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Laws of the Game (association football)

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The Laws of the Game are the codified rules of association football. Its birth in 1863 marked the birth of modern association football. 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 penalise, the offside law, and many other laws that define the sport. During a match, it is the task of the referee to interpret and enforce the Laws of the Game.

There were various attempts to codify rules among the various types of football in the mid-19th century. The extant Laws date back to 1863 where a ruleset was formally adopted by the newly formed Football Association (FA) of England and written by its first secretary, Ebenezer Cobb Morley. Over time, the Laws have been amended, and since 1886 they have been maintained by the International Football Association Board (IFAB).

The Laws are the only rules of association football FIFA permits its members to use.[1] The Laws currently allow some minor optional variations which can be implemented by national football associations, including some for play at the lowest levels, but otherwise almost all organised football worldwide is played under the same ruleset. Within the United States, Major League Soccer used a distinct ruleset during the 1990s[2] and the National Federation of State High School Associations and National Collegiate Athletic Association still use rulesets that are comparable to, but different from, the IFAB Laws.[3]

List of Laws


The Laws of the Game consist of seventeen individual laws, each law containing several rules and directions:[4]

Permitted variations


All high-level association football is played according to the same laws. The Laws permit some variation for youth, veterans, disability and grassroots football, such as shortening the length of the game and the use of temporary dismissals.[4]

Presentation and interpretation


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 had long contained 50 pages more of material, organised in numerous sections, that included many diagrams but were not officially part of 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. In the 2016/2017 revision of the Laws, the material from this section was folded into the Laws themselves.

Referees are expected to use their judgement and common sense in applying the laws; this is colloquially known as "Law 18".[5]

Jurisdiction and change management


The laws are administered 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 organisations.[6] A minimum of six of the eight-seat IFAB board needs to vote to accept a rule change. Four seats are held by FIFA to represent their 200+ member Nations, with the other four going to each of the British associations (the FA representing England, the SFA representing Scotland, FAW representing Wales and the IFA representing Northern Ireland), meaning that no change can be made without FIFA's approval, but FIFA cannot change the Laws without the approval of at least two of the British governing bodies.[6]





In the nineteenth century, the word "football" could signify a wide variety of games in which players attempted to move a ball into an opponent's goal. The first published rules of "football" were those of Rugby School (1845), which permitted extensive handling, quickly followed by the Eton field game (1847), which was much more restrictive of handling the ball. Between the 1830s and 1850s, a number of sets of rules were created for use at Cambridge University – but they were generally not published at the time, and many have subsequently been lost. The first detailed sets of rules published by football clubs (rather than a school or university) were those of Sheffield F.C. (written 1858, published 1859) which codified a game played for 20 years until being discontinued in favour of the Football Association code, and those of Melbourne FC (1859) which are the origins of Australian rules football. By the time the Football Association met in late 1863, many different sets of rules had been published, varying widely on such questions as the extent to which the ball could be handled, the treatment of offside, the amount of physical contact allowed with opponents, and the height at which a goal could be scored.

1863 rules

An early draft of the original hand-written 'Laws of the Game' drawn up on behalf of The Football Association by Ebenezer Cobb Morley in 1863 on display at the National Football Museum, Manchester.

In 1863, some football clubs followed the example of Rugby School by allowing the ball to be carried in the hands, with players allowed to "hack" (kick in the shins) opponents who were carrying the ball. Other clubs forbade both practices. During the FA meetings to draw up the first version of the laws, there was an acrimonious division between the "hacking" and "non-hacking" clubs. An FA meeting of 17 November 1863 discussed this question, with the "hacking" clubs predominating.[7] A further meeting was scheduled in order to finalise ("settle") the laws.[8] At this crucial 24 November meeting, the "hackers" were again in a narrow majority. During the meeting, however, the FA's secretary Ebenezer Cobb Morley brought the delegates' attention to a recently published set of football laws from Cambridge University which banned carrying and hacking.[8] Discussion of the Cambridge rules, and suggestions for possible communication with Cambridge on the subject, served to delay the final "settlement" of the laws to a further meeting, on 1 December.[9][10] A number of representatives who supported rugby-style football did not attend this additional meeting,[11] resulting in hacking and carrying being banned.[10]

Francis Campbell of Blackheath F.C., the most prominent "hacking" club, accused FA President Arthur Pember, Morley, and their allies of managing 24 November meeting improperly in order to prevent the "pro-hacking" laws from being adopted.[12] Pember strongly denied such an "accusation of ungentlemanly conduct". The verdicts of later historians have been mixed: Young accuses Campbell of "arrogance",[13] while Harvey supports Campbell's allegations, accusing the non-hackers of a "coup" against the pro-hacking clubs.[14] Blackheath, along with the other "hacking" clubs, would leave the FA as a result of this dispute.

The final version of the FA's laws was formally adopted and published in December 1863. Some notable differences from the modern game are listed below:

  • There was no crossbar. Goals could be scored at any height (as today in Australian rules football).
  • While most forms of handling were forbidden, players were allowed to catch the ball (provided they did not run with it or throw it). A fair catch was rewarded with a free kick (a feature that today survives in various forms in Australian rules football, rugby union and American football).
  • There was a strict offside rule, under which any player ahead of the kicker was in an offside position (similar to today's offside rule in rugby union). The only exception was when the ball was kicked from behind the goal line.
  • The throw-in was awarded to the first player (on either team) to touch the ball after it went out of play. The ball had to be thrown in at right-angles to the touchline (as today in rugby union).
  • There was no corner-kick. When the ball went behind the goal-line, there was a situation somewhat similar to rugby: if an attacking player first touched the ball after it went out of play, then the attacking team had an opportunity to take a free kick at goal from a point fifteen yards behind the point where the ball was touched (somewhat similar to a conversion in rugby). If a defender first touched the ball, then the defending team kicked the ball out from on or behind the goal line (equivalent to the goal-kick).
  • Teams changed ends every time a goal was scored.
  • The rules made no provision for a goal-keeper, match officials, punishments for infringements of the rules, duration of the match, half-time, number of players, or pitch-markings (other than flags to mark the boundary of the playing area).

At its meeting on 8 December 1863, the FA agreed that, as reported in Bell's Life in London, John Lillywhite would publish the Laws.[15] The first game to be played under the new rules occurred eleven days later between Barnes and Richmond.[15] Adoption of the laws was not universal among English football clubs. The Sheffield Rules continued to be used by many. Additionally, in preference for hacking as well as handling of the ball, several clubs, such as Blackheath, decided against being part of the FA in its early years and would later form the Rugby Football Union in 1871.[16]

IFAB created


Minor variations between the rules used in England (the jurisdiction of the Football Association) and the other Home Nations of the United KingdomScotland, Wales and Ireland – led to the creation of the International Football Association Board to oversee the rules for all the home nations. Their first meeting was in 1886.[17] Before this, teams from different countries had to agree to which country's rules were used before playing.

FIFA adoption


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. Up until 1958, it was still possible for the British associations to vote together to impose changes against the wishes of FIFA. This changed with the adoption of the current voting system whereby FIFA's support is necessary, but not sufficient, for any amendment to pass.[6]

Notable amendments


Notable amendments to the rules include:[16][18]

  • 1866 – The strict rugby-style offside rule is relaxed: 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 (as today in Australian rules football).[a]
  • 1867 – The situation when the ball goes behind the goal-line is simplified: all rugby-like elements are removed, with the defending team being awarded a goal-kick regardless of which team touched the ball.[a]
From 1866 to 1883, the laws provided for a tape between the goalposts
  • 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.[a]
  • 1871 – Introduction of the specific position of goalkeeper, who is allowed to handle the ball "for the protection of his goal".
  • 1872 – The indirect free kick is introduced as a punishment for a handball, the first mention of a punitive action for contravening the rules. The corner kick is introduced. Teams do not change ends after goals scored during the second half.[a]
  • 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).[a] The goalkeeper may not "carry" the ball.
  • 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.[a]
  • 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.[a]
  • 1877 – 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).[a] 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.
  • 1878 – A player can be offside from a throw-in.
  • 1881 – The referee is 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.
  • 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, which 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).
  • 1887 – The goalkeeper may not handle the ball in the opposition's half.
  • 1888 – The drop ball is introduced as a means of restarting play after it has been suspended by the referee.
  • 1889 – A player may be sent off for repeated cautionable behaviour.
  • 1890 – A goal may not be scored directly from a goal kick.
When first introduced in 1891, the penalty was awarded for offences within 12 yards of the goal-line.
  • 1891 – The penalty kick is introduced, for handball or foul play within 12 yards of the goal line. The umpires are replaced by linesmen. Pitch markings are introduced for the goal area, penalty area, centre spot and centre circle.
  • 1897 – The laws 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.
  • 1901 – Goalkeepers may handle the ball for any purpose (previously the goalkeeper was permitted to handle the ball only "in defence of his goal").
  • 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.
  • 1903 – A goal may 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".
  • 1907 – Players cannot be offside when in their own half.
  • 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.
  • 1938 – The laws are completely rewritten and reorganised 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".
  • 1958 – Substitutions of injured players is allowed in competitive matches for the first time, subject to national association approval.[19]
  • 1970 – Introduction of red and yellow cards.
  • 1990 – A further relaxation of the offside law: 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.[20] A goal may be scored directly from the kick-off or from a 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.
  • 2004 – The golden goal rule is eliminated.
  • 2012Goal-line technology permitted (but not required).
  • 2016 – The kick-off may be kicked in any direction. Fouls from "legitimate football challenges" inside the penalty area that are a "denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity" reduced in punishment from a red card to a yellow card and the penalty kick for the foul. Fouls for "stopping a promising attack" inside the penalty area no longer attract a yellow card, only a penalty kick. These fouls can still be punished with a red or yellow card if deemed to be reckless, with excessive force or with brutality by the referee.
  • 2017 – Prohibition on the use of electronic devices by coaching staff removed. Microphones, earpieces, mobile phones, tablets, watches and laptops are allowed for player welfare, safety & tactical coaching reasons. Players remain restricted to use of electronic performance tracking systems, with no electronic communication devices allowed.
  • 2018Video assistant referees permitted (but not required). A fourth substitution is permitted in extra time.[21]
  • 2019Goals 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. Disallowance of goals scored by a throw from the goalkeeper introduced for all football, but mainly intended as a preventative measure in youth & small pitch football played under official laws.[22][23][24][25]
  • 2022 - Increase in standard number of substitutions from 3 to 5 and introduction of 3 "substitute windows" teams can using during regulation play to make their changes. These two changes were introduced in a trial form during the COVID-19 pandemic to enable an easier recovery and return to football for players who contracted COVID.
  • 2023 - "Kicks from the penalty mark" renamed to "Penalties (penalty shoot-out)". Cautions in regulation play & extra time are no longer carried forward into a penalty shootout. Expanded wording to clarify meaning regarding what "deliberate play" means in relation to an offside player receiving the ball from an opponent. Goal celebrations positively identified as a reason for additional playing time to be added. "Downgrade" on punishment for an offence which results in a penalty kick clarified to also apply to challenges on opponent in addition to attempts to play the ball.

Titles of the laws


The 1938 rewriting of the laws introduced the scheme of 17 named laws that has lasted until today, with only minor alterations. The history of the numbering and titles of the laws since 1938 is shown in the table below:

Law 1938 1996 1997 2016
1 The Field of Play
2 The Ball
3 Number of Players The Number of Players The Players
4 Players' Equipment The Players' Equipment
5 Referees The Referee
6 Linesmen Assistant Referees The Assistant Referees The Other Match Officials
7 Duration of the Game The Duration of the Match
8 The Start of Play The Start and Restart of Play
9 Ball In and Out of Play The Ball In and Out of Play
10 Method of Scoring The Method of Scoring Determining the Outcome of a Match
11 Off-Side Offside
12 Fouls and Misconduct
13 Free-Kick Free Kicks
14 Penalty-Kick The Penalty Kick
15 Throw-In The Throw-In
16 Goal-Kick The Goal Kick
17 Corner-Kick The Corner Kick


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Adopted from Sheffield rules


  1. ^ "FIFA Statutes - July 2012 edition" (PDF). FIFA. Archived (PDF) from the original on 5 November 2021. Each Member of FIFA shall play Association Football in compliance with the Laws of the Game issued by IFAB. Only IFAB may lay down and alter the Laws of the Game.
  2. ^ Maurer, Pablo. "How U.S. soccer experimented with 10 changes to the game before launching MLS". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 November 2021.
  3. ^ "A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF RULES AND LAWS" (PDF). National Federation of State High School Associations. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 September 2021.
  4. ^ a b "Laws of the Game 22/23" (PDF). International Football Association Board.
  5. ^ United States Soccer Federation Inc.; Michael Lewis (2000). Soccer for dummies. Foster City, CA: IDG Books Worldwide. ISBN 1118053575. Retrieved 5 June 2014.
  6. ^ a b c "The IFAB: How it works". FIFA. Archived from the original on 5 September 2015. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  7. ^ Harvey (2005), pp. 135–139
  8. ^ a b "The Football Association". Bell's Life in London. 28 November 1863. p. 6.
  9. ^ "The Football Association". Bell's Life in London. 28 November 1863. p. 6. The PRESIDENT pointed out that the vote just passed to all intents and purposes annulled the business of the evening, whereupon Mr. ALCOCK said it was too late to proceed further, and moved that the meeting do adjourn till Tuesday next, 1 Dec., and it was so resolved.
  10. ^ a b "The Football Association". Supplement to Bell's Life in London. 5 December 1863. p. 1.
  11. ^ Harvey (2005), pp. 144-145
  12. ^ "The Football Association". Supplement to Bell's Life in London. 5 December 1863. p. 1. MR CAMPBELL: [...] When the last meeting was held for the express purpose [...] of settling the proposed laws, they ought to have gone on with the rules as proposed by the association, and not taken the course they did as to the Cambridge rules, but the resolution and amendments had been proposed and passed in the way they had been without being properly put to the meeting, because it was found that the "hacking" party were too strong
  13. ^ Young, Percy M. (1968). A History of British Football. London: Arrow Books. p. 136. ISBN 0-09-907490-7.
  14. ^ Harvey (2005), p. 144
  15. ^ a b "The History of The FA". The Football Association. Retrieved 6 June 2014.
  16. ^ a b "FIFA – History – the Laws – From 1863 to the Present Day". FIFA. Archived from the original on 5 September 2015. Retrieved 16 August 2018.
  17. ^ "The International FA Board (IFAB)". FIFA. Archived from the original on 17 February 2013. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  18. ^ "FIFA History of Football". FIFA. Archived from the original on 4 June 2007. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
  19. ^ History of the Laws of the Game on FIFA.com
  20. ^ "Welcome to FIFA.com News - The new Laws of the Game". FIFA. Archived from the original on 20 October 2019.
  21. ^ "International Football Association Board | IFAB". 3 March 2018. Archived from the original on 21 July 2018. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
  22. ^ "Handball rules among those changed by Ifab for next season". BBC. 2 March 2019.
  23. ^ "Handball rules among those amended by International FA Board". Sky Sports. 2 March 2019. Retrieved 3 March 2019.
  24. ^ Meira Ricci, Sandro (13 March 2019). "Cartões para comissão técnica, mão e até cara ou coroa: veja 12 mudanças nas regras do futebol" [Cards for the coaching staff, handball and even coin toss: see 12 changes on football rules] (in Portuguese). Globoesporte. Archived from the original on 25 April 2019. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  25. ^ Harmsel, Jan ter (18 March 2019). "Laws of the Game changes 2019-2020". Dutch Referee Blog. Retrieved 26 April 2019.


  • The Rules of Association Football, 1863: The First FA Rule Book Bodleian Library (2006)


  1. ^ pages 72-79 (pages 77-84 of the PDF)
  2. ^ Does not include Decisions of the International Board
  3. ^ Both laws are included in the minutes of the 1997 Annual General Meeting: 1996 laws are at pp. 7-105; 1997 laws are at pp. 106-146