From banning players handling the ball to encouraging goalkeepers to use their feet, football’s lawmakers, the International Football Association Board, have been a key player in the blossoming of the beautiful game. From its 118-year history and before, we highlight ten major dates in the evolution of the world’s favourite sport.
1925: from all to 3 to 2, offside comes of age
Just like expressions such as attack, defence, winger, forward and shoot, the term offside has military roots. “Off the strength of your side” or “off your side” meant an attacking player ahead of the ball was in an illegal position. The offside rule, similar to that used in rugby today, formed part of the original rules in 1863.
In early tactical systems, teams would field as many as eight forwards as the only means of advancing the ball was by dribbling or scrummaging. However, there was strong opposition to this approach from Sheffield, whose rules did not include offside. Differences were eventually resolved in the late 1860s when the FA made the momentous decision to adopt the three-player rule, where an attacker would be called offside if positioned in front of the third last defender.
It is perhaps the most radical change in the way the game has been played and from that moment on, passing became an integral part of football and to many the beautiful game was born. The number of goals increased, aided by the 1912 rule preventing goalkeepers from handling the ball outside the penalty area and another in 1920 banning offsides from throw-ins. In 1925, the three-player offside rule became a two-player one, representing another radical change that propelled the game further forward.
1938 and 1997: Cleaning off the cobwebs
With the original Laws penned in the language of Victorian England, coupled with more than half a century of changes and amendments, it was felt that the Laws of the Game, now totalling 17, needed a bit of a makeover in 1937.
Stanley Rous, a member of the IFAB and the official who first employed the diagonal system of refereeing, was chosen as the ideal man for the gargantuan job. The Englishman, who would become FIFA President in 1961, began cleaning off the cobwebs and drafting the Laws into a rational order. So painstaking was Sir Stanley’s work and so few the changes to the game’s rules in a period when the game really took off that only in 1997, almost 60 years later, was the need felt to simplify the text further (by 30%) and modernise the language.
1990s: “For the Good of the Game”
By the time the 1990s came around the game had developed into a worldwide phenomenon equalled by no other sporting activity. Together with national championships, continental competitions and World Cups were created to satisfy the demands of fans that had identified with their club and country.
Television only intensified spectators’ seemingly insatiable desire and as well as making global stars out of many players and transforming those pitch markings into one of the most recognisable designs on the planet, it brought millions more to the game and to an instant comprehension of rules set down in the back room of a small London pub many moons ago.
From its embryonic beginnings in the mid-to-late 19th Century through to its adolescence at the turn of the 20th Century, the Laws of the Game had grown up remarkably well. Their simple and clear logic made them palatable to one and all and the rules’ emphasis on sportsmanship was found to be an equally seductive ingredient.
However perhaps for the first time in football’s long history, there were signs in the 1980s that audiences were beginning to turn off. Tribal rivalry and nationalistic fervour had been a by-product of the sport’s social and emotional impact and occasionally high passions spilled over into violence.
Popularity and money led to greater professionalism in football and on the field of play with so much more riding on results, defensive tactics had largely gained the upper hand, with the spectacle suffering. By the late 1980s, there was general agreement that the Laws of the Game should be fine-tuned in light of these developments.
These major amendments, often referred to as for the “Good of the Game”, were designed to help promote attacking football. They began with the offside law in 1990. The advantage was now given to the attacking team. If the attacker was inline with the penultimate defender, he was onside, instead of off. And in the same year, the “professional foul” - denying an opponent a clear goalscoring opportunity – became a sending-off offence.
Despite these changes, tactics during the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™ suggested something more needed to be done. And two years later, the IFAB made one of the most dramatic moves in its history when it banned goalkeepers from handling deliberate back passes. The Board had proved it could be progressive when called upon as well as conservative. And although the new rule was greeted with scepticism by some at first, in the fullness of time it would become widely appreciated. Referees had already been stamping down on simulation or cheating by handing out yellow cards to offenders and in 1998, the fierce tackle from behind became a red-card offence. With all these amendments along with the promotion of sportsmanship and return to its gentlemanly roots, the 1990s commitment to forward thinking football was complete.
And so with football breaking new boundaries, the IFAB, a body seldom recognised by the public at large, convened on 28 February, and just as it has done for each year since 1886, contemplated the game to ensure football continues to achieve the same success in the 21st Century as it had in its first two.