Mad experiments & ignoring fans: A history of football law-makers

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Arsenal blogger Vic Crescit tells us about the games law-makers, IFAB, how they came into being and what "interesting"changes they've tested down the years...

You can always tell a football anorak. They’re the ones who know a) that the game of football doesn’t have playing rules it has playing laws and b) the playing laws are decided not by the game’s world governing body FIFA but by something called the International Football Association Board (IFAB).

FIFA wasn’t even a glint in its founders’ eyes when the IFAB was founded by the four British Isles football associations in 1886, eighteen years before FIFA would be founded across the English Channel in Paris in 1904. FIFA’s first president Frenchman Robert Guérin was just about to celebrate his tenth birthday when IFAB held its formal founding meeting in London on 2 June 1886.

As was to become a tradition in IFAB its founding was taken slowly. The Football Association, Irish Football Association (which, it being prior to the Irish war of independence, governed  the game throughout Ireland’s 32 counties), the Football Association of Wales and the Scottish Football Association had met in Manchester on 6 December 1882 to agree on a harmonised set of playing laws for international matches between the four so-called Home Nations.

Since the FA had produced the first unified version of the laws of the game at a series of meetings in 1863 the playing laws had drifted apart in the four home nations, necessitating the creation of a uniform code of laws for the international game. The work of the chief drafter of the game’s first unified playing laws, the splendidly named Ebenezer Cobb Morley had not been in vain. It took four years to move from writing a uniform set of laws to formally establishing the IFAB in 1886.

When FIFA was formed at the instigation of the French in 1904 it resolved to adopt the playing laws as approved from time to time by the IFAB. After umming and aahhing for a year the home nations joined FIFA in 1905. In 1913 the notoriously insular Brits and Irish invited Johny Foreigner in the shape of FIFA to join IFAB as its fifth member. The home nations resigned from FIFA in 1918 in a fit of post First World War xenophobic isolationism. They returned in 1924, only to bail out again four years later in 1928 after a dispute over the definition of amateur status and the Olympic Games.

They didn’t kiss and make up with FIFA this time staying out for eighteen years until 1946. During the two periods of the British and Irish associations taking their ball home FIFA remained a member of the IFAB. Until 1958 when the current voting system was adopted the home nations had two votes each as did FIFA representing the rest of the world. The rules required a four-fifths majority to change the laws. Theoretically the Brits and Irish could change the game without the consent of the rest of the world. In 1958 FIFA’s votes were increased to four, the home associations lowered to one and the required majority reduced to seventy-five percent. The home associations lost their power to unilaterally change the playing laws. On the other hand FIFA needs at least two of the four home associations to vote “yes” to pass any change it proposes.

Historically changes have been few and long in consideration, which generally I think is a good thing. Even when changes are good though like the no back-pass law which came into force for the 1992/93 season it takes a while for players and officials to adapt. Ill-considered changes can and do have unforeseen consequences. Until the mid 1960s goalkeepers could keep the ball as long as they liked as long as they bounced the ball as they moved a la basketball. Goalies would go for long excursions around the penalty box. This led to the so-called “four steps” rule where the goalie had to release the ball by kicking it or throwing it after taking four steps. Goalies simply dribbled the ball around the penalty area. IFAB had to tinker twice more to get to where we are today which is reasonably satisfactory.

Probably the maddest experiment ever authorised by the IFAB was the “kick-in” option which was trialled here in the Isthmian League (one step below the Football Conference South) in the 1994/95 season, as well as leagues in Japan, Belgium and Hungary and the 1993 FIFA World Youth Championships in Australia. This barmy idea gave teams the option of a kick-in rather than a throw-in from the touchline where the ball had gone out of play. They had to give the footballs treatment for altitude sickness at half-time. Fortunately common sense prevailed. The experiment was quietly buried.

One the other hand the experiment trialled in England in the Premier & Football Leagues and in Scotland in the Scottish League Cup to allow the referee to move a free-kick ten yards further forward in the event of encroachment and/or dissent and/or time-wasting in the mid 1990s wasn’t introduced as a permanent change. I have no idea why. I thought it was a great change. The only tweak that I would have made would have been to allow the non-offending team the option to move the free-kick only part of the ten yards or not at all. Sometimes the ten yards meant the ball as placed too close to the goal to allow a shot. C’est la vie. An opportunity missed to lessen dissent and time-wasting.

In typical British/Irish style the IFAB got by as an unincorporated association with a written constitution and rules but with no form of legal registration for 128 years  from its founding in 1886 until last year 2014. FIFA’s Independent Governance Committee recommended increased transparency all round including for related bodies such as the IFAB. Thus its statutes were legally registered last year in Switzerland as a non-profit association.

The reforms didn’t end with legal registration however. Two new bodies were formally established – the first being the Football Advisory Panel (TAP) which includes former players, former and current managers/coaches, technical directors from the confederations (UEFA [Europe), the Asian Football Confederation, CONMEBOL [South America], CONCACAF [North & Central America and the Caribbean] and the Oceania Football Confederation [New Zealand and the South Pacific islands].

The second is the Techical Advisory Panel  which brings together refereeing experts from around the globe. These panels are serviced by the IFAB Executive Support Office based in the FIFA Bunker in Zurich. As always in football of course there is one voice that still won’t be heard on changes to the playing laws – us, the supporters.

That’s one constant that never changes in the game. Memo the football powers that be – guys, the indifference and neglect is getting really old.

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Thanks to Action Images for the image used in this blog.