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Friday, 14 December, 2018

Time, temperature and the sound of a whistle all play their part

The Soccer boffin reflects on the World Cup in Russia

Lionel Messi can barely watch during a shambolic Argentina display
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The result of a football match can be influenced by things that have nothing to do with the skill of the players.

Here are three variables I noticed during the World Cup. You may see them yourself over the next 11 months anywhere from the Nations League to the Premier League.

1 The length of the match

How long does a football match last? For whatever time the ball is in play. Only when the ball is in play can goals be scored. And ball-in-play times can vary wildly.

The shortest match at the World Cup was Morocco v Iran, during which the ball was in play for 45 minutes and 46 seconds. Morocco conceded an own goal near the end and lost 1-0. They had hardly any time in which to try to equalise.

On another day they might have had an extra 23 minutes.

Read Bruce Millington's latest Thursday column

The longest match at the World Cup (ignoring any that went into extra-time) was the third-place playoff between Belgium and England, during which the ball was in play for 68 minutes and 46 seconds.

The longest match lasted for exactly 23 minutes more than the shortest match. At the previous World Cup the difference had been almost 26 minutes. The time that teams get in which to try to win can vary ridiculously.

2 The weather

A team who like to do a lot of running might not be able to if the temperature is hot. Whether a team can play the way they want to may depend on conditions.

The temperatures at World Cup games ranged between 12C and 36C. Compare games played at the four lowest temperatures (12-15C) with those played at the four highest temperatures (33-36C). The total distance covered by players at the coldest temperatures was 30 kilometres per match greater than at the hottest temperatures. That is equivalent to 75 laps of a perimeter track.

The weather can have a big influence on how a match is played.

3 The referee

Officials rarely make mistakes, but when they do it can change the course of a game.

In the 33rd minute of the World Cup final France took a corner. The score was 1-1. Blaise Matuidi tried to head the ball but missed. Jumping behind Matuidi was Croatia’s Ivan Perisic. The ball hit Perisic and went out.

Referee Nestor Pitana gave Croatia a goal kick. That was a mistake, but one that probably would not have made much difference. Pitana should have signalled a France corner. The odds against Croatia scoring with a possession starting from a goal kick would have been about 100-1. The odds against France scoring in the first phase of play after a corner would have been about 45-1.

Then French players appealed for a penalty. They said the ball had gone out of play off Perisic’s hand. It had. But handball should be penalised only if it is deliberate. Perisic did not have time to act deliberately.

What happened next showed how people under pressure can use a procedure designed to get to the best possible decision and end up with the worst possible decision. The video assistant referee asked Pitana to look at replays and Pitana awarded a penalty. The odds against France scoring from a penalty were about 2-7. And they did score.

You thought football was about only the skill of up to 22 players on the pitch and the tactical genius of two coaches on the sideline? You thought wrong.

Everyone is equal when nothing can be done

I am as good a footballer as Lionel Messi. Not all of the time, I grant you, but for more of the time than you or he might realise.

Messi is 31. He has won the Ballon d’Or five times. He was the best player in Barcelona sides that won nine Spanish championships and four European Cups. I will soon be 59 and I have not played football since I was at school.

During World Cup games in normal time the ball was in play for an average of 56 minutes and 55 seconds. It was out of play for an average of 40 minutes and ten seconds. The ball was in play for 59 per cent of total possible playing time and out of play for 41 per cent.

In some matches those percentages were very different. During the third-place playoff between Belgium and England the ball was out of play for just 28 per cent of total possible playing time. During the group game between Morocco and Iran it was out of play for 53 per cent.

If, somehow, Messi and I were on a pitch playing for opposite sides I would be as effective as him for all the time the ball was out of play. The longer the ball was out of play the better for me and my teammates. Because more out-of-play time means less in-play time. It should not but it does. And when the ball was in play Messi and his friends could run rings round us.

If you think your opponents are better than you when the ball is in play but you are not losing, it is in your interests to keep the ball out of play for as long as possible.

Good intentions may have led to a bad mistake

I do not know what went through the minds of referee Nestor Pitana and his video assistant referee (VAR) during the World Cup final when France appealed for a penalty. I suspect it was something like this.

The VAR watched replays and did not see an offence. Handball should be punished only if it is deliberate, and this was not. Then he thought: “This is the World Cup final. And VAR has proved controversial. I do not want to be criticised afterwards for not asking the referee to review an incident that television pundits around the world say I should have asked him to review.” So the VAR told Pitana to watch the replays.

Pitana thought: “The VAR would not have asked me to look at these unless he thought I should award a penalty. This is the World Cup final, the most important game I will ever referee. I do not want to be remembered as the man who turned down an appeal for a penalty that technology said I should have awarded.” So he looked at the screen and saw what he thought he was supposed to see.

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I am as good a footballer as Lionel Messi. Not all of the time, I grant you, but for more of the time than you or he might realise
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