The Rules That Changed the Way Football Has Been Played

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We take a look at the evolution of the rules of football but will leave you to decide if VAR is a good thing.

Champions League footballs.

It’s hard to remember a time before VAR, so how about a time before crossbars, referees and penalty kicks. Here are some of the rule changes over the decades that have helped turn the game of football into the one we love today.

It was way back in 1863 that the first laws of the game were written, a tome which made no mention of match officials, goalkeepers, offences or even the duration of a match. Yet it did include an offside law – and it was a lot clearer back then!

Many of the original provisions have long since been discarded, among them the maximum size of a pitch – 200 yards x 100 yards. Someone, presumably in the mists of time, foretold that one day there would be this team called Manchester City who really weren’t going to need any more room to ritually play teams off the park.

Hands, Refs and Pens

The original rules made no objection to handling the ball – that went in 1870 – apart from a goalkeeper, whose specially-designated role was clarified a year later.

The throw-in, something of a who-got-to-the-ball-first bunfight in the early days, was given some sense in 1873 (though had to be delivered at 90 degrees initially, rather like rugby’s lineout) and the role of the referee – hitherto a couple of umpires off the pitch – was given some weight. In 1881, the newly-empowered match referee was allowed to send someone off, though only for violent conduct.

Ten years after that and any offence committed within 12 yards of the goal – in a straight line across the pitch – was punished with a penalty kick. The penalty spot wasn’t first painted onto a pitch until 1902.

The Arrival of Sweet 17

More tinkering followed until 1938 when Stanley Rous, international ref and future kingpin at Fifa, decreed in his role as secretary of the Football Association that a new, slimline, all-encompassing rulebook needed compiling – and that gave us the basis of the 17 laws which govern our game to this day.

The next big rule change came in 1958 when substitutes were allowed for the first time but that wasn’t as radical as the next major offside tweak when it was decided in 1990 that you were onside if you were level with the second-last defender (previously decreed offside) in a bid to make for more attacking football.

Two years after that the backpass rule was amended to stipulate goalies could not pick up a pass back from a team-mate.

All Hail New Tech

The modern phenomenon, and it’s transformed the game, has been courtesy of the arrival of technology. In 2012, for example, goal-line technology was introduced, 46 years too late to cast any light on Geoff Hurst’s World Cup final over-the-line-or-not mystery.

And then came arguably the most contentious addition to the rulebook since 1887 when it was agreed goalkeepers could no longer handle the ball in the opposition half – VAR!

Operating under the mantra “minimal interference, maximum benefit”, let’s just say it’s not exactly clear and obvious whether this has been a step too far or not.

Steve Davies is an occasional contributor to the MansionBet Blog. He holds a keen interest in many sports, with Darts taking the first position.
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