Throughout the history of football, there have been hundreds if not thousands of rule changes. The original copy of the Laws of the Game was drawn up in a tavern in London 157 years ago. Since then, the codes of football have changed almost beyond recognition. There was a time without corners, a time without goal kicks, a time without penalties, a time without crossbars. There was a time when goalkeepers could handle the ball anywhere in their own half, and the offside rule has undergone change after change after change.
But in the modern era, we are perhaps guilty of thinking ours is an immutable game, one which may tweak the occasional thing here or there, but one which remains fundamentally the same game. Sure, we now have video referees and goalline technology, but while they have started fresh conversations about the hard-and-fast laws of the game, the machines themselves have not changed the rules instead they have allowed them to be scrutinised more closely – perhaps too closely, but that’s an argument for another time.
Former Secretary of the FA who would go on to become President of FIFA in later life, Sir Stanley Rous campaigned to rewrite the Laws of the Game throughout his career, succeeding in 1938. His modifications did not so much change the rules but made them easier to interpret. Clearly defined parameters standardised the Laws, and for a long time there were very few rule changes in football.
The offside law was changed ever so slightly in 1990, allowing an attacker to be onside so long as he was level with the last man, but that was the most significant rule change for almost half a century. But in 1992, there came an alteration which dramatically changed the fundamental makeup of any given football match: the back-pass rule.
Why the Back-Pass Rule was Introduced
Football has undergone many tactical evolutions, with the strategic pendulum swinging from one system to the next – from catenaccio to total football, from tiki-taka to Gegenpressing. Football fans of a certain vintage are, therefore, used to enduring periods in which the level of entertainment on offer suffers as a reaction to a conservative tactical development.
But the late 80s and 90s, particularly in Europe, were a nadir in terms of the watchability of the game. A defensive mindset had taken hold which prioritised safety at the back ahead of entertainment going forward. And as this mindset took over, retreating with the ball to one’s own goalkeeper became increasingly common. A cursory scan through YouTube will reveal a dozen clips of a player whose team were 1-0 up with ten minutes to go, spinning with the ball in the opposition half and firing back to the goalkeeper who then gratefully picks up the ball and wastes a few precious seconds.
A classic of this conservative genre came in 1987 in the second leg of Rangers European Cup tie with Dynamo Kiev. The Glasgow side were winning 2-1 on aggregate at Ibrox Stadium, knowing that a Dynamo away goal would knock them out of the most prestigious cup competition in the world. With five minutes remaining, Graeme Souness receiving the ball in a promising position, 15 yards from the opposition 18-yard line. Souness had space and time; he could in no way be described as under pressure. But instead of feeding one of the strikers or knocking the ball out wide, he turned and fired a 70-yard back-pass to goalkeeper Chris Woods. Needless to say, Rangers went through.
The low point, however, came three years later at Italia 90. The World Cup in Italy is remembered as one of the finest in terms of narrative. Cameroon and Roger Milla put African football firmly on the map by reaching the quarter-finals. Paul Gascoigne almost led England to glory, and his tears in the semi-final are remembered to this day. And West Germany won their final trophy before reunification with the East.
However, in terms of entertaining football, the 1990 World Cup was a disaster. Back-passing was rife, a statement best encapsulated in one remarkable statistic from Ireland’s campaign. Under the late Jack Charlton, they qualified from Group F after drawing three games. In the second, against Egypt, goalkeeper Packie Bonner was passed back to so regularly that he held the ball for just shy of six minutes collectively throughout the match.
After Denmark – a team who only qualified for the tournament through the disqualification of Yugoslavia for political reasons – back-passed their way to glory at Euro 92, it was clear that something had to be done.
As is so often the case, the Olympics were a testing ground for the new rule – and the trend for the early stages of a non-back-passing world was set almost immediately.
In the very first match under this new rule – Italy vs USA – both goalkeepers looked awkward with the ball at their feet every time it came to them. In fact, the Italy goalkeeper Francesco Antonioli became the first player to be left red-faced by the rule change as he picked up a rogue back-pass, resulting in an indirect free-kick barely five yards from his own goal from which the United States scored.
The 1992 Olympics averaged 0.5 more goals per game than the World Cup two years prior. Green shoots were already beginning to appear thanks to the law change.
While statistics for the season are not available, 1992-93 was surely the single campaign with the most goalkeeping errors in history. The opening day of the Premier League highlighted that goalkeepers were almost universally terrible with their feet, with several top shot-stoppers making costly errors as a result of their unfamiliarity with the new rule.
Perhaps the most hilarious example of this came from Simon Tracey, Sheffield United’s goalkeeper for the 92-93 Premier League season. Tracey clearly hadn’t acclimatised to the rules by the time they faced Tottenham Hotspur on 2nd September. He received a simple back-pass under no pressure, touched it to his right and stooped slightly, as though he was going to pick the ball up. At the last second, he remembered and jinked wildly in the opposite direction to evade the onrushing Spurs forward. He then proceeded to sprint directly for the left-hand touchline; he evaded a slide tackle and managed to run the ball out for a throw-in.
The danger was surely over. Except it wasn’t. He attempted to wrestle the ball away from the ball boy who then rolled the ball in the opposite direction. Fearing a quick-throw in and shot into a now empty net, Tracey rugby tackled the Spurs taker to the ground and was promptly given a red card. It was a truly side-splitting scene, but it was also a reminder that this law change would alter the game was played, especially for goalkeepers.
Scenes like the one involving Tracey were commonplace for a few years – and they still haven’t been completely eradicated. But there is no disputing that the back-pass rule was an unreserved success. The entertainment level of football increased no end. There are no two ways about it.
Its tactical implications were profound and far-reaching. It’s safe to say that the game of football we see today would look radically different had FIFA not made this call. There would be less of the high-pressing we see so often nowadays, as defending teams would feel completely safe in rolling the ball back to the goalkeeper who could then throw the ball over any advancing forwards and beat the press in a single move.
We would also have much more route one football in the modern era had the back-pass rule not been introduced. If a goalkeeper can launch a huge ball upfield out of their hands at any moment – including when a defender has just passed back to him under pressure – we’d see much more of the old-fashioned target men ready to hold the ball up. We still see the big punts upfield, but nowhere near as regularly as pre-1992.
The goalkeeper’s role has completely transformed too. The sweeper keeper who comes off his line and plays with his feet as much as his hands used to be considered a hugely unusual sight. Keepers such as Amadeo Carizzo, Hugo Gatti, Rene Higuita and José Luis Chilavert used to be considered huge eccentrics, but if you placed them in the context of a modern game, they are far less so.
In the modern era, nearly all developing goalkeepers are taught as much about playing with their feet as they are about shot-stopping. Manuel Neuer is the obvious example of the modern goalkeeper and one who has set the blueprint for others to follow.
In terms of goals at World Cups, we have got nowhere near the crazy figures of the early days (the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland averaged 5.38 per game, for example). Still, the 2014 and 2018 World Cups averaged around 2.6 per game – higher than the average since 1998.
In its time, FIFA has made countless missteps. But in the case of the back-pass rule, they really did put their best foot forward.