Piers Pennington wants half-time to be less refreshing, less entertaining and less of a drag
Of all the rule changes that FIFA have made over the years in their attempts to brighten up the game, their decision in 1995 to increase the length of half-time to 15 minutes must count as the worst. On the face of it, an extra five minutes might seem neither here nor there, but it has transformed what used to be a brief interlude in proceedings into an event in its own right. You are no longer allowed just to wait for the second half to begin. You are expected, if not obliged, to make your choice between Refreshment and Entertainment.
Refreshment in the old days was pretty much a borderline-stale biscuit, a purportedly beef-based drink and change from sixpence. It was there if you needed it, but it didn't form an essential part of the Matchday Experience. But a 15-minute break is now widely accepted as an opportunity for a beer, a chance that must be seized at all costs.
I can't see what pleasure is to be derived from queuing for 13 minutes, being jostled and shouted at throughout, then necking your pint in 25 seconds while wondering whether the faint but persistent odour of urine is coming from the contents of your glass or the soulless concrete bowl of your surroundings. A hot drink would be a more sensible option. At least you can take that back to your seat. But that is not a road I've been able to go down since the Saltergate incident of 1982. In response to my innocent request for two teas I was handed liquid heated to nuclear reactor levels and poured into plastic cups so thin as to be transparent. With 50 yards of terrace to negotiate, I had no choice but to take the hit. My hands still bear the scars.
Then there is the food. It is quarter to four – you don't need anything to eat. Even even if it is 1.30pm, 6.15pm, 8.30pm or some other Sky-imposed time, stuffing your face is not what you are here for. But as with the beer, a half-time pie is now pretty much compulsory for many, even if it will collapse and cover your hands, face and trousers in chicken balti, be so salty you will need another drink, and cause you to miss the 49th-minute goal that proves to be the winner.
Should you be sensible enough to decline the refreshment option you are left with the entertainment. Again, this used to be straightforward. A marching band would play Colonel Bogey and the theme from Monty Python, and the duration and direction of the performance could not be compromised under any circumstances. Any players or officials wandering prematurely onto the pitch for the second half would simply have to dodge out of the way.
Musical performances are now rare. Attempts to introduce the razzamatazz of cheerleaders fell foul of the British weather and football's drive to be more socially responsible. Although until recently at Upton Park you could still catch the Hammerettes hopping from foot to foot and smiling gamely through the sleet.
What you get now is either a penalty shoot-out in which primary school children propel the ball gently goalwards while Guest Celebrity Goalkeeper Dave Beasant dives sportingly out of the way. Or you have grown-ups lured onto the pitch by the prospect of a prize they won't win because they prove incapable of kicking a ball against the crossbar, through a tyre, into a car boot or against another ball placed on the centre spot.
At many grounds you are now offered the highlights of the first half on the big screen, though they omit anything controversial. I was recently at White Hart Lane when the highlights left out the only goal for fear of confirming that it was both offside and handball. You might also be shown the half-time scores from other games, though having them all flashed up at once destroys the tension generated by an old man with a long stick slowly hanging numbers from his box against letters on the scoreboard, which is particularly exciting if you didn't have a programme and had to guess which team had managed to be 5-0 down.
The twist in this sorry tale is that the rule change didn't change half-time from ten minutes at all. The old rule stipulated a five-minute stop, which could be extended at the discretion of the competition's organisers or the referee. How much happier we could all have been if FIFA had removed this discretion and enforced a five-minute break for everybody.
From WSC 300 February 2012