The development of football rules

The rules of football 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 there 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 1948 when a meeting was held, but not until a second meeting 15 years later in London a satisfying set of rules could be agreed on. The rules were, however, in many ways 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 together and also 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 that should 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 if the shape of the game. It took several more meetings until it was decided in that once for all that football was a game what exclusively should be played with the feet and not by the hands – this would also result in the dividing of football and rugby. Until 1863, carrying the ball with the hands was still practiced in several schools.

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 was that seen as a masculinity objective.

Thus, by 1863 a standardization has been reached, but it was still far from the modern game we are familiar with. Here are some rules that were applied:

The referee

No referees were actually involved until 1871(!). Instead, the captains of both teams was assign 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 could decide if the captains of each team couldn't agree.

Not until 1891 did a referee appear on the pitch.

Before the FIFA 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, the 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.


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 superfluous.

The first law with a resemblance of offside dictated that passes had to be done either sideways or backwards. In 1866, the rule was changed and it became 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 that way that more defenders being used.

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