A Dramatic Incident at the End of a Game Shows Why Soccer Needs to Change

A Dramatic Incident at the End of a Game Shows Why Soccer Needs to Change

It is the final seconds of the NBA Finals. The clock hits 0.0 in a one-point game, but play continues for a few seconds because the Golden State Warriors are driving towards the rim.

The fight at Madison Square Garden is going the distance. The final bell goes in the 12th round, but the referee doesn’t stop Oleksandr Usyk’s advance, with the Ukrainian boxer close to a knockout.

There is one lap left in the Formula One World Championship and in a winner-takes-all situation, the race director refuses to drop the chequered flag because second-place is catching the leader. Actually, after the controversial end to the 2021 season, maybe that is not the best example.

Nevertheless, the point still stands. The circumstances above are ridiculous — every major sport has a clear ending, whether it’s an expired game clock, the final pitch, match point. They are objective, not subjective.

Football is an exception and the final moments of Real Madrid’s 2-2 draw at Valencia on Saturday night exposed its limitations.

This is what transpired.



Bellingham and other players surround the referee after the decision (Jose Hernandez/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Seven minutes of stoppage time came up on the fourth official’s board. After that, there was a two-minute delay when a penalty initially awarded against Real was overturned by the VAR. The visiting side’s hackles were up on an emotional night — winger Vinicius Junior had earlier scored two goals at a stadium where he was subject to racist abuse the previous season.

The delays meant the match continued into its 99th minute and as Luka Modric approached to take a Madrid corner, referee Jesus Gil Manzano signalled that this would be the match’s final play.

Valencia cleared — but only to the edge of the box. As Madrid winger Brahim Diaz prepared to cross the ball back in, Gil Manzano blew his whistle. Game over.

Less than a second later, Diaz delivered his cross. The referee’s whistle had not yet registered with the players awaiting it. Jude Bellingham, who has scored 16 La Liga goals this season, headed in. Wheeling away in celebration, he and Madrid thought this was the winner, another special moment in his spectacular debut season.

Gil Manzano was resolute. No goal. Bellingham rushed the referee alongside captain Dani Carvajal, Vinicius Jr, Joselu, Andriy Lunin, and Antonio Rudiger.

“It’s a f*****g goal,” Bellingham shouted at Gil Manzano — and was sent off. Speaking post-match, Carlo Ancelotti backed up his player.

“Bellingham did not insult the referee, he said in English, ‘It’s a f*****g goal’, which is what we all thought,” the Madrid manager said. “He came close to the referee, but given what had happened, that was pretty normal.”

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Madrid’s official website called it an “unprecedented refereeing decision” — but by the letter of the law, they had no case. Gil Manzano had played enough stoppage time and signalled his intention to end the game and the final whistle means the game is over. No ifs, buts, or maybes.

The anger came from one of football’s unwritten laws — that when a team is attacking, the final whistle should not be blown.

“The ball is in the air — what the f*** is that?” Bellingham appeared to say during his protestations. From rewatching, the first blast of Gil Manzano’s whistle came before the ball was delivered — with the second and third occurring with the ball in the air, but before Bellingham headed it. Only the first whistle is needed to stop the game.

Football’s rulebook is vague about exactly when a referee should blow their whistle. According to the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the sport’s lawmakers, the referee “acts as the timekeeper”, “the additional time may be increased by the referee, but not reduced”, and “the allowance for time lost is at the discretion of the referee”.

IFAB Law 5.2 adds: “The referee may not change a restart decision on realising that it is incorrect if the referee has signalled the end of the first or second half.”

This wooliness has led to a subjective system. The game has developed in such a way that the expectation is that a half should not end if one team is on the attack, but without this being codified, referees can interpret this differently — if they recognise it at all.

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What constitutes being on the attack? Being about to shoot or cross? What if there is a transition opportunity? What if a player has a clear run at goal from behind halfway? Is 60 seconds of patient build-up from around the edge of the box, a la Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, one ongoing attack?

Every other element of football is tightly regulated. IFAB’s Laws of the Game is a 230-page-long document. Six of those pages, including diagrams, are devoted to what constitutes handball. Why does one of its most important elements — when a game is over — scarcely merit a mention?

After posting about this on X, formerly Twitter, some replied to say the law was clear — the game is over when the whistle blows. Why the widespread anger then? Others responded by saying this was only an issue because it happened to Bellingham and Real Madrid — but this is not the first time it has happened. It was only a matter of time before it occurred again in a high-stakes, high-profile match.

Going right back to the 1978 World Cup, Welsh referee Clive Thomas blew for full time with a Brazil corner in the air during a group stage match against Sweden — disallowing a Zico header that would have given Brazil a 2-1 win. The decision meant they only finished second in their group, placing them in a harder pool in the second round, from which they failed to qualify for the final.

In January 2021, Paul Tierney blew for half-time a handful of seconds before the allotted one minute of stoppage time was up. Liverpool, playing Manchester United in a crucial Premier League match, had the ball behind halfway, but Sadio Mane appeared to be through on goal. He would not have been able to put the ball into the net before the clock struck 46 minutes.

One month later, Craig Pawson was refereeing Manchester United’s trip to West Bromwich Albion. With the score 1-1 and the clock at 47.07 after two minutes of stoppage time, United broke from their own half — with four attackers against only one West Brom defender. Pawson blew with the ball still 70 yards from the opposition goal and was surrounded by irate United players.

Most egregiously, in November 2017, Spanish second-division side Ponferradina thought they had a late winner to lift them clear of the relegation zone, but referee Alvaro Lopez Parra blew as Andy Rodriguez chipped the ball over the opposition goalkeeper.

Gim. Segoviana – Ponferradina (0-0): gol anulado a la Ponfe en la última jugada. El balón entra mientras suena el pitido final (vía @rtvcyl) pic.twitter.com/zgUlU7z9E8

— El Partidazo de COPE (@partidazocope) November 2, 2017

The laws allow for subconscious bias, the possibility of home teams or favourites being given more chances, and for inconsistency, with referees interpreting what constitutes an attack differently.

Visit refereeing forums and the same issues arise. Dozens of grassroots officials have stories of being surrounded after blowing for full time. Their decision is final, but subjective. People disagree.

“It’s less aggro, believe me, to blow at a neutral situation,” wrote one referee, explaining one controversial incident. “But it isn’t necessarily always the correct thing to do.”

It does not need to be this way.

IFAB’s annual conference took place last week in Scotland. There, football’s lawmakers discussed permanent and temporary concussion substitutes, accidental handballs, and encroachment during penalties. What else might they have discussed had full time been on the agenda?

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Football has a few challenges. Because of further stoppages after the 90th minute — injuries, substitutions, celebrations, time-wasting — referees cannot simply blow up the second that the clock hits the end of the allotted stoppage time.

If football had a system where the clock stopped when the ball was out of play, matches would swell to an unprecedented length — the typical ball-in-play time in the Premier League is roughly around 55 minutes.

Under the current system, however, teams complain if the whistle is blown while they are on the attack. Amid this indistinctness, no one is happy.

One simple tweak could help. During stoppage time, the referee could switch to a stopped-clock system and blow up exactly on the minute. For example, if a team scores after the referee has signalled there would be four minutes of stoppage time, the referee could stop time, before restarting when the ball is in play, and blow up exactly on 94.00. Professional stadiums all have clocks displaying the exact time, so players can remain aware.

It gives the law objectivity, allows for post-90th-minute stoppages and, by only being implemented in stoppage time, means games will not take over two hours to complete. It is not a complete novelty to the sport — futsal already has a designated timekeeper and a strict full-time whistle.

Bellingham’s ‘goal’ should not have stood, but the vagueness and limitations of football’s laws put referees in a difficult position. The game is already hard enough to control. This is not a case of a rule being changed — but of basic clarity being introduced.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Dan Goldfarb)



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