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IFAB: 125 years and still going strong

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On 2 June 1886, a group of like-minded men met in offices at Holborn Viaduct in London. They all had two things in common – each was possessed of a magnificent and well-nurtured moustache, and each was convinced of the need to establish a supreme authority to enshrine and protect the laws of the game of football.

At that meeting of representatives of the four British associations, it was agreed that the International Football Association Board (IFAB) would be set up to be the custodian of the game. Little did those men realise that 125 years later the Board would still be meeting every year to rule on the laws of football in a fashion that remains astonishingly similar to that of 1886.

When the IFAB convenes at the Celtic Manor Resort near Newport in Wales on 5 March there may not be as many – or indeed any – moustaches on show, but the aim will be much the same: to keep a careful watch on the laws of football in order to ensure that it remains the world’s most popular sport.

The Board has always been regarded as being conservative in nature: any major change is debated in detail, and usually sent away for a long period of experimentation before a decision is made.

Geoff Thompson, the FIFA and UEFA Vice-President who attended nine Board meetings during his time as chairman of The Football Association (FA), told FIFA World: “When you are talking about changes to the laws of the game, it is better to be conservative. The International Board is talked about as the custodian of the game and, time and again, it has provided the stability to prevent outlandish ideas which would have been to the detriment of football from passing into our laws.”

In the beginningBack at that inaugural meeting in 1886, Major Sir Francis Marindin, President of the FA, first came up against that reluctance to impose change when he attempted to ban studs in football boots.

The minutes of the meeting state that Marindin proposed “that no player shall wear any kind of projection on the soles or heels of his boots with the exception of leather bars of an approved pattern”. Wales backed him, but Scotland and Northern Ireland did not and he withdrew his proposal. It was not long, however, before bars on boots became a thing of the past and everybody played in studs.

The IFAB has usually remained in the background of football – according to a 2007 FIFA paper on the form and function of the Board “it is by no means a mysterious institution, but it does have a somewhat secretive aura”.

Whenever a major shake-up in a law is debated, however, the IFAB finds itself in the limelight. Perhaps the biggest change in recent years came in 1992 when goalkeepers were barred from handling backpasses, a move instigated by Michel Platini, now of course the UEFA President and FIFA Vice-President. The ruling utterly changed the game, and few people – perhaps excepting goalkeepers – would argue that it has been a change for the good.

FIFA on BoardFIFA joined the IFAB in 1913 and initially received two votes – as did each of the British associations. Then, in 1958, the growth in international football led to a consensus that FIFA should have more of a say in determining the laws. As a result, the system was changed so that each association had a single vote and FIFA four, with any proposal needing six of the eight votes to be carried. That remains the system that is in force today.

When one speaks to past and current International Board members, there is one recurring theme: all speak of the privilege of serving on such an historic and august body. Jim Boyce, the former Irish FA chairman who is due to succeed Geoff Thompson as FIFA Vice-President in May, said: “I attended 14 Board meetings and to be at each one of them was a privilege. You quickly realise just how important this body is to football.”

The International Board has provided the stability to prevent outlandish ideas which would have been to the detriment of football from passing into our Laws.

The Board meetings are usually hosted in turn by each association in their own country, and every fifth year by FIFA, usually but not exclusively in Switzerland. In FIFA World Cup years, sometimes host countries are chosen, while in 1996 the Board went to Rio de Janeiro in honour of the retiring FIFA President Dr Joao Havelange. “That was a memorable occasion,” remembers Boyce, “as was another in 2004 in England when all the Board members were invited to meet Her Majesty the Queen.”

Looking back over the 125 years, it is remarkable how little has changed in the Laws of the Game rather than how much. Perhaps the biggest alteration came in 1925 when the offside law was changed so that only two players rather than three had to be in front of the attacker. That law has been tinkered with since of course – in 1990 it was decided the attacker need only be level with the last defender, not behind him – but fundamentally remains the same.

A more recent alteration to the offside law came with the decision that a player needed to be “involved in active play” to be offside. Jim Boyce admits: “That one is still causing controversy now, but the Board gives a lot of thought to these changes.”

An eye for detailIt is not just about big issues though. Much of the Board’s work is the minutiae: logos on corner flags, the permitted colour of thermal underwear and the banning of advertising on the grass of the pitch are all dealt with by the IFAB, which still keeps a role in maintaining standards to prevent excessive commercialisation of the sport.

Any of FIFA’s member associations can put forward proposals for rule changes, and there have been plenty of more outlandish ideas that have even reached the stage of an experiment only to be consigned to the trivia books.

One such example was the 35-yard line used in the old North American Soccer League in the late 1970s – in front of which no offsides were given, but the system was quickly shown to be flawed.

In the 1990s, the Board gave the go-ahead to experiments where throw-ins were replaced by kick-ins. “That was no good either,” recalls Boyce. “Teams would boot it towards goal from just about anywhere and it ruined the game. But at least we gave it full consideration.”

The 125th meeting could prove to be another historic one, since goal-line technology is on the agenda and the issue has already been discussed at the technical meetings and business meeting that precede the Board meeting itself.

Whatever happens, the Football Association of Wales’ chief executive Jonathan Ford says he is proud to be hosting the Board on such an important occasion in its history. “We are delighted to be hosting it,” Ford told FIFA World. “It is the debating chamber of football and it is an immense privilege to be involved. The strength of the International Board is that the members are all aware of the weighty responsibility they bear on behalf of the biggest game in the world.”

Those men with moustaches will not have been aware of the importance of their creation of the first international football organisation, but looking back over the 125 years it seems safe to say that, when it comes to the IFAB at least, the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Key dates in the Laws of the Game:1863: The first laws are drawn up in London.
1886: The International FA Board is founded by the British associations.
1891: Referees are introduced with the power to send players off, and award free kicks and penalties.
1902: The penalty box and six-yard box areas are created.
1904: FIFA is founded.
1912: Goalkeepers are banned from handling the ball outside the penalty area.
1913: FIFA joins the International FA Board.
1920: Offsides from throw-ins are removed.
1925: The offside rule is changed so only two players need to be ahead of the attacker instead of three.
1938: Revision of the Laws of the Game.  The 17 laws of the game are redrafted and updated by Stanley Rous, who was to become FIFA President in 1961.
1958: New voting rights are determined – they are still the same today – with each British association having one vote, FIFA having four, and any proposal needing at least six votes in favour.
1970: FIFA allow two substitutes at World Cup tournaments.
1990: Offside rule altered so attacker is onside if level with last defender.
1992: Goalkeepers are banned from handling backpasses. The “golden goal” rule is introduced to settle matches in extra time.
1995: Three substitutes are allowed in matches instead of two.
1997: The laws of the game are revised for the first time since the 1930s.
1998: Lunging tackles which endanger the safety of opponents are made a red-card offence.
2004: “Golden goal” rule scrapped.
2008: The IFAB authorises UEFA to experiment using two extra assistant referees behind each goal line.

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