“It’s not the game it used to be,” you will probably have heard football fans of a certain age say. But it’s not just the advent of selfie sticks, diving and half-and-scarves that has seen the game change over time; it’s the basic fundamentals, too.
Almost every year now, we see outdated rules amended or simply chucked out, and new regulations introduced, for better or worse. Some, to adapt with the growing reliance on machines in football; not least the seamless goal-line technology, or the far more problematic taboo subject that is video assistant referees (VAR). Others, simply to move with the times.
Here’s how football has changed, both in recent years and throughout history:
Most Recent Football Rule Changes
As of June 1, 2019, eight main changes introduced by the International Football Association Board came into effect in football, largely affecting in-game proceedings. They are:
- Cards for coaches: it’s not just the men on the pitch who can now receive bookings; it’s the men on the touchline, too. To try and put a halt to off-the-pitch skirmishes, managers and fellow staff members can also earn yellow or even red cards should they break their own codes of conduct. The boss, or another senior coach, will also be booked by default should the referee be unable to identify the protagonist of a sideline scramble, too.
- Kick-off preferences: from 2019-20 onwards, the team which wins the coin toss has a choice: they can either pick a particular goal to attack, or they can get proceedings underway themselves.
- Goal kicks can be played anywhere: whereas before, the ball was deemed ‘dead’ until it left the penalty box from goal kicks, goalkeepers can now play out to team-mates with their own 18-yard area, though opposition players must still not enter it until the pass has been made.
- No attackers in the wall: when a wall defending a free-kick consists of three players or more, attackers are not permitted to stand within one metre of them. Doing so will cause them to be penalised and the defending team awarded an indirect free-kick. That way, time-wasting and potential altercations between players are alleviated.
- No more drop balls: at least, not from a competitive standpoint, anyway. Under the new rules, if play is stopped in a penalty area, the ball will be dropped for the goalkeeper; if outside the 18-yard box, it will be dropped for a player from the last team to touch the ball. Either way, everyone else must be at least four-and-a-half yards away from the designated ‘kicker’, to avoid giving his/her team an unfair advantage.
- Substituted players must leave pitch at nearest point: no longer will we have to watch players take an eternity trudge off the pitch towards the fourth official having been subbed by their managers. These days, they must now leave the field by the closest point on the touchline, which should prevent unnecessarily lengthy breaks in play.
- At least one foot on the line for penalties: in what should signal an end to goalkeepers being penalised for stepping forward when facing shots from 12 yards, they must now have at least part of one foot on, or in line with the goal line. This, it is believe, should make it easier to determine whether both feet are past the line, and therefore an illegal move being committed.
- ‘Accidental’ handballs will be penalised: from now on, any handball involved in the process leading to a goal will be penalised, irrespective of whether it was deliberate or not. Though this has already proved highly contentious; Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus was denied a stoppage-time winner against Spurs in August 2019 when the ball indirectly deflected its way into his path via team-mate Aymeric Laporte’s arm.
- Bookings for disallowed goal celebrations: Imagine you’ve just netted a crucial strike for your team, run off in a frenzy to celebrate with your team-mates, only to discover that old friend VAR has overruled it. This is now a bookable offence. And you thought players getting yellow-carded for taking their shirts off after scoring was silly…
Major Football Rule Changes Throughout History
- 1848 – The first collection of rules for the game of football in the United Kingdom are established. Representatives from different British schools met in Cambridge, before establishing the ‘Cambridge Rules’, the original set of regulations for the sport.
- 1863 – Much debate about the shape of the game persisted after the Cambridge Rules, though. Carrying the ball with hands was still practised in certain schools, while kicking down opponents was almost commonplace. That changed in 1863, when the first ‘official’ rules of football were written down at the Freemasons’ Tavern in Blackheath. These included: no crossbar was used and the goal was not limited to a certain height; if a player caught a high ball, he was awarded a free kick; if the ball crossed the sideline, the player that first got the ball was given the throw-in; and throw-ins were made with one hand.
- 1866 – The offside rule underwent its first real change. Previously, passes could only be made sideways or backwards, similar to rugby. After this, the ball could be played forward, as long as three opposing players stood between the ball and the opposition goal.
- 1871 – Referees were eventually introduced, albeit initially as pairs of referees for each game. Before then, captains of each teams were obliged to keep a lid on proceedings. But in 1871, it was decided that two umpires, one for each team, could adjudicate should the two skippers be in dispute. One would stay on the sidelines and be ‘referred’ to should they disagree.
- 1872 – Corner kicks came in to football, five years after the rule was adopted by the ‘Sheffield Rules’.
- 1875 – Crossbars were finally added to the goals, meaning the previous rule about the goal not being limited to a certain height became obsolete.
- 1878 – Referees were given whistles for the first time.
- 1886 – The aforementioned IFAB convened for the first time on June 2, 1886, in order to determine the laws of the game and make changes where necessary. A three-quarters majority was needed for a proposal to be passed.
- 1891 – Penalty kicks came into football, originally known as the ‘kick of death’. There were no marked penalty areas then, so they were originally allowed to be taken anywhere along a 12-yard line from goal. A referee would award a spot-kick should a foul be committed within 12 yards from the goal line. Prior to this, an indirect free-kick was the closest footballers got to a penalty. In the same year, the ‘two-referee’ idea is abandoned in place of just one man in the middle.
- 1902 – The penalty spot was introduced, as was the six-yard box, previously just a semi-circle, and the 18-yard area.
- 1907 – Another offside rule change, as due to a lack of goals, it was decided that a player could not be offside in his own half.
- 1912 – No longer were goalkeepers allowed to handle the ball wherever they wanted to. From then on, shot-stoppers could use their hands within their own 18-yard box.
- 1921 – The laws were changed so that it was now impossible to be offside from a throw-in.
- 1925 – The offside rule, clearly not confusing enough already, was changed again. Now, you were onside if there were two players between yourself and the goal (including the goalkeeper) rather than the previous number of three.
- 1970 – Penalty shoot-outs to decide a drawn match were introduced; the first in English football took place in the same year between Hull and Manchester United in the Watney Cup semi-final, while the first in the World Cup was in 1982, in a semi-final between Germany and France.
- 1990 – The offside rule was changed once again; to try and add more goals to the game, FIFA ruled that if an attacker was in line with the second defender, he was onside. Meanwhile, preventing an obvious goalscoring opportunity became a sending-off offence.
- 1992 – Goalkeepers could no longer pick back-passes up from their teammates with their hands. Clearly former Everton keeper Iain Turner missed the memo, though:
- 1998 – Reckless tackles from behind were now deemed worthy of a red card.
- 2009 – UEFA began trialling a ‘fifth official’ in Europa League matches, who would stand behind a goal to help the referee. Three years later, two additional assistant referees were implemented in all UEFA competitions.
- 2013 – Goal-line technology was introduced to the Premier League, with a watch telling the referee if the ball has fully crossed the line.
- 2017 – VAR makes its long-awaited debut in a FIFA tournament at the Confederations Cup. A year later, it is one of the main talking points at the World Cup in Russia, before becoming joining the Premier League party in 2019-20.