Evolution Of Sports Law, Football As a Case Study (Part 1)

Evolution Of Sports Law, Football As a Case Study (Part 1)


Michael K. Bielonwu Esq., MCIArb., FIDR.


Sports law generally refers to the body of laws, rules and regulations guiding a particular sport. This transcends the actual sporting activities to life outside the sporting arena. Therefore, in this series, we shall look at how the law has evolved concerning football, both on and off the pitch.

History of football:

Under this sub, we shall briefly look at the evolution of modern football, paying attention mainly to the growth of football in Europe and football at the world cup level. That is, how what is arguably the most significant competition in football outside the World cup, referring to the UEFA Champions League and the World cup, evolved into what it is today. We shall do this bearing in mind that modern football originated in Britain, and football bodies worldwide took their cue from that development.

The game of football started long ago. The Chinese military used to play a game called Tsu’ Chu, which involved kicking a ball made of leather filled with hair and feathers through a small opening and into a net. The player wasn’t allowed to use their hands but could use their body to hold off opponents trying to put them off by jumping on top of them¹.

Also, the ancient Japanese had a game called Kemari. Kemari is a ball game that is said to have come from China to Japan during the Yamato period approximately 1,400 years ago. There are no winners or losers in this game, the objective of the game being simply to pass the ball to fellow players². The first evidence of Kemari is from 644 CE. The rules were standardised from the 13th century. The game was influenced by the Chinese sport of Cuju (the earliest form of football). The kanji characters for Kemari are the same as Cuju in Chinese. The sport was introduced to Japan in about 600, during the Asuka period. Nowadays, it is played in Shinto shrines for festivals. George H. W. Bush played the game on one of his presidential visits to Japan.³

Ancient Greece had a game called Episkyros, which involved using the feet. This game was usually played between two teams of twelve to fourteen players, each with one ball; the rules of the game at that time allowed the use of hands. The objective was to throw the ball over the heads of the other team.

Then the Romans had their sport known as harpastum. The aim of this game was for a team to try to keep the ball on their half of the field for as long as possible. Teammates would pass the ball among their teammates to get it alive in their zone.

Modern football and rules:

A look at these different dispensations of what has come to be known today as football, one will realise that there seems to be a mixture of what is known today as soccer and rugby football. Although there are reports of games of football being played as early as 1581 in schools in England, however, the first documented use of the word ‘football’ actually happened as long ago as 1409. Despite the foregoing, the game of football as it is known today originates from a decision in 1863 for rugby and association football to go their separate ways.

Modern Football, also called association football or soccer, originated in Britain in the 19th century. The game is played between two teams of 11 players, using any part of their bodies except their hands and arms. Each player tries to manoeuvre the ball into the opposing team’s goal during the game. Only the goalkeeper can handle the ball and may do so within the penalty area surrounding the goal. The team that scores more goals wins.

As early as 1843, there have been attempts to standardise and codify the rules of play made at the University of Cambridge, whose students joined most public schools in 1848 in adopting these “Cambridge rules,” which were further spread by Cambridge graduates who formed football clubs. In 1863 a series of meetings involving clubs from metropolitan London and surrounding counties produced the printed rules of football, which prohibited carrying the ball. Thus, the “handling” game of rugby remained outside the newly formed Football Association (FA). Indeed, by 1870 all ball handling except by the goalkeeper was prohibited by the FA. However, the new rules were not universally accepted in Britain; many clubs retained their own rules, especially in and around Sheffield. Although this northern English city was the home of the first provincial club to join the FA in 1867, it also gave birth to the Sheffield Football Association, the forerunner of later county associations. Sheffield and London’s clubs played two matches against each other in 1866, and a year later, a match pitting a club from Middlesex against one from Kent and Surrey was played under the revised rules. In 1871 15 FA clubs accepted an invitation to enter a cup competition and to contribute to the purchase of a trophy. By 1877 the associations of Great Britain had agreed upon a uniform code and 43 clubs went ahead to compete in that competition.

From the preceding, it is clear that the Cambridge rules of 1848 were the first known rules in modern football and all subsequent rules were built on them. However, these rules of 1848 needed to be more cohesive as they were, due mainly to the fact that many Football Associations adopted their own rules, which were a mixture of soccer and rugby football. However, in April of 1877, a cohesive set of rules for football, i.e. soccer, was finally drawn up and agreed upon.

Summary of amendments to the rules:

Since 1877, there have been some changes to the rules of football; however, for this article and the follow-up series, we shall consider the amendment to the laws of football from 1866.

In 1866, the strict rugby-style offside rule was relaxed. The 1866 rule was that a player is onside as long as there are three opponents between the player and the opposing goal. The award of a free kick for a fair catch (still seen in other football codes) is eliminated. A tape (corresponding to the modern crossbar) is added to the goals; previously, goals could be scored at any height. In 1867, The situation when the ball goes behind the goal line was simplified: all rugby-like elements were removed, with the defending team being awarded a goal-kick regardless of which team touched the ball. In 1870, all handling of the ball is forbidden (previously, players had been allowed to catch the ball). Teams change ends at half-time, but only if no goals were scored in the first half. In 1871, there was the introduction of the specific position of goalkeeper, who is allowed to handle the ball “for the protection of his goal. In 1872,the indirect free kick was introduced as a punishment for a handball, the first mention of punitive action for contravening the rules.

The corner kick was also introduced. Teams do not change ends after goals scored during the second half. In 1873, The throw-in is awarded against the team who kicked the ball into touch (previously it was awarded to the first player from either team to touch the ball after it went out of play). In 1874, the indirect free kick, previously used only to punish handball, is extended to cover foul play and offside.

The first reference to a match official (the “umpire”). Previously, team captains had generally been expected to enforce the laws. In 1875, a goal may not be directly scored from a corner kick or from the kick-off. Teams change ends at half-time only. The goal may have either a crossbar or tape.

Further amendments were made in 1877 when the association of Great Britain agreed on a uniform code. During this period, The throw-in may go in any direction (previously, it had to be thrown in at right-angles to the touchline, as today in rugby union). As a result of this change, the clubs of the Sheffield Football Association agreed to abandon their own distinctive “Sheffield Rules” and adopt the FA laws. Therefore, the following rules were codified through an amendment to the rules in 1878; A player can be offside from a throw-in. In 1881, The referee was introduced to decide disputes between the umpires. The caution (for “ungentlemanly behaviour”) and the sending-off (for violent conduct) appear in the laws for the first time.

In 1883, the International Football Conference, held between the English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh football associations in December 1882, resulted in the unification of the rules across the home nations, i.e. referred initially to the then four national teams of the United Kingdom. This entailed several changes to the FA’s laws the following year. The throw-in finally reaches its modern form, with players required to throw the ball from above the head using two hands. A player cannot be offside from a corner kick. The goalkeeper may take up to two steps while holding the ball.  The goal must have a crossbar (the option of using tape is removed). The kick-off must be kicked forwards. The touch-line is introduced (previously, the boundary of the field of play had been marked by flags).

In 1887, the rule was amended to allow the goalkeeper not to handle the ball in the opposition’s half. In 1888, the drop ball was introduced as a means of restarting play after the referee suspended the match. In 1889, a player may be sent off for repeated cautionable offence. In 1890 a goal may not be scored directly from a goal kick. In 1891 the penalty kick was introduced for handball or foul play within 12 yards of the goal. Linesmen replace the umpires. Pitch markings are introduced for the goal area, penalty area, centre spot and centre circle.

In 1897, the rules were amended to specify, for the first time, the number of players on each team (11) and the duration of each match (90 minutes, unless agreed otherwise). The half-way line is introduced. The maximum length of the ground is reduced from 200 yards to 130 yards. In 1901, the law was amended to allow the goalkeepers to handle the ball for any purpose (previously the goalkeeper was permitted to handle the ball only “in defence of his goal”).

In 1902, the goal area and penalty area assume their modern dimensions, extending six yards and eighteen yards respectively from the goal posts. The penalty spot is introduced and in 1903 the law was amended to allow a goal to be scored directly from a free kick awarded for handball or foul play (previously all free-kicks awarded for infringements of the laws, other than penalty kicks, had been indirect). A referee may refrain from awarding a free kick or penalty in order to give advantage to the attacking team. A player may be sent off for “bad or violent language to a Referee”.

In 1907 the law was amended to rule that players cannot be offside when in their own half. Between 1912 and 1937, the following rules were made via an amendment to the existing rules:

  • 1912 – The goalkeeper may handle the ball only in the penalty area.
  • 1920 – A player cannot be offside from a throw-in.
  • 1924 – A goal may be scored directly from a corner kick.
  • 1925 – The offside rule is relaxed further: a player is onside as long as there are two opponents between the player and the opponents’ goal-line (previously, three opponents had been required).
  • 1931 – The goalkeeper may take four steps (rather than two) while carrying the ball.
  • 1937 – The “D” is added to the pitch markings, to ensure that players do not encroach within 10 yards of the player taking a penalty kick.

However, in 1938, the laws are completely rewritten and reorganized by a committee under the leadership of Stanley Rous. The rewriting introduces the schema of seventeen laws that still exists today. A player may be sent off for “serious foul play”. Then between 1958 to 2019, the law has been amended several times to bring to what it is today.

  • 1958 – Substitutions of injured players is allowed in competitive matches for the first time, subject to national association approval.
  • 1970 – Introduction of red and yellow cards.
  • 1990 – A further relaxation of the offside rule: a player level with the second-last opponent is considered onside (previously, such a player would have been considered offside). A player may be sent off for an offence that denies opponents a “clear goalscoring opportunity”.
  • 1992 – Introduction of the back-pass rule: the goalkeeper may not handle the ball after it has been deliberately kicked to him/her by a teammate.
  • 1993 – Introduction of the golden goal, if either team scored a goal during extra time in a competitive match, the game ends immediately and the scoring team becomes the winner. This rule remained in place until being removed from most competitions in 2004.
  • 1997 – The rules are completely rewritten, for the first time since 1938. A goal may be scored directly from the kick-off or from the goal kick. The goalkeeper may not handle the ball after receiving it directly from a team-mate’s throw-in.
  • 2000 – The four-step restriction on the goalkeeper handling the ball is repealed and replaced by the “six-second rule”: the goalkeeper may not handle the ball for more than six seconds. The goalkeeper may no longer be charged while holding the ball.
  • 2012 – Goal-line technology permitted (but not required).
  • 2016 – The kick-off may be kicked in any direction.
  • 2018 – Video assistant referees permitted (but not required). A fourth substitution is permitted in extra time.
  • 2019 – Goals scored by hand, whether accidental or not, are disallowed.

Attacking players can no longer interfere in defensive walls during free kicks. Substituted players have to leave the field at the nearest goal line or touchline instead of walking to their technical area. Goal kicks put the ball into play immediately (instead of having to leave the penalty area). Team officials can also be cautioned or dismissed. During penalties, goalkeepers are only required to keep one foot on the line. The dropped ball is no longer competitive, instead being dropped for the defensive goalkeeper if in the penalty area, otherwise for the team which last touched the ball.


This part of the article is merely introductory, therefore we have done a summary of the development of the law from inception. In subsequent parts of this series, we shall be looking at other aspects of sports law relating to football in the era of modern football for a more robust discussion of how the law has made football what it is today.


This article is for information purposes and is not intended as a legal opinion or advise on any issue. Therefore, any usage of this article must be with the proper legal guidance as the position of the law may have changed.