The development of football rules

The rules of association football (soccer) were developed under a long time. This was a game that early on lacked standard rules, instead many variants of rules were in use depending on where it was played. Today the game has reached a uniformity concerning laws of the game, but I took some time until that happened. The beginning of the process took part in Cambridge 1848 when a meeting was held, but not until a second meeting 15 years later in London could a satisfying set of rules be agreed on. The rules were, however, far from the current ones.

The Early Days

In the early days it was not possible to distinguish the two teams by the shirts and it would take even longer until numbers were used on the players shirts. Also, the sizes of the playing field could vary a lot and the same thing with numbers of players involved.

When the early game arose in England during the first half of the 19th century, the rules shifted depending on which school the game was played.


The 1800s

The first attempt to bring together a collection of rules to be used everywhere the game was played was made at a meeting in Cambridge in 1848. Representatives from different British schools attended and the meeting would result in the “Cambridge Rules”, which was the first attempt to unify the rules of the game.

However, a debate would last about the shape of the game. It took several more meetings until it was decided once for all that football was a game that exclusively should be played with the feet (dribbling-kicking game) and not by the hands (catch-and-run game) – this would result in the dividing of football and rugby. Until 1863, carrying the ball with the hands was still practiced in several schools.

Apart from the separation between association football and rugby, the decisions some took to not follow the new code would lead in other directions, such as the special forms of football practiced by Americans and Australians.

The early development of rules would also make football a less violent and brutal game. Some consider the game of today a fierce and intense, but it is nothing compared to the game in its early days. Before 1863 “hacking” (kicking down an opponent) was a part of the game and a feature that marked the game to be seen as a masculinity objective.

The standardization that had been reached in 1863 was still far from the modern game we are now familiar with. Here are some rules that applied:

The referee

No referees were actually involved until 1871(!). Instead, the captains of both teams were assigned to keep order. It was a gentleman's sport. Yet, in 1871 with the establishment of the FA Cup it was decided that two referees should decide if the captains of each team couldn't agree. Seven years later, the players and the audience could also for the first time hear the referee using a whistle.

Before the FIFA World Cup in 2018, it was decided that cameras would be used to assist the referees for the first time. The so-called video assistant referees could be used exclusively in decisions concerning goals, penalties and red card.

The goalkeeper

In the early days, goalkeeper was not a distinctive position. Not until 1909 did the last man in the team start to wear a different colored shirt. Three years later came the rule that dictated that the goalkeeper was only allowed to touch the balls with his hand inside the box close to his own goal. Before that, the rules concerning this were looser.


Corner-kicks were introduced in 1872. In 1924, it was decided that a corner-kick was allowed to go straight into the goal. The rule was executed not long after that, in a match between Argentina and Uruguay the same year. The Argentine player Ceáreo Onzari did the only goal in the match and it was from the corner spot. The goal became famous and was titled "el gol olímpico" (since it was made on the reigning Olympic champions, Uruguay). Gol olímpico is sometimes used in Spanish-speaking language for a goal made directly on a corner.


Penalties were introduced in 1891, before that the closest to a penalty was the indirect free kick. At this time the pitches were not marked with penalty areas (it was introduced in 1902); therefore, a penalty was given if the referee judged that a related rule offence had been made within twelve yards from the goal line.

In 1970, penalty shoot-outs, for deciding a match that was still a draw after full time was officially taken into practice. The same year a penalty-shootout occurred between Hull City and Manchester United in the semi-final of the Watney Cup. The first penalty shoot-out in a World Cup (qualification matches excluded) happened in the 1982, in the semi-final between West Germany and France.


During the past century, many various forms of the offside rules have existed. Since the game in one of its earliest forms only included dribbling and not passing at all, an offside rule was originally superfluous.

The first law with a resemblance of offside dictated that passes had to be done either sideways or backwards. Whereas this became the norm for rugby, the game of football took another route when the rule was changed again in 1866. According to this rule, a player was allowed to pass the ball forward providing three players of the opposite team were between the ball and the opponent’s goal.

The rule would result in lack of goals which lead to several rule changes in the first decades of 1900s. The first change happened 1907 and stated that a player could not be offside in his own half. In 1921, another rule was added to make life easier for the attackers by making it impossible to be offside on a throw-in.
A further step was taken in favor for the attackers when it was decided that only two instead of three defenders had to be between the ball and the opponent’s goal.

The changes of the offside rules would initially result in more goals, but in the long run it changed the game tactically in a way that more defenders being used.

Extra time

Before standardization of rules there wasn't a unified regulation concerning extra time. A game in a knout-out tournament that was a draw after 90 minutes could be continued with extra time or it could lead to a replay. Extra time wasn't formalized and it could go on until the game was decided by a goal (as mentioned above, penalty shoot-outs wasn't adopted until 1970). Or, it could go on for hours until the darkness forced the game to be abrupted.

Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics (2013)
Jönsson, Åke, Fotboll: spelets historia (2014)