The History of Football Rules and Laws

How did the Football Rules and Laws of the Game evolve from the beginning of the 19th century? Let’s have a look…

Football – a broad term for a game in which an object is mainly played with the foot – has existed since ancient times, as records from ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and China show. Also, in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, i.e. between 1300 and 1800, the football game was known.

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In today’s Italy, France and England, there were games (or fights) lasting for days between individual cities in this time. The games were largely unregulated and used physical force or utensils such as pitchforks for defending win. Opponents of this kind of football games spread horror reports of numerous shearing injuries and deaths.

In England until well into the 19th century a football game was popular in the lower classes, which is still played today at Shrovetide in some places and which is described in research as plebeian football.

Football, the movement of a round object with the feet, was played in England between nearby settlements. However, the descriptions are reminiscent of a very battle-oriented rugby game, because transporting the ball with one’s hands was allowed as well as violent tackling. Be it with feet and hands or with other means like sticks. Everyone was allowed to play; there was no division into players and spectators. Although there were individual rules, they did not interfere with the game as much as in today’s variants of football. In addition, even in the early modern period there were efforts to regulate and control football games (Richard Mulcaster, 1561: You need a „training master“ and a person who „jugde over the parties and hath authororitie to commaunce“), but they were unsuccessful.

Football Rules in the public schools

Thomas Arnold is on everyone’s lips when it comes to the beginnings of football rules in England, but the first football game at an English public school was probably played in Eton in 1815, at the public school of Rugby, where Thomas Arnold was headmaster, from 1823 onwards. Around the same time as in Rugby the game was introduced at the Aldenham School (Elstree) (at the latest in 1825) and in the 1830s in the London district of Harrow as well as in Winchester and Shrewsbury. Thomas Arnold’s idea was not as unique as it is sometimes portrayed. While the different football rules were sometimes very different (handball, number of players, emphasis on combat, size of the field, appearance of the goal, etc.), the early (pupils) football teams had things in common: In this way, the pupils should playfully internalize the ideals and virtues of the gentlemen: Honesty, self-discipline, sense of responsibility, fair play and self-organisation. In addition, the teachers and school principals, who introduced sports such as football to their schools, were concerned with a healthy and moderate life.

Until the 1860s, football exists in different variants. This was also the case with the aforementioned Eton Field Game, which was a mixture of today’s football and rugby. Similar to today’s football game were the variants at the public schools of Harrow and Winchester, too. Due to the peculiarities of the different variants the pupils and graduates had different trained abilities. For example, Old Harrovians (graduates from Harrow school) were known for being able to dribble successfully the ball for a very long time and were popular with southern English teams until the 1880s, when combination football was introduced. Old Wykehamists (graduates from Winchester College) were very popular as midfielder, in short as playmaker. Unlike Old Harrovians, they weren’t good at dribbling because they didn’t learn it in their game, but they could read a game, plan it, and match balls to their teammates. Old Etonians (graduates from Eton College) couldn’t dribble well either, but they were wanted backs because they were brilliant in charging opponent fairly, because the Eton Field Game knew the scrimmages from today’s rugby and called them bully.

All these three variations had in common that they neither allowed carrying the ball nor hacking and handball. An exception in handball was the Fair Catch, which was also allowed in the FA Rules.

Cambridge University Football Rules

In 1848 students from the schools of Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester and Shrewsbury met as students at Cambridge University, all of whom knew football from their school and still wanted to play it. So, they combined the different football rules of their schools to a new set of rules. They sat together for a very long time, John Charles Thring, a former student from Shrewsbury, reported afterwards. The resulting Cambridge Rules are very similar to today’s football game, as running, hacking and handball was forbidden (Fair Catch was allowed again). The FA Rules are mostly based on the Cambridge (university) Rules of 1863.

Sheffield FC Rules

At about the same time as the Cambridge Rules, sports clubs of the English upper classes were formed within the cities, which, in addition to equestrian sports and hunting, also enjoyed the football variants as well as cricket. Sheffield FC, the oldest football club today, was founded on 24 October 1857. The founders were two cricketers who found football a suitable sport to keep fit over the winter months. This was not an unusual combination for several decades, because cricket was a summer game and football were played during the winter months.

On 28 October 1858, about a year after its founding, Sheffield FC published its first own rules. The Sheffield FC Rules dealt with kick off, goal kick, throw-in, rules concerning fair and foul playing the ball and opposite players, concerning player’s equipment and how a goal is scored. Running, hacking and handball was prohibited, and fair catch was allowed. The first draft had also provided that a ball bouncing on the ground could be picked up (but not hit or pushed). This part is no longer part of the final rules. The fair and foul play of Sheffield FC of 1858 clearly resembles the regulations of the current football game but is not identical. Besides the fair catch, it was allowed to push a player to charge, also during a place kick. An offside rule did not exist at all until 1867. In 1862, the rouge was added to determine the winner of a draw as well as rules about changing ends, free kicks, measurements of goals and rouge flags. (What is a Rouge?)

A game against other clubs was not possible because of the different rules, so that the players of Sheffield FC first played against each other: The players with the initial names A to K against those with L to Z – the fact that the number of players was unequal was not uncommon at that time and in the sense of the gentlemen this was no unfairness, because in the game they dealt fairly with each other. It also meant not gaining an advantage. The first match against another club took place for Sheffield FC on December 26, 1860 – Boxing Day – against the newly founded club from neighbouring, Hallam FC.

Foundation of the Football Association

On 26 October 1863, representatives of various football clubs met at the Freemasons‘ Tavern in Covent Garden, London. 

It took five meetings until they published the rules of their association on December 5, 1863, because discrepancies concerning running while carrying the ball and hacking were not only clear – and led to the division into football and rugby. The FA Rules prohibited handball (with the exception of fair catch until 1871) as well as hacking and tripping and were based on the 1863 edition of the Cambridge Rules.

By joining the FA, the member clubs agreed to play only against clubs that were also members of the FA and therefore played under the same rules. The FA Rules were valid from 1863 to 1865 from September, from 1865 to 1874 immediately after their decision in February and from 1874 at the beginning of each season. Special rules were the fair catch (1863-1871), the allowed handball of the goalkeeper (from 1871) and the touchdown, which was only executed in the 1866/67 season and corresponded to the rouge of Sheffield FC 1862-1867.

Foundation of Sheffield and Hallamshire FA

Four years after the FA was founded, the Sheffield and Hallamshire Football Association, or Sheffield FA for short, was formed from clubs in and around Sheffield. The foundation goes back to the both 17-year-old Sir John Charles Clegg and Charles Stokes. The 13 member clubs of the Sheffield FA had already adapted the Sheffield FC Rules at that time: Hallam FC, Heeley FC, Norfolk FC, Pitsmoor FC, Mechanics‘ FC, Garrick FC, Fir Vale FC, Norton FC, Wellington FC, Mackenzie FC, Broomhall FC and Milton FC: In addition, they were all participating clubs in the Youdan Cup from 16 February to 9 March 1867, the first cup competition in England (Sheffield FC had not taken part in the competition but was a member of the association). The Sheffield FA rules were published in March. Although the member clubs had all previously adopted the Sheffield FC Rules, there were made some changes in 1867. It differed from the Sheffield FC Rules by a new structure of the rules, which were all reworded. Partly the rules were given rules that had not been discussed before, partly they differed, partly they were adopted. The rules of the Sheffield FA were a mixture of the Sheffield FC Rules and the FA Rules. 

The Sheffield FA Rules had more in common with our current Laws of the Game than any other regulation of the time and decades to come, including offside with less than two opponents between the ball and the opposing goal. Another special feature of the Sheffield FA Rules was the ability to score rouges in order to avoid having a winner at the end of the game. In contrast to the touchdown of the FA Rules, the rouges were introduced into the Sheffield FC Rules in 1862 and were only valid for the 1867/68 season in the Sheffield FA Rules. In 1868, they were replaced by the corner kick and goal kick. Other features were: The introduction of an elected umpire pro team, whose decisions were final (1868), who were the only judges (1869) and used flags for signalling (1875). In addition, the introduction of a height limit for the goals (from 1862), the goal kick (from 1868) and the kick-in instead of throw-in (from 1868). In addition, in free kicks (used as a penalty since 1871), the opposing players had to be 18 ft (approx. 5.5 m) from the ball and 9 ft (approx. 2.7 m) from the opposing players (1869).

The Football Rules of Sheffield FA and FA 1877

After the Sheffield FA had tried for several years to create a uniform set of rules with the FA, the Sheffield FA adopted the FA Rules on April 23, 1877. The differences in the two rules concerned mainly the offside law, the goal-kick law and the kick-in (instead of the throw-in).

However, by taking over the FA Rules, it was by no means the case that the same rules were immediately applied throughout England. In the meantime, the Birmingham FA had been founded in 1875 and also after 1877 there were regional associations founded: 1878 in Lancashire, 1882 in Norfolkshire, Oxfordshire, Essex and Suissex FA, 1883 in Berkshire, Buckingham, Walsall, Kent, Nottinghamshire, Middlesex, Liverpool, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Scarborough. However, all regional federations adopted the FA Rules shortly after their foundation, so that around 1880 the FA Rules were actually applied throughout England.

Founding of the International Football Association Board and a uniform, internationally valid set of rules, the Laws of the Game

The establishment of the International Football Association Board coincides with the permission to play professional football and the resulting boom of playing football in England. With the regulated football at the public schools, the gentlemen had laid the foundation for the emergence of the mass phenomenon of football and as more and more workers became football players, they either turned away from football or supported it as economic patrons. Since the workers did not practise the sport as a mere leisure activity, but liked to use it as an extra income, the effort for a paid football sport became ever greater, because the wages of the workers, miners and factory workers were so low that the families had to live at least at the subsistence level, if not below it. Football was not played as a pastime but became a competition. It was not the game but the victory that came to the fore, and with it, more and more attempts were made to obtain it not only in a fair way.

The international games played since 1872 were the reason for the emergence of this international board – although international at that time was synonymous with British, since football was not yet so advanced in other regions of the world that national teams existed.

After the first international matches between the British countries in the 1870s, there were in the early 1880s first meetings to plan a British football cup. Because: The football rules of the four British countries were not absolutely identical. Previous international matches often played according to the rules of the home team, but not always, for example at the first international match between England and Scotland in 1872. This was played completely according to the FA Rules, as the Scottish team consisted exclusively of players from Queen’s Park FC, whose club was a member of the Football Association as the Scottish Football Association was founded not before 1873.

On 27 February 1880 the secretaries of the Associations of England, Scotland and Wales, the representatives from Sheffield, Lancashire, Staffordshire, Berks and Bucks, Birmingham and District and all County Challenge Cup Associations met in London and on 6 December 1882 the four British national associations met in Manchester.

The first British Home Championship was held as early as 1884, but the British International Federation was not founded until 2 June 1886 under the name International Football Association Board.

The Laws of the Game, as the rules were called, were a continuation of the FA Rules.

A detailed list of all changes in the football rules can be found here – sorted by law and by year.

Kategorie: English


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