The Brilliance of Ronaldo and the Heart-Stopping Thrill of Stoppage Time

Portugal Stuns U.S. With a Late Tie
The U.S. couldn't hold on to win, giving up a goal to Portugal in stoppage time with the clock running out and leaving the score 2-2. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Whether it is a source of salvation, as it was this weekend for Argentina and Portugal, or one of heartbreak, as Iran and the United States found it to be, there is something immensely appealing about stoppage time. At least for sports fans.

Stoppage time, an idiosyncrasy unique to soccer, is the Ronco commercial (“But wait, there’s more!”) of sport. In distinctly American sports leagues such as the NBA or NFL, one needs to be seated at a Buffalo Wild Wings in order to extend a game beyond its appointed time. But not in soccer, not at the World Cup.

Allow me to define it: stoppage time is the increment of time, usually between two and five minutes, a referee tacks on to the conclusion of each 45-minute half, at his discretion. Because the clock does not stop during a half of soccer, stoppage time allows the referee as well as both sides to recoup time lost to substitutions,  injuries, faked injuries, the dispensing of punitive red and yellow cards, pouting in general, and the marking of the pitch with shaving cream by that same referee in order to prevent players from cheating up on free kicks.

Stoppage time is for one side an executive pardon and for the other the living embodiment of a Tennessee Williams quote: “Time is the greatest distance between two places.” Consider Saturday’s Group F match between Argentina and Iran. After 90 minutes, it could be said that the Iranians were leading the heavily favored Argentines 0-0. All match long, Iran was content to allow Argentina, which boasts the world’s premier footballer of the past half-decade in Lionel Messi, to control the ball while packing as many as as all 10 position players into its penalty box of defense.

The Argentines controlled the ball for more than 75% of the match, a World Cup record, but their efforts found no purchase in the back of Iran’s net. While a scoreless draw might be considered boring in other sports on other continents, such an outcome against La Albiceleste in South America would be the Iranian equivalent of the Miracle on Ice.

And it almost happened. But in the second of four minutes of stoppage time Messi, who is five-foot-seven inches of pure brilliance, was afforded just enough space and time to fire a seeing-eye, needle-threading kick with his left foot from beyond 25 yards and into the back of the net. If you were to tell me that the Iranian defender closest to him on that play was named Craig Ehlo, I would not be surprised.

For Argentina, stoppage time offered a reprieve. For Iran, only regret. A lifetime of it.

Stoppage time, also known as injury time or additional time, is of British origin. The story goes that during a match in 1891 between Stoke and Aston Villa, the former side was awarded a penalty kick while trailing 1-0 with just a minute or so remaining. The Aston Villa goalkeeper kicked the ball out of the grounds and by the time it was recovered, time had run out. Not too long after Law 7, that governing stoppage time, was added to the rules of soccer.

The term itself is a vestige of Great Britain, as is the word “stoppage.” After all, this is a nation in which parents name their children Benedict Cumberbatch without any ill effect. This is also the country that gave us Oliver Twist, who famously declared, “Please, sir. I want some more.”

Stoppage time is so not America, whose denizens are overly obsessed with precision and schedules (and not, as the Brits would pronounce it, “shedules”). The National Basketball Association uses 10ths of a second as a unit of time, as if the propulsion of a potential game-winning shot merits more accuracy than a rocket launch. The National Football League is equally obsessed with time, installing a “two-minute warning” at the end of each half as an ominous reminder that all things, be they human existence or a Jacksonville Jaguars game, must come to an end (and, okay, it’s also an opportunity to foist another commercial break upon us feckless viewers).

Soccer, however, blithely and unapologetically marks time the way Warren Buffet does his net worth: approximately. While the technology and manpower certainly exist to provide a referee with an exact amount of time, down to the nanosecond, that was squandered during the preceding half and should be added, no such tools are used. In fact, more than a few of Brazil’s World Cup stadiums do not even have scoreboards (and you can forget about a Jumbo-tron). Instead, the referee simply motions to a side judge how many minutes should be added as if he is impetuously ordering hot dogs at Nathan’s Famous.

And here’s the best part: even after signaling that a definite number of minutes should be added, the referee may exceed that. The match does not end until the referee blows his whistle. As Yogi Berra might have said, “It ain’t over ‘til after it’s over.”

On Sunday night the Americans met slightly favored Portugal in Manaus, deep in the Amazonian rainforest, itself a fairly timeless place. Shockingly, the Yanks led the Portuguese and their charismatic striker, Cristiano Ronaldo, 2-1 after 90 minutes. Referee Nestor Pitana signaled for five minutes of extra time, which is an eternity when your side is attempting to advance beyond its Group G “Group of Death” stage before even facing Germany.

What seemed like an unthinkable prospect before the tournament began was suddenly within the grasp of the upstart Yanks, as chants of “I believe that we will win!” filled Grant Park in Chicago and Madison Square Park in New York City.

One minute...two minutes...three. The U.S. still led. Four minutes! Four-and-a-half!

“Portugal on the brink of elimination,” said ESPN’s Ian Darke as American Michael Bradley was dispossessed of the ball just beyond midfield. “Can they do something here, as Cristiano Ronaldo… oh, it’s a great cross! And an equalizer, from Varela. USA denied, right at the death.”

And that’s stoppage time. Salvation and heartbreak. That’s soccer.