Laws of the Game (association football)

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The Laws of the Game1 are the codified rules that help define association football. These rules were first played by members of the Cambridge University Football Club on Parker's Piece, Cambridge in 1848, and adopted by the Football Association in October 26, 1863. "They embrace the true principles of the game, with the greatest simplicity" (E. C. Morley, F.A. Hon. Sec. 1863) These laws are written and maintained by the International Football Association Board and published by the sport's governing body FIFA. The laws mention the number of players a team should have, the game length, the size of the field and ball, the type and nature of fouls that referees may penalize, the frequently misinterpreted offside law, and many other laws that define the sport.

Current laws of the game

The current Laws of the Game (LotG) consist of seventeen individual laws, each law containing several rules and directions:1

Today, the above 17 laws are less than 50 pages of a 140 by 215 mm (roughly A5-size) pamphlet. In 1997, a major revision dropped whole paragraphs and clarified many sections to simplify and strengthen the principles. These laws are written in English Common Law style and are meant to be guidelines and goals of principle that are then clarified through practice, tradition, and enforcement by the referees.

The actual law book has long contained 50 pages more of material, organized in numerous sections, that contain many diagrams but did not fit with the main 17 laws. In 2007, many of these additional sections along with much of the material from the FIFA Questions and Answers (Q&A), were restructured and put into a new Additional Instructions and Guidelines for the Referee section. This section is organized under the same 17 law points, consists of concise paragraphs and phrases like the laws themselves, and adds much clarifying material that previously was only available from National organizations and word of mouth among referees.

Referees are expected to use their judgement and common sense in applying the laws.

History and development


Games which could be described in the most general sense as 'football' had been popular in Britain since the Medieval period. Rules for these games, where they existed, were not universal nor codified. A significant step towards unification was the drafting of the Cambridge rules in 1848 – though these were not universally adopted outside Cambridge University. The first and still oldest Football Club was Sheffield FC founded in 1857, In 1858 the Sheffield rules of football were written and adopted by several northern and midlands clubs.

1863 rules

The original hand-written 'Laws of the Game' drafted for and on behalf of The Football Association by Ebenezer Cobb Morley in 1863 on display at the National Football Museum, Manchester.

The Laws were first drawn up by Ebenezer Cobb Morley and approved at a meeting of the newly founded Football Association (FA) on 8 December 1863. Association football had already begun in the North and Midlands with all clubs using Sheffield Rules. The Football Association Laws of 1863 as published in Bell's Life in London for approval on 5 December 1863:but due to many disputes over the appliaction of these laws Sheffield Rules continued to be used by most clubs.

  • The maximum length of the ground shall be 200 yards (183 m), the maximum breadth shall be 100 yards (91 m), the length and breadth shall be marked off with flags; and the goal shall be defined by two upright posts, eight yards (7.3 m) apart, without any tape or bar across them.
  • A toss for goals shall take place, and the game shall be commenced by a place kick from the centre of the ground by the side losing the toss for goals; the other side shall not approach within 10 yards (9.1 m) of the ball until it is kicked off.
  • After a goal is won, the losing side shall be entitled to kick off, and the two sides shall change goals after each goal is won.
  • A goal shall be won when the ball passes between the goal-posts or over the space between the goal-posts (at whatever height), not being thrown, knocked on, or carried.
  • When the ball is in touch, the first player who touches it shall throw it from the point on the boundary line where it left the ground in a direction at right angles with the boundary line, and the ball shall not be in play until it has touched the ground.
  • When a player has kicked the ball, any one of the same side who is nearer to the opponent's goal line is out of play, and may not touch the ball himself, nor in any way whatever prevent any other player from doing so, until he is in play; but no player is out of play when the ball is kicked off from behind the goal line.
  • In case the ball goes behind the goal line, if a player on the side to whom the goal belongs first touches the ball, one of his side shall be entitled to a free kick from the goal line at the point opposite the place where the ball shall be touched. If a player of the opposite side first touches the ball, one of his side shall be entitled to a free kick at the goal only from a point 15 yards (14 m) outside the goal line, opposite the place where the ball is touched, the opposing side standing within their goal line until he has had his kick.
  • If a player makes a fair catch, he shall be entitled to a free kick, providing he claims it by making a mark with his heel at once; and in order to take such kick he may go back as far as he pleases, and no player on the opposite side shall advance beyond his mark until he has kicked.
  • No player shall run with the ball.
  • Neither tripping nor hacking shall be allowed, and no player shall use his hands to hold or push his adversary.
  • A player shall not be allowed to throw the ball or pass it to another with his hands.
  • No player shall be allowed to take the ball from the ground with his hands under any pretence whatever while it is in play.
  • No player shall be allowed to wear projecting nails, iron plates, or gutta-perchaa on the soles or heels of his boots.

At its meeting on 8 December the FA agreed, as reported in Bell's Life in London, John Lillywhite should publish the Laws, which he said he could do at a cost of a shilling for the pocket size and 1s 6d for the larger size for club rooms.

Evolution of the rules

The rules of the game changed over time. Variations between the rules used in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland led to the creation of the International Football Association Board (see below) which governs the rules.

Notable amendments to the rules include:234

  • 1866 – Forward passes are permitted, as long as there are three defending players between the receiver and the goal. This was the first step from a consideration of offside as seen in modern rugby towards the offside rule known in association football today. The fair catch (still seen in other football codes) is eliminated.
  • 1871 – Introduction of the specific position of goalkeeper.
  • 1877 – Full unity with the Sheffield Rules is established – several features of the northern code had been incorporated into the London-based association rulebook over the preceding 14 years.
  • 1891 – The penalty kick is introduced.
  • 1925 – The offside rule is reduced from three to two defending players between the player and the opponent's goal line.
  • 1958 – Introduction of substitutes.
  • 1970 – Introduction of red and yellow cards.
  • 1992 – Introduction of the back-pass rule.
  • 2012Goal-line technology is permitted, if the individual competition wishes to implement it.

Unlike in several other sports, in association football television replays are not permitted to be part of the match officials' decision-making process. Whether game rules and practices should be amended to allow these and/or goal-line technology is a matter of considerable current debate.5678 Following a number of goal-line controversies in major FIFA-organised competitions, and several proposed technologies demonstrating that they could decide whether the ball could cross the line in less than the required 1 second, Goal-line technology was officially permitted (but not required) in FIFA-sanctioned competitions from 2012. It was first used in competition at the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup.9

International Football Association Board

The Laws of the Game are written by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). They meet at least once a year to debate and decide any changes to the text as it exists at that time. The meeting in winter generally leads to an update to the laws on 1 July of each year that take effect immediately. The laws govern all international matches and national matches of member organizations.10

The first meeting was in 1886, with representatives from the Scottish Football Association (SFA), the Football Association of Wales (FAW) and the Irish Football Association (IFA) (now the governing body in Northern Ireland and not to be confused with the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) the governing body in the Republic of Ireland).11 Previously games between teams from different countries had to agree to which country's rules were used before playing.

When the international football body on the continent FIFA was founded in Paris in 1904, it immediately declared that FIFA would adhere to the rules laid down by the IFAB. The growing popularity of the international game led to the admittance of FIFA representatives to the IFAB in 1913. Today the IFAB is made up of four representatives from FIFA representing their over 200+ member Nations and one representative each from the four associations of the United Kingdom.10 Because three-quarters' approval10 (six votes) are required to make any changes to the Laws, no change can be made without FIFA's approval, but FIFA cannot change the Laws on its own.


  1. ^ Gutta-percha is an inelastic natural latex, produced from the resin of the Isonandra Gutta tree of Malaya. It was used for many purposes (e.g. the core of golf balls; the insulation of telegraph cables) before the invention of superior synthetic materials.


  1. ^ a b Laws of the game at FIFA website, updated 2012
  2. ^ FIFA. "FIFA History of Football". Retrieved 8 December 2011. 
  3. ^ "FIFA – History – the Laws – From 1863 to the Present Day". FIFA. Retrieved 19 April 2013. 
  4. ^ "150 years of Association Football ~ How the Rules have changed". Retrieved 2013-04-25. 
  5. ^ Van Buskirk, Eliot (30 November 2009). "Soccer Resists Instant Replay Despite Criticism". Wired. Retrieved 24 May 2011. 
  6. ^ Borland, John (19 June 2006). "World Cup soccer loves to hate high tech". Retrieved 24 May 2011. 
  7. ^ "FIFA halts instant replay experiment". CBC Sports. 8 March 2008. Retrieved 28 June 2010. 
  8. ^ "Instant replay may be a good idea, but it's a tricky one – Gabriele Marcotti". CNN. 25 September 2008. 
  9. ^ "Goal-line technology tested at Club World Cup match Sanfrecce Hiroshima v Auckland City". Mail Online. 6 December 2012. Retrieved 6 March 2013. 
  10. ^ a b c "The IFAB: How it works". FIFA. Retrieved 2013-04-19. 
  11. ^ "The International FA Board (IFAB)". FIFA. Retrieved 2013-04-19. 


  • The History of the Football Association Naldrett Press (1953)
  • The Rules of Association Football, 1863: The First FA Rule Book Bodleian Library (2006)

External links

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