The FIFA World Cup has prompted many discussions the past few weeks, particularly among those not familiar with soccer. But until a colleague asked me a question, I had never given any thought to one particular aspect of the game.
(No, he did not ask me what a FIFA was. I think it is some type of ball-chasing poodle. We would call it Fido in our language. That sort of makes sense because football is futbol in other tongues. I don't know why FIFA is capitalized. Maybe it is a soccer-loving Great Dane, not a poodle, but as with everything in this column, I could be wrong.)
Well, that little aside helped passed some time, didn't it? Actually, that is the subject of this column. Time. The passage thereof.
My inquisitive colleague was puzzled about the time-keeping in soccer. Unlike other familiar sports -- American football, basketball -- the soccer clock runs forward, not backward.
In the NFL, for example, each quarter gets its allotted 15 minutes, which runs downward when plays occur, only to be stopped for dropped passes, commercial timeouts, injury timeouts, coaches' timeouts, timeouts for the referee to disappear under a hood to rule on replays and call his mother, and, of course, the two-minute warning -- a favorite of mine, because there's nothing better than being warned that two minutes are coming.
This means that in American football the 15-minute quarter really means a great indeterminate length of time -- so much that people watching at home die of old age or babies are born or couches just give up the ghost under the weight of accumulated snacks. That is why the NFL stands for National Fido League, because its games are measured in dog years.
By comparison, as can be seen at the World Cup, soccer is old-fashioned in its understanding of the passage of time. The clock starts at zero and does not stop -- not for flopping, not for substitutions, not for injuries. It just flows on like life until you reach the end, at which time you swap jerseys with an angel.
Here's the good thing about soccer: Time is added on after the half and regular time, but it is not a precise business. Nobody frets that seconds have been lost in the calculation.
Some official -- perhaps Father Time himself, sporting an ancient beard and carrying an hourglass and a scythe, the better to impale the ball if it's being kicked around too much -- just makes a guesstimate. Extra time is never expressed as something like 4 minutes, 24 seconds; it's just rounded up, perhaps on the theory you can't shortchange people in shorts.
No wonder my colleague marveled at this. Sports reflect the culture in which they are played. In American sports, constant stoppages recall the national love of meetings. Baseball players meet on the mound. Football players huddle.
Having been taught that time is money, Americans come by their miserly concern for seconds naturally and are forever wanting more to be added to the clock, a decision made by officials who -- what else? -- huddle. Other cultures understand time more as a river; it just keeps rolling along (except in Congress, where it stops as if in a permanent eddy).
The greater problem with the river metaphor is that rivers start as babbling brooks and then make a more slow and majestic progress to the sea. This appears to be the exact opposite of life as I have experienced it.
In memory, my youth seemed never to end -- one long summer day melding imperceptibly into the next and interrupted only by my mother calling out in the evening to come to supper. The pace picked up during my teenage years and beyond, and majestic it isn't.
Now, it's like I am caught going over the rapids of time into the abyss below. Help! Help! The river of hours is carrying me too fast! Somebody throw me another metaphor to grab onto!
And, look, I am babbling -- just like many of the old guys who email me, except when they babble they brook no opposition. I can only hope that one day the pace of my life slows down in the peaceful backwater of contented old age.
But if the hectic pace of life continues, I trust that an official from the eternal playing fields indicates that four minutes of extra time have been added to my game.
I hear that four minutes are like decades in eternity before the final whistle.
Reg Henry is deputy editorial-page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email: email@example.com.