The Three Halves and Halves Nots

A few months ago the media was awash with reports that FIFA was toying with the idea of introducing three halves of thirty minutes each in the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Though I couldn’t find any official statement from FIFA confirming this (in fact they had swiftly moved to refute the rumours), I can’t wait for this strategy to be introduced. It may turn out to be one of the most important innovations in football, comparable to the banning of snoods and booking players for taking off their shirt.

For starters, the term “three halves” is path breaking in itself. It can potentially change the entire footballing paradigm where every match, in fact, becomes a match and a half. It is straight out of the Kevin Keegan world of football expressions where there is no bigger honour than being the second best team in the world, where there isn’t anyone bigger or smaller than Maradona. With it, FIFA can scale the marketing heights of Woolworth or Sainsbury’s by offering three matches at the price of two tickets. Besides, with two half time breaks, they must come up with appropriate names for them too. Taking a cue from cricket, the breaks could be named tea and high tea, or supper and dinner depending on when the game is played, and embellished with appropriate sponsorships.

Beyond these obvious marketing and promotional opportunities, there are other ways to leverage the third half to make the beautiful game even more beautiful. The basic game of football has not changed since it started. It has always been played in two halves where two teams, comprising 11 players, fight for a ball. Tournaments like Moretti were a whole new ball game though. Now with three halves, FIFA will be well-equipped to introduce three-way match ups, much like the three-way elimination matches so widespread and popular in professional wrestling. Let us try to understand how it will work. In a match between Team A, B and C – Team A plays Team B, Team B plays Team C while Team C plays Team A in the first, second and third halves respectively. The goal difference for each team over the three halves is computed and the team with the highest goal difference declared the winner. If there is more than one team with the highest goal difference, the points are split. In case of knock-out matches without a clear winner, there are two or three-way penalty shootouts as necessary. Three-way penalty shootouts work in exactly the same way as the three-way match.

The question is what is in it for FIFA, apart from revenue, that is. Well, with three-way match ups of 90 minutes split in three halves, FIFA will be able to increase the number of participating teams from 32 to 48 with zero overhead. This is likely to reduce the chances of global favourites such as England missing the tournament by bowing out in the qualifiers.  Besides, with more teams participating, TV revenue will also surge.

However, in the mundane world of domestic and continental football, it will not be justifiable to have three-way matches for the simple reason that to maintain the traditional home and away format, the number of matches will increase beyond control and the schedule will become unmanageable. Nevertheless, an idea as radical and path-breaking as a game of three halves has its advantages. The domestic and continental competitions can continue to be held between two teams, but introduction of the extra half will add value to the player and spectator experience, as well as introduce avenues for new tactical thinking. In the following paragraphs I shall explain how.

One aspect football has not been able to market is the toss. It is such a trivial affair in the game that nobody but the referee is usually bothered about it. However, this third half might just give the toss a new lease of life. Journalists can spend column inches on which way the wind will blow, while broadcasters can perhaps slip in a weather report into the match preview. We may also have a full-fledged pitch report where the venerable experts will pick up blades of grass and blow them in the air, measure the hardness of the soil in various areas, especially the penalty box and provide expert comments. Captains will be interrogated on their decision and blasted or commended on it, and the armchair fan will have another topic to ruminate on. Of course, all the while the camera will silently follow them around to seize every moment that can enhance the drawing room-audience experience. What’s more, it will positively contribute to the employment scenario as meteorologists and geologists will now be added to the entourage of coaches, doctors, physiotherapists, dietitians, nutritionists, psychologists, philosophers and the likes.

Most football fans will agree that time added on due to injuries and substitutions, is fast becoming one of the most intriguing topics of discussion. From waiting for the fourth referee to flash the number of minutes to be added, to anticipating when the referee will decide that enough time has been added and blow the whistle, to Manchester United inevitably scoring a goal well beyond the anticipated end of the half, time added on continues to enthral the football fanatics and divide opinion. What happens during half time is also occupying increased mindshare with pizza fights, handbags and accusations of referees visiting opponent dressing rooms bandied about with increased regularity. The additional half time break will obviously enhance these simple but nonetheless essential appendages to the football experience. Certain managers will also no doubt be delighted to find another window for unleashing the hairdryer to make sure that everyone is on their toes.

The move is also expected to have social and economic impact reaching far beyond the perimeters of the football field. With two half time breaks, the sales of hamburgers, baguettes and sandwiches in the stadium are sure to skyrocket, thus substantially boosting the stadium refreshments business, and creating more employment opportunities. Back home, we can expect a marginal increase in domestic harmony as during the extra break the football fan will perhaps spend a bit more time with his family during the hectic Saturday and Sunday evenings.

However, the question remains, what is in it for the players. There certainly is something. It is not apparent because we, the unforgiving audience, treat them like Roman gladiators and do not spend a moment to consider the trials they undergo on the field. We pulverize them for making simple mistakes without considering that they may be in obvious physical discomfort, the likes of which we seldom need to face. Have we considered that some of the misplaced passes, fluffed clearances, scuffed shots and flapped corners, inability to track back or mark the opponent could have a physiological reason? In other words, have we considered that not every player may be blessed with the industry of Jens Lehmann? So, the three halves will obviously give that additional opportunity to answer nature’s calls, both proactively and reactively, that may have been inhibiting them from playing to their potential. Given that, I must say, every professional footballer will be flushed with delight if FIFA’s new move is implemented.


Saumyajit Ray can be reached at

Title courtesy: Anustup Basu

International Football: Time to Reinvent?

International football presents us football enthusiasts an interesting conundrum. All of us feel that competition can hardly get more important than when national teams cross swords; we know that it is a matter of utmost pride and prestige for the participants as well as the spectators. We convince ourselves that we should be interested in international football ; it is the logical thing to do. So we gear up to cheer our own nations or adopted favourites (in the absence of at least one to enjoy as neutrals), and for the sumptuous spectacle that is supposed to be on offer. However, more often than not the actual fare leaves us with a distinct lack of fulfilment. The feeling is usually fleeting since remedy is close at hand as we dip into the fortunes of our favourite clubs, either on the field or through the transfer window. We realize that international football does not really matter as long as we have steady access to our regular dope of club football, well at least until the next international break or major tournament in summer when we can go back to feigning interest in it.But is it supposed to be so? I have been brought up on folklore about the glorious Brazilians of ’58, ’62 and ’70, the clinical Italians circa ’82, the glorious underdogs from Uruguay circa ’50, the controversial Argentines circa ‘78; the beautifully tragic Dutch circa ’74, Hungarians circa ‘54 and Brazilians circa ’82; Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Platini, Puskas, Beckenbauer, Kempes, Eusebio, Moore and other greats who had written their tales on the international stage. Today seeing the disinterested individuals and disjointed teams,
I sometimes wonder where has the romance gone, and how, if at all, can it be resurrected. In an effort to understand the reason for the apparent decline in standards, in the following paragraphs, I shall try to look at why the quality of football played at the club level is usually better than that at the international level, some of the inherent advantages club football has in its capacity to draw audiences, and try to analyse whether certain watershed events have accentuated the advantages.The clubs themselves have been there for ages and football has been the primary reason for their existence. Hence there are long and elaborate histories and rivalries woven into them. Also, clubs in Europe were initially set up as community institutions that bound people together. Hence the clubs always drew a focused and strong following, with deep, non-negotiable loyalties. Although these days most clubs have lost that thread with the community to various extents due to corporatization, these feelings have been retained and passed on from generation to generation. Hence supporters of clubs feel a strong sense of attachment to the institution which can compete with the attachment an individual feels with his country. This to my mind negates a major part of the advantage an international structure might have had otherwise. Its competitors are equally well entrenched in the public psyche, so they are on an equal footing; the international game not gaining any advantage by dint of nationalistic or patriotic sentiment. Thus with no advantage to either side based on sentiment, it is the quality of the product that assumes primary importance in wooing the customer. In this respect, club football enjoys a few inherent advantages.Club football is a constant. Once the season starts, there is usually a game played at least once a week, sometimes more. Further, in the age of all permeating media, even between the games the public is bombarded with an incessant flow of information from newspapers, blogs, club websites, TV, podcasts, radio etc. Even during the summer, the transfer window keeps people occupied, arguably more than during the months of action on the field. The cumulative effect is that of a story evolving continuously, like that of a soap opera. International football fails miserably in this regard. With matches being played intermittently during the season, it has no means to capture the mind of its audience on a continuous basis. As a result, internationals played during the season are often treated by the public as an inconvenience that disrupts the engaging narrative of club football. Sure, people watch the international matches, but in isolation. The product fails to create a lasting impression on their minds, and the effect of international football is promptly diluted by the resumption of the domestic season’s soap opera immediately after.
The constant nature of club football also enhances its quality. Players whotrain together every day of the week on the same system are expected to create better teamwork and understanding on the field. International football collects players based around the globe, providing them only a couple of days to get used to each other, and to a system that may be entirely different from the one they are used to playing throughout the year. Also it is easier to build up defensive organization over a shorter period than coordination in attack, hence more often than not international football played during the season becomes a contest between disjointed attacks and relatively better organized defences, and the result is football lacking fluidity.

The only time international football operates without the distraction of club football is during the major tournaments that are mostly played during the summer break. In the World Cup, Euro and Copa America we do see stories evolving which have the capacity to provide a narrative to the audience, but the ground thus covered is offset by the timing. With the bloated Champions League and Europa League format involving three and sometimes four teams from the major leagues, double-legged domestic cups, competitive and friendly internationals, a top player playing in Europe plays close to 50 matches over the season proper.

Hence, come summer they are more often than not jaded and not at their best physically and mentally, sometimes carrying niggling injuries from the season long grind. Still, with understanding developing over the duration of the tournament, we do get to see better football towards the later stages of the big tournaments. While it is not as riveting as club football, every major tournament has its moments. But the end of a tournament again ends the narrative; with the summer transfer window taking up the airtime immediately, the thread of the narrative is lost. So at the time of the first international break in the following season, international football once again has a clean slate in the public mind to work on, and the cycle continues.But the sceptic in you would still ask the question – all this existed in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s as well, then how could international football from those eras manage to create the legacies talked about in the opening paragraphs? I believe the root cause can be found in some key changes that happened in the football scene over the years. During the decades gone by, football was not as widely available for viewing. The major international tournaments were sometimes the only window available for watching football from around the globe. Hence the teams competing had freshness about them. A lot of the audience outside Holland in ‘74 would at best have heard of total football as a concept. While its roots were being developed in Ajax the greater football community wouldn’t have been widely exposed to its beauty. Hence the experience of watching the Dutch masters would have been a novel and enriching one. The Magyars in ‘54, Brazil in ’58, ‘62, and ‘70, Portugal in ’66, all must have had the benefit of providing the global audience a chance to witness something they would have only heard of in stories and accounts, if at all.
However, with the advent of satellite television, football from all over the world became available in our drawing rooms. Now with internet and online videos it is available in our bedroom. So the international tournaments have lost that allure of the unknown; today whatever Brazil, Holland, Spain or Argentina have to offer has already been seen and internalised multiple times over. Further, in the past football was not so globalised, hence each nation could retain and develop its own philosophy, its uniqueness. Today, with the Bosman ruling, movement between clubs have become much easier, and talents from South America, Africa and even European nations like France, Holland and Portugal are poached by the big clubs early in their careers. Thus the intermingling of football philosophies at club level has resulted in football at the international level losing much of its uniqueness. Hence it is harder to find a clash of philosophies at the international level with all countries moving towards a mean, the Brazilians and the Dutch adding steel and physicality to their fluidity, and the Germans and the Italians adding flair to their organization. Increasingly, the only potential for surprise during a major international tournament is when an African, an Asian or a smaller South American nation puts together a run. But globalization is catching up fast here as well. Ghana’s progress in the last World Cup failed to evoke the same mystique as Senegal, Cameroon or South Korea’s exploits in earlier editions. This was because many of their players were already household names thanks to their exploits in European club football, and with increased coverage of the African Cup of Nations and the Asia Cup, people knew what to expect from representatives of these continents.Thus a combination of multiple factors has resulted in a deterioration of the quality of international football and its ability to thrill and surprise the audience. While the major international tournaments still enjoy their importance in the football calendar, it is more for their aura and heritage. The end product on offer is decidedly poorer than what the audience is exposed to on a weekly basis at club level. The situation presents a crossroad for international football – will it maintain status quo and meander along or will it be able to reinvent itself, win back some of its appeal and carve a niche? International football has too much historical and cultural significance to be reduced to just a sideshow, hence football fans wait for the authorities to find the right answers.———————————————-

Saumyajit Ray can be reached at