescribed length of halves should be for our age group teams.

7.08.1 The first half was supposed to last 35 minutes for U-13s, but the referee ended it after only 30 minutes. Now the ref wants to make it up by making the second half 40 minutes long. Is this proper?

Not really, s/he should really bring the teams back on the field to finish the half rather than illegally unbalance the halves and risk subjecting players to needless late second-half fatigue. However, it's not worth making much of a stink if the referee insists on doing this the wrong way, unless there's some truly large disadvantage to your team in doing so. Even then, the referee can effectively accomplish the same thing by adding discretionary time, It may only be in uncommon situations that you may be able to persuade league or tournament authorities you were prejudiced enough by such a first-half timekeeping error to overturn the outcome of your game because the first half was a bit short, even though it was improper. And, the ref may be irked with you the second half.

7.08.2 The first half was supposed to last 35 minutes for U-13s, but the referee ended it after 40 minutes, and now proposes to end the second half after only 30 minutes (or does so anyway) to make up for the mistakenly long length of the first half. Is this proper?

NO! This is highly improper, and you have legitimate reason to appeal to league or tournament authorities if you're behind by one goal in a game that matters. Remember that you will win nothing on the field by persisting in arguing with a stubborn referee who refuses to change his or her mind, and they may warn or throw you out for dissent. So, your first priority is to politely win an admission that they ended the game after only a 30 minute second-half, so you are not arguing against the referee as a judge of fact (e.g. they claim it was 35 when you know it was 30), because you can't win the latter argument.

7.09 What happens if a player kicks a shot before time expires, but the ball goes across the goal line for a goal only after time expires? Does the goal count?

Soccer is unlike basketball, where a shot that leaves the shooter's hand before time expires is considered good even if it goes in after time expires. In soccer the ball is dead the moment time expires (except for penalty shots), no matter that it was on its way toward an inevitable goal from the shot but had not yet traveled across the goal line when the referee blew the final whistle. However, in practice this rarely happens, in part because very few referees (especially the good ones) will blow the final whistle while an imminent scoring opportunity is underway. They can always find justification in some earlier delay to add discretionary time. Instead they will wait until just after the opportunity dissipates with no goal to blow the final whistle. If a goal is made on the play, most referees will wait until after the ensuing kick-off and at least several more seconds have gone by to blow the final whistle ending the game. Referees tend to show a natural preference for waiting for a suitable moment of inconclusive, non-goal threatening play to end a game to avoid any unnecessary appearance of unfairness in when they choose to blow the final whistle. Note, however by contrast that in NCAA play, which authorizes using an official, stoppable clock in lieu of time extension, time may in fact run out in mid-shot.

7.10 With but a few seconds remaining in the first half, my player was fouled hard just outside the penalty area in our attacking half of the field, and awarded a direct free kick. Does my team get to take the free kick because of the hard foul, even if time would normally expire before they can take it?

No, time is not automatically extended in a half or for the game just because of a hard foul or to take a direct free kick. However, in practice if the foul is egregious and occurs close enough to the opponent's goal that the resulting free kick constitutes a good scoring opportunity for the team awarded the kick, many referees may use their discretion to add enough time for at least the kick itself, and perhaps some brief follow-up attack. Regardless of whether they decide to extend time for the offended team to take the free kick, the referee may still decide to give the offending player a yellow card if that is appropriate.

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Law 7

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Updated February 26, 1998