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  • Dr Carlos Bugeja

The Laws of the Game

By Dr Carlos Bugeja - Partner

The laws of modern football – not unlike ordinary laws of behaviour found in our codes – have developed over a long period of time. Originally, the rules of the game great varied, depending on where it was played. Originally, the ancient Greeks had a game called Episkyros, which involved moving a ball using the feet. The Romans played Harpastum, a violent sport in which a hexagonal-patterned ball similar to the modern football was used. There are also records of a game (mob football) played in England during medieval times, with players from opposing teams clashing to deliver an inflated pig’s bladder from one end of town to the other. The chaotic kicking and punching of the ball (and the opponent) were allowed (and encouraged), and at that time, rules were not much of a priority.

Football as we know it today is an invention of the 1800s. At first, what today is a basic obvious rule – that football ought to be played with the foot – was not even a given; indeed, in some places, rugby was indistinguishable from football, and until 1863, the carrying of the ball with the hands was still widely practiced in many schools in England.

The year that marked the introduction of a standardised set of laws for the game of football was 1863. Before, there was an attempt by Cambridge students to codify the rules of the game, but the attempt did not leave the fruits desired. A heated meeting was held in a Freemasons' tavern in London; at that celebrated day, the ‘old’ football of the violent village contests stepped into the modern era, and a fixed rulebook was created. The 13th original law is evident of the unruliness of football at that time and the need to legislate against a violent game: “No player shall wear projecting nails, iron plates, or gutta percha on the soles or heels of his boots”.

One club, Blackheath, refused to accept the non-inclusion of hacking (kicking below the shin) in the game, and walked out. Eventually, it became the founder of the Rugby Football Union. However, the eleven others reached a consensus, and led by a certain London mortgage and inheritance lawyer named Ebenezer Cobb Morley, penned thirteen laws and created the Football Association. In 1877, a more formalised set of rules were drawn up; together they became known as The Laws of The Game; today, we still follow this format, and the laws of football are still known with this moniker. The International Football Association Board (The IFAB) was then founded in 1886 by the four British football associations (The FA, Scottish FA, FA of Wales and Irish FA) as the worldwide body with sole responsibility for developing and preserving the Laws of the Game. Today, the IFAB continues to be in charge of the rules of the game.

In time, more rules were introduced. Referees were introduced only in 1871 – before that, the captain of each team was assigned to maintain order. Before 1909, goalkeeping was not considered as a distinct position, and players assigned goalkeeping duties did not wear a differently coloured shirts – this at a time when modern juggernaut clubs like AC Milan, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus and Liverpool FC had already been around. Penalties (originally known as ‘the kick of death’) were introduced in 1891, substitutes in 1958, and yellow and red cards brought into the game only in 1970.

Since then, rules have not changed much, other than tweaks in the offside rules, the ban against goalkeeper backpass (1992), and recently, the introduction of the infamous Video Assistant Referee (VAR).

So next time your football team puts one at the back of the net, spare a thought for Ebenezer Cobb Morley, the lawyer who wrote the original laws of the beautiful game.

Dr Carlos Bugeja is a Partner at PROLEGAL Advocates.


Disclaimer: This article is not to be construed as being legal advice, and is not to be acted on as such. Should you require further information or legal assistance, please do not hesitate to contact Dr Carlos Bugeja at

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