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At its heart, football is an incredibly simple game,  and it is the simplicity of it that has made it one the most popular sports around the world.  In its most basic form it can be played with very little equipment and under almost any circumstances.  It can be played by you and a few buddies in the park with a ball and the proverbial jumpers for goalposts, it can be played by barefooted kids on the street with an improvised ball made by stringed together cloth.  The basic rules are that you score by sending the ball into the opponent's goal, and you are allowed to propel the ball with any part of your anatomy except your arms and hands.  The team with the highest score wins.  That's it, really, but perhaps the even more basic rule is to have fun.

There is historical evidence of games, not unlike modern football, played in different times and ages around the world, but the game of association football—which the students at Oxford University abbreviated “soccer”—has its foundation in the schools of England in the middle of the 19th Century.  It is ironic, that the game, as it was played then, has as much, if not more, in common with rugby or American football than it has with modern day football.

The early game had no organized set of rules.  Rules were improvised and those that were written down varied greatly from school to school.  The most important historical rulesets were the Cambridge rules of 1848, the Sheffield rules of 1857 and the Uppingham School rules of 1862.  At a glance, the rules differ from the modern rules the most by allowing players to catch—but not run with or throw—the ball.

The next major step was the rules of the Football Association of 1863.  When the FA and the Sheffield club merged in 1878 the rules used by the Football Association became the default set of rules, hence the name “Association Football.”

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I.  The field of play

The Football Association rules of 1863 was rather loose on the exact magnitude of the field stating only that a field should be less than 200 yards long and no wider that 100 yards.  Today international games take place on a field measuring 110–120 × 70–80 yards, although the tolerances for non-international matches are a lot higher.

At first, the extent of the field of play was marked by four flag posts, one in every corner.  Later, chalk lines—touch lines and goal lines—were drawn between the flags.  The centre of the field was marked for kickoffs, and the centre circle was drawn around it.  Changing rules have changed the lines on the field, but the halway line and the corner arc around the corner flagpost dates from 1887, and in 1902 the penalty and goal areas found the form they have today.  The last change came in 1937 when the penalty arc outside the penalty area was drawn.

II.  The Goals

On the centre of the goal lines, the goals are placed.  They consist of two goal posts and a crossbar connecting them at the top.  The goal posts were originally placed anywhere, from a few feet apart to the eight yards ruled by Football Association.  In some of the early rules a tape or rope was tied between the tops of the posts to indicate the goal mouth, but in other rules there were explicitly no such tape and there was no height restriction for a goal to be scored.  But the FA rules of 1863 decreed that tape had to be used in a height of eight feet, and these dimensions—eight yards by eight feet—are the ones still used.  After a few false starts, the tape was finally abolished in 1882 and the crossbar made mandatory.

The goal posts and crossbars must be five inches across, painted white, and be of any shape and material as long as it is safe for the players.

It is not mandatory to have nets in the back of the goal, but it is a practical solution that have been used since 1891.

III.  The ball

The first balls were made of leather encased pigs' bladders and were oblong:  Not as oblong as a rugby ball or an American football, but definitely not spherical.  It was only with the invention of the rubber bladder in the 1860es that (almost) completely round balls were feasible.

The size of the ball varied wildly from place to place.  The first time there is mention of an agreement to use a particular size of ball is in 1866 when two teams play with a “Lillywhite's No 5.”  The size 5 balls with a 27–28 inches circumference was popular and was soon written into the rules as the standard size ball.  This is still the FIFA rule.

The weight of the ball was set to be 12–15 ounces in 1889, but was changed to 14–16 ounces in 1937.

It wasn't until after the 1940es the size 5 became the international standard, and in the first World Cup Final in 1930 between Uruguay and Argentina an Argentinian ball was used in the first half—which ended 2–1 to Argentina—and a Uruguayan ball was used in the second half where Uruguay scored three goals to one to win the match.

While the balls' size and weight hasn't changed considerably, the design and look of them certainly has.  The first balls were sown together like an American football, but couldn't retain its shape very long.  This was remedied by using interlocking leather panels.  The early balls had heavy stichings and became waterlogged in wet weather which often caused injuries to the players when they headed them.  This was changed when the “buckyball”-design of the American architect Richard Buckminster was adopted.  This design of pentagons and hexagons sewn together has been used ever since.  Also, today, synthetic leather have replaced real leather as the material of choice as it is less water absorbant.

Originally, the ball was the color of the leather used, but in the 1950es a white ball was introduced for floodlighted night games, and an orange ball was introduced for games in the snow.  When the buckyball-design gained popularity it became common to use a white football with black spots.  Now, different ball manufacturers have created many different color schemes in order to distinguish one brand from another.

IIII.  The players

Initially, there was no limit on the size of the team.  The exact number of players on both teams were agreed upon before the game by the two team captains.  Matches with an uneven number of players—for instance, fourteen against nine—were not uncommon.  This was when football was only played for sport, not for competition.

Today, a game begins with two teams of 7–11 players.  If a team, during the game, becomes less than seven players, the game is called off.

One player on each team is the designated goalkeeper and should dress in a way that distinguishes himself from the others.  The goalkeeper is allowed to handle the ball inside his own penalty area.  Before 1912 he was allowed to handle the ball everywhere on his team's half of the field.  In fact, before the beginning of the 1870es all players were allowed to catch or stop the ball with their hands, though they were not allowed to throw it or run with it.  Before the no-handling rule came into power there was often speculation on merging the rules of soccer and rugger (rugby).

Besides the goalkeeper, the players all have a specific role, and place in the formations, given by the tactic they are following.  Very basically, a field player is either a defender, a mid-fielder, or a striker.  This was not always so, at first, when football was almost entirely a dribbler's game, it was every man for himself, and the usual formation was a 1-1-8, that is, one fullback, one halfback, and eight forwards.  When passing the ball became more common—the “combination” game—the preferred tactics evolved into a 2-3-5 formation:

11                    10                         9                           8                     7   
Left Wing     Inside Left     Centre Forward     Inside Right   Right Wing

6                                5                             4    
Left Halfback     Centre Halfback     Right Halfback

3                             2
Left Fullback     Right Fullback


The numbers above the designations are the players' traditional shirt numbers.  For a long time players played without numbers, but in the late 1920es and early 1930es shirt numbers became increasingly popular, and in 1939 the Football League made them mandatory.  They had to be 1–11 and correspond to the positions as indicated above.

Today, a player is most often given a number that lasts at least the entire season and which is not an indication of position on the field nor whether the player is among the starting eleven from the squad.  This also makes it practical to have the player's name on the jersey as well as his number.

The next big thing in player formation was the W-M formation.  It drew back the left and right insides—forming a ‘W’ with the forwards—and withdrew the centre halfback—which usually got the new designation “centre half”—forming an ‘M’ with the backs.  Since then, formations have gone in and out of fashion, like the 4-3-3, the 3-5-2, and the most popular at the moment, the 4-4-2 formation.

It wasn't until 1965 that substitutions was allowed, and then only for injured players.  The year after, this was changed to allow substitutions for any reason.  In official, international matches there can be no more than three substitutions, but in friendlies any number can be agreed upon.  Note though, once a player is substituted they cannot enter the game again.

The players must wear shorts and jerseys, socks and boots.  Their uniform should be easily distinguishable from the other team's.  They are also required to use shinguards.  Shinguards were introduced in the 1870es and was originally modified shin pads from cricket.

V.  The referee

Association football is sometimes described as a gentleman's game for hooligans—as opposed to rugby, which is a hooligan's game for gentlemen—but in the early days, there was no need for a referee.  Sportsmanship was an ideal held high and disputes were settled peacefully between the two team captains.  However, with the advent of FA Cup and competitive soccer in the 1870es, the need for assistance arose.

Back then, each team appointed an umpire.  The umpires had no authority to interfere in the game, but could be appealed to—as in cricket—by the players.  In 1873, they were given power to award a free kick for handball, and in 1874 for other offences as well.  The same year, they were given the power to send off a player for “persistent infringement of the rules.”

Football legend has it, the whistle was used for the first time by an umpire in a football game in 1878.

Unsurprisingly, the need for a third, and neutral, observer to settle differences between the umpires soon became apparent, and in 1880 the referee is mentioned for the first time.  He had the power to caution players guilty of ungentlemanly conduct and to send off players not heeding the caution or otherwise conducting themselves violently.  In 1889 or 1890 the referee's power was greatly enhanced when he could award a free kick without waiting for an appeal from a player.  It is speculated that it was at this time any real need for a whistle first appeared.

About a year later, the referee finally traded places with the umpires and was allowed onto the field.  The umpires became “linesmen” and the tradition of once having linesmen partial to one of the teams is reflected in the rulebooks even today as they are often described with the qualifier “neutral.”

The decisions of the referee are final.  Only the referee may change his own rulings, and only if he has not already restarted the play.

In 1996 the linesmen were renamed to “assistant referees,” a title more fitting their actual role.  That is, to rule when the ball has crossed the boundaries of the field—and, in that case, decide which team will get the throw-in, corner kick or goal kick—to rule when a team has taken advantage of an offside player, and finally, to assist the referee in making calls about situations where the assistant referee is in a better position to judge.

A recent invention is a fourth official in international matches.  The fourth official is off the field of play, but can act as substitution for the referee in case of injury, help with the bookkeeping, and keep track of the teams' substitutions.

VI.  The duration of the game

As with so many other things, the duration of the games wasn't standardized at first.  1866 saw the first match where the duration of the game was prearranged for one and a half hours, or ninety minutes.  This was later set as the maximum standard duration of a game, but in friendlies the two teams are allowed to agree on a shorter game.

All normal tournament or international games last two halves of at least 45 minutes, each with a half-time break of fifteen minutes.  It is entirely up to the referee, however, when to end a half or the game, and to make up for lost time—injury time—the referee adds time to the clock.  This is almost always between two and five minutes.

When the referee sounds the final whistle, signalling the end of the second half, the team with the better score is the winner.  If both teams have scored an equal amount of goals—or none at all—it ends as a draw.  If the game is drawn by the end of the second half, and a winner must be found, the game goes into extra time.

If the referee, for any reason, stops the game prematurely, the game is void and has to be replayed.

VII.  The kickoff

After exchanging pleasantries, a coin is tossed by the referee.  The winning team has the option of either choosing which end to play from, or take the kickoff.

The kickoff is a place kick taken from the centre mark into the opponents' half of the field.  All players has to be on their own half of the field before the kickoff, and opposition players must be outside the ten yards centre circle.  The ball is in play when it has moved the distance of its circumference, that is, typically around a little more than two feet.

Because the kick has to be inside the opponents half of the field, and because the kicker is not allowed to play the ball again before another player has touched it, it is standard for the kicker to just barely kick it the distance needed, passing it to a team member standing right next to him.  Otherwise the risk of losing the ball would be overwhelming.

In the second half the teams change ends and attack in the opposite direction, and the other team gets the kickoff.

VIII.  Scoring

If the ball completely crosses the goal line, inside the goal posts and under the crossbar, a goal is scored.  The game is restarted by a kickoff.

Scoring goals is the only way to win a game, no other criteria can be agreed upon.

VIIII.  The free kick

When a player breaks a rule the usual penalty is a free kick to the other team.  The referee doesn't have to stop the game and award a free kick, if he believes it is to the advantage of the offended team to allow the game to continue.  A free kick is taken from the place of infringement.  When taking a free kick, the ball must be stationary and the player who kicks cannot play the ball again before another player has touched it.  The opposing team members was once allowed to be as close as six yards away from a free kick, but this was changed in 1913 to ten yards.  There is one exception which I'll note below.  Two types of free kicks can be awarded; direct and indirect:

VIIII.a  The direct free kick

A team is allowed to score directly with a direct free kick.  If a team is subject to an offense that would otherwise give a direct free kick inside their opponents penalty area, they are given a penalty kick instead.

A direct free kick is awarded the opposing team if a player commits—or attempts to commit—any of the following offenses:

  1. kicks an opponent;
  2. trips an opponent;
  3. jumps at an opponent;
  4. charges an opponent;
  5. strikes an opponent;
  6. pushes an opponent;
  7. tackles an opponent to gain possession of the ball, making contact with the opponent before touching the ball;
  8. holds an opponent;
  9. spits at an opponent;
  10. handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area.)

VIIII.b  The indirect free kick

A team is not allowed to score directly on an indirect free kick.  Before 1927 all free kicks were indirect.

An indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a goalkeeper:

  1. takes more than six seconds while controlling the ball with his hands before releasing it from his possession;
  2. handles the ball again after it has been released from his possession and has not touched any other player;
  3. handles the ball after it has been deliberately kicked to him by a team-mate;
  4. handles the ball after he has received it directly from a throw-in taken by a team-mate.

The last two rules were created in 1992for the good of the game—to disallow ultra-passive playing.

Furthermore, the opposing team is awarded an indirect freekick if a player:

  1. plays in a dangerous manner, for instance, by kicking at the ball close to an opponents head;
  2. impedes the progress of an opponent;
  3. prevents the goalkeeper from releasing the ball from his hands;
  4. commits any other offence, not previously mentioned, for which play is stopped to caution or dismiss a player.

Since an indirect free kick can be awarded to the attacking team inside their opponents penalty area, it is accepted that the defenders are not at least ten yards away if they are standing on their own goal line between the goal posts.

X.  The penalty kick

The “kick of death”—as it was known then—was introduced in 1891 as a penalty for offences committed closer than twelve yards from the goal line.  From this point a line was drawn across the field to demarcate the penalty area.  A kick of death could be taken from any point on the twelve yard penalty line, and all other players—with the notable exception of the defending goalkeeper—had to stand at least six yards behind the kicker.  Thus, an eighteen yard line was drawn across the field as well.

This system was in force until 1902 when the rules were changed.  The penalty area was extended to the eighteen yard line, but instead of being as wide as the field of play, the penalty area only extended eighteen yards along the goal line from each goal post, making it 44 yards wide.

Instead of allowing the penalty kick to be taken anywhere on the 12 yard line, the kicker now had to take it from the exact centre.

The other players still only had to be six yards behind the penalty mark, that is, just outside the penalty area, but in 1937 they also had to be at least ten yards away from the penalty mark.  This was done to give the kicker more space to kick the ball, and the penalty arc was drawn to aid the referee in observing this rule.

The defending goalkeeper must remain on his goal line between the goal posts.  A rule change has allowed him to move on the goal line before the kick has been taken, to give the goalkeeper a better chance of saving the shot.

The kicker must kick the ball forward, and is not allowed to touch the ball again before another player has touched the ball.

XI.  The yellow and the red card

A yellow card is a caution given to a player by the referee.  This caution is given when the player is guilty of any of the following:

  1. unsporting behaviour, for instance, taking a dive in the penalty area to simulate a foul;
  2. showing dissent by word or action;
  3. persistently infringing the Laws of the Game;
  4. delaying the restart of play, usually by being too slow taking a free kick, or by kicking the ball away;
  5. failing to respect the required distance when play is restarted with a free kick;
  6. entering or re-entering the field of play without the referee's permission;
  7. deliberately leaving the field of play without the referee's permission.

If a player receives his second yellow card in a game, he is also presented with a red card.

When a red card is given to a player, the player is immediately disqualified and sent off the field.  His team members must play what remains of the game with a player less on their team.  It is presented to a player when the player is guilty of any of the following:

  1. serious foul play—for instance a dangerous tackle from behind—this was added in 1998;
  2. violent conduct;
  3. spitting at an opponent or any other person;
  4. denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball (does not apply to a goalkeeper within his own penalty area);
  5. denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player's goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick—also known as a “professional foul”—this was added in 1990;
  6. using offensive or insulting or abusive language and/or gestures;
  7. receiving a second caution in the same match.

The yellow and red cards' colors were inspired from a traffic light.  There is no “green card”.

XII.  The goal kick and the corner kick

Originally, if a ball went behind the goal line, the question of who should gain posession of the ball—and get a free kick—was decided by who reached the ball first:  The fastest team got the kick.  This was changed in 1869 when the defending team was awarded the free kick in every instance, and again four years later in 1871 when the rule, we are familiar with today, was created and the kick is awarded to the team that did not kick it behind the goallines.

XII.a  The goal kick

The defending team's free kick is properly known as goal kick.  It hasn't changed much through the years.  From taking the kick on the goal line closest to where the ball was touched, the 1869 rule changed the place of the kick is to within six yards of the the team's goal post, which is why two semicircles around each goal post marked this area until the rule changed in 1902, and the team was allowed to kick anywhere within their own goal area.  The goal area is a rectangle extending six yards into the field from the goal line and six yards on both sides of the goal posts.

The attacking team must leave the penalty area entirely.

XII.b  The corner kick

The attacking team's free kick is today known as a corner kick, but originally they weren't taken from the corner of the field, but from the point fifteen yards into the field of play from the goal line that was closest to where the ball was touched.  Only in 1871 it was changed to be kicked from the nearest corner flagpost.  As is the case of all free kicks, the distance the defending team must observe increased from six yards to ten yards in 1913.  Further, a corner kick is considered to be a direct free kick, and thus it is legal to score directly from a corner kick.

The ball enters play immediately after either a goal kick or corner kick has been taken, but the kicker may not play the ball again until another player has played it.

XIII.  The throw-in

At the very beginning, when a ball crossed the touch lines the rules was very similar to the ones concerning the ball crossing the goal line, and the ball was kicked onto the field again.  When throw-ins was first introuced the player had to throw it onto the field at a right angle to the touch line, and only when the ball had touched the ground, was it in play.  In 1877 this was changed so the player could throw the ball in any direction he wished.  Because of the considerable distance the ball was thrown, it was decided in 1882 that the throw must be with both hands.

The throw-in is awarded to the team that didn't send the ball across the line.  Other than throwing with two hands, the ball must be thrown from the spot it crossed the line, with both feet on the ground—on or outside the touch line—and over the head.  The ball is playable immidiately after it is thrown, but the thrower has to wait for another player to touch the ball before he can play it.

XIIII.  Offside

If you are “off the strength of your side”—offside—you are in fact, temporarily, out of the game and cannot be played. 

In the beginning, two completely opposite offside rules existed in different rulesets.  The first rule was that any player in front of the ball was offside, which meant you could not pass the ball forward, but had to “scrummage” or dribble the ball forward.  That was how they played it in Uppingham.  The other rule was that there was no rule.  This meant that players known as “kick-throughs” loitered near near the opponents' goal, ready to score on a long pass.  And that was how they played it in Sheffield.

The Cambridge rules of 1848 stated that three opponents needed to be between a forward and the defending goal for him not to be offside.  This was the rule that would prevail, but not without many arguments.  Nonetheless, this rule change had an epochal significance, as the game changed from being played in scrums to becoming a game of passing, and some even say it was the birth of “the beautiful game.”  The three players-offside rule lasted until 1925 when it when the number of players in front of a player not offside was reduced to two players, because the defense had begun to completely dominate the game.  The season after the change saw an increase in scored goals by more than a third.  The two player-offside rule stands today.

In 1990 the offside rule was changed once again to allow for more offensive playing.  The new rule stated, that if the attacker was inline with the second last defender, he was not offside.

Bar none, the offside rule is the hardest to grasp for the casual observer, and it is also the most complicated rule of them all.

First, a player can never be offside on his own half of the field, and a player is never offside if the ball is between him and the opponents' goal line.  Finally, a player can never be offside when a team member takes a throw-in, goal kick or corner kick.

If none of the above applies, a player is in an offside position if he is closer to the opponents' goal line than the second last or last player from the opposing team.  But being in an offside position is not an offense in itself.  Only if the player gets an advantage, by being in the offside position, or if he interferes with the game, is the player penalized and the other team awarded an indirect free kick.

This is judged by the assistant referee at the moment a team member of the offside player plays the ball, regardless to whom he plays it.

XV.  The drop ball

If the game has been stopped for other reasons than a foul—for instance, because of a streaker—the referee simply restarts the game with a “drop ball.”  That is, the referee simply drops the ball in front of two players from opposite teams.  As the ball hits the ground the game is afoot again.

XVI.  The goal area

Special rules concern the goal area.  If a free kick is given to a team inside its own goal area, it can be taken from any point within the area.  If an indirect free kick is given inside the opponent's goal area, it is taken from the point on the goal area line parallel to the goal line, closest to where the infringement occurred.  The latter also applies to dropping balls inside a goal area.

XVII.  Extra time

Special competiton rules may exist for drawn matches.  If a winner must be found the game is extended with an extra time of 2 × 15 minutes.  This begins right after the regular game time has ended.  If the competition uses the traditional rules, the winners are the team with most goals after both periods of the extra time have run out.  If they are using the rather unpopular “Golden Goal”-rules, the winner is the team that scores the first goal inside the extra time.  This rule is unpopular, because the idea of sudden death is very unfamiliar to association football.  Therefore, a third variant has been developed, the so-called Silver Goal, where if any team has a higher score than the other at the end of any of the two extra time periods, that team is the winner.

XVIII.  Penalty shootout

If, by the end of extra time, the two teams are still tied, they proceed to the penalty shootout.  A penalty shootout begins as a series of ten penalty kicks, five kicks per each team.  These kicks are taken alternately by the teams, and no player may take a second kick before all other eligible players also have kicked.

All players, except the kicker and the two goalkeepers, must remain within the centre circle.  And with the exception of an injury to the goalkeeper, no substitution of the players remaining on the field at the end of the game may be made.

If one team has such a high score that the other team cannot possibly reach it, no more penalties are taken, and the team with the higher score wins.  For example, if one team misses on its first three penalty kicks, and the other team scores on all of them, there is no point in going on.  If both teams have the same score after they both have kicked five penalties, they go on until one team has scored a goal more than the other from the same number of kicks.  That team is the winner.

Further reading:

  • www.fifa.com
  • www.innotts.co.uk/soccer/hist1.htm
  • www.soccerballworld.com/History.htm
  • www.kenaston.org/History/Home.htm
  • www.englandfootballonline.com/TeamUnif/UnifNosNames.html

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