The early years

Football has come a long way since its first laws were drawn up in London in 1863.  That historic meeting at the Freemasons' Tavern led not only to the foundation of the Football Association but, moreover, to the game's inaugural set of common rules. 

Although undergraduates at Cambridge had made an earlier attempt to achieve a uniform standard in the late 1840s - albeit still allowing the ball to be caught - it was not until 1863 that football, a sport played down the centuries in often-violent village contests and then embraced in the early 1800s by the English public schools, had a fixed rulebook.

One club represented at the Freemasons' Tavern, Blackheath, refused to accept the non-inclusion of hacking (kicking below the knee) and subsequently became a founder of the Rugby Football Union.  However, the 11 others reached an agreement and, under the charge of one Ebenezer Cobb Morley, 14 laws were soon penned for a game that would, in the following century, become the most played, watched and talked about activity on the planet.
Original offside rule

The offside rule formed part of the original rules in 1863 but it was a far remove from the law as we know it today.  Any attacking player ahead of the ball was deemed to be offside - meaning early tactical systems featured as many as eight forwards, as the only means of advancing the ball was by dribbling or scrimmaging as in rugby.  In the late 1860s, 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. Now the passing game could develop.

Despite the unification of the rules and the creation of the FA in 1863, disputes, largely involving Sheffield clubs who had announced their own set of ideas in 1857, persisted into the late 1870s.  However, the creation of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) finally put an end to all arguments.  Made up of two representatives from each of the four associations of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland), the IFAB met for the first time on 2 June 1886 to guard the Laws of the Game.  Then, as today, a three-quarters majority was needed for a proposal to be passed.

Gradual changes

In those early years, the game gradually assumed the features we take for granted today.  Goal-kicks were introduced in 1869 and corner-kicks in 1872.  In 1878 a referee used a whistle for the first time. Yet there was no such thing as a penalty up until 1891.  In the public schools where modern football originated, there was an assumption that a gentleman would never deliberately commit a foul.  Amid the increased competitiveness, however, the penalty, or as it was originally called 'the kick of death', was introduced as one of a number of dramatic changes to the Laws of the Game in 1891.

Penalties, of course, had to be awarded by someone and following a proposal from the Irish Association, the referee was allowed on to the field of play.   True to its gentlemanly beginnings, disputes were originally settled by the two team captains, but, as the stakes grew, so did the number of complaints.
By the time the first FA Cup and international fixture took place, two umpires, one per team, were being employed to whom each side could appeal.  But it was not the ideal solution as decisions were often only reached following lengthy delays.  The referee, at first, stood on the touchline keeping time and was 'referred' to if the umpires could not agree but that all changed in 1891.

Referees introduced

From that date a single person with powers to send players off as well as give penalties and free-kicks without listening to appeals became a permanent fixture in the game.  The two umpires became linesmen, or 'assistant referees' as they are called today.  Also during that meeting in Scotland, the goal net was accepted into the laws, completing the make-up of the goal after the introduction of the crossbar to replace tape 16 years previously.

With the introduction of rules, the features of the football pitch as we know it slowly began to appear.  The kick-off required a centre spot; keeping players ten yards from the ball at kick-off, brought the centre circle.  It is interesting to note that when the penalty came in 1891, it was not taken from a spot but anywhere along a 12-yard line before 1902.

The 1902 decision to award penalties for fouls committed in an area 18 yards from the goal line and 44 yards wide, created both the penalty box and penalty spot. Another box 'goal area', commonly called the 'six-yard-box', six yards long and 20 wide, replaced a semi circle in the goalmouth.  However it was not for another 35 years that the final piece of the jigsaw, the 'D' shape at the edge of the penalty area was included.


Football fast became as popular elsewhere as it had been in Britain and in May 1904, FIFA was founded in Paris with seven original members: France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain (represented by Madrid FC), Sweden and Switzerland.  There was some initial disquiet in the United Kingdom to the idea of a world body governing the sport it had created rules for, but this uncertainty was soon brushed aside.  Former FA board member Daniel Burley Woolfall replaced Frenchman Robert Guérin as FIFA President in 1906 - the year the FA joined - and in 1913 FIFA became a member of the IFAB.  In the restructured decision-making body, FIFA was given the same voting powers as the four British associations put together.  There remained eight votes and the same 75 per cent majority needed for a proposal to be passed, but instead of two each, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland now had one, while FIFA was given four.

On the field of play, 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.

Rous rewrites the Laws

By the late 1930s it was felt that the Laws of the Game, now totalling 17, required a makeover.  The original Laws had been penned in the language of Victorian England and since then, there had been more than half a century of changes and amendments.  Hence the task given to Stanley Rous, a member of the IFAB and the official who first employed the diagonal system of refereeing, to clean the cobwebs and draft the Laws in a rational order.  The Englishman, who would become FIFA President in 1961, did such a good job that not until 1997 were the Laws revised for as second time.

Despite football's phenomenal popularity, there was a general agreement in the late 1980s that the Laws of the Game should be fine-tuned in the face of defensive tactics.  If fan violence was a serious off-the-pitch problem during that period, then on it the increasingly high stakes meant a real risk of defensive tactics gaining the upper hand.

Hence a series of amendments, often referred to as for the 'Good of the Game', which 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 in line with the penultimate defender, he was now onside.  In the same year, the 'professional foul' - denying an opponent a clear goal-scoring opportunity - became a sending-off offence.

Back-pass rule changed

Despite these changes, tactics during the 1990 FIFA World Cup ™ suggested something more needed to be done.  The IFAB responded in 1992 by banning goalkeepers from handling deliberate back-passes.  Although the new rule was greeted with scepticism by some at first, in the fullness of time it would become widely appreciated.

The game's Law-makers then struck another blow against cynicism in 1998 when the fierce tackle from behind became a red-card offence.  With a new century approaching, the commitment to forward-thinking football could not have been clearer.

1863: The Cambridge Rules are rewritten to provide the game's first uniform regulations.
1866: The offside law is changed to allow players to be onside provided there are three players between the ball and the goal.
1882: The associations in Great Britain unify their rules and form the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to control the laws of the game.
1886: The first official meeting of the IFAB takes place.
1891: Introduction of the penalty-kick.
1913: FIFA becomes a member of the IFAB.
1925: Amendment of the offside rule from three to two players.
1938: The present Laws of the Game are framed in a new system of codification, based on the Laws previously in force.
1958: Substitutes are permitted for the first time, albeit only for an injured goalkeeper and one other injured player.
1970: The system of red and yellow cards is introduced for the 1970 FIFA World Cup ™ finals.
1990: The offside law is changed in favour of the attacker, who is now onside if level with the penultimate defender.
1993: Goalkeepers are forbidden from handing back-passes.
1994: The technical area is introduced into the Laws of the Game, with the Fourth Official following the next year.
1996: Linesmen are renamed Assistant Referees.
1997: The Laws are revised - the first major revision since 1938.
2000-2004: The new millennium has been one of consolidation of the Laws.  After the changes in the 1990's the IFAB decided that no more major alterations were required at the present time.  The Goalkeeper was allowed to carry the ball in his/her hands for six seconds instead of four steps and clear instructions were given to referees to deal with problems of simulation or cheating.  Some experiments took place on the use of radio communications between the referee and the assistants and the IFAB also confirmed the important of developments in artificial surfaces.