The quest for a universal code of football Laws

It’s a question we often get asked here at the FIFA World Football Museum… why the ‘Laws’ of the Game and not the ‘rules’ of the game? The answer dates back to the evening The Football Association in England was formed on 26 October 1863. At this historic meeting the founders wrote down the nine rules of the association. These had nothing to do with how to play football but set out the terms by which clubs could join the association. Rule three, for example, required that the annual subscription be paid in advance, while rule six determined the time and location of the annual meeting.

It wasn’t until the second meeting of The Football Association fifteen days later that attention was turned to matters on the pitch and the drawing up what would become the Laws of the Game. A provisional list of 23 Laws was agreed at the third meeting. Over the next meetings this list had been reduced to 13 Laws before it was voted and agreed upon at the sixth meeting on 8 December 1863.

A universal code to make football the favourite winter pastime
From the outset it was the aim of The Football Association that their 13 Laws would become the universal football code to which all footballers would adhere to, a long-held ambition shared by players the length and breadth of Great Britain. Cricket had flourished across the Kingdom as the favourite summer pastime of sportsmen thanks in no small measure to a single code of Laws, and the hope was that by doing the same, football would establish itself as the nation’s favourite winter pastime.

In December 1858, five years before the formation of The Football Association, the quest for a universal code of football laws became a national issue when a series of letters appeared in Bell’s Life, the leading sporting newspaper of the time. A correspondent who went by the name Juvenis wrote that “All the large grammar schools of our country, which ought to serve as models to the rest, play each with peculiar laws of its own. Smaller schools choose their own rules in the same manner, and the consequence is, that in almost every match disputes arise, which from the difference of rules is nearly impossible to settle. Now why should not football be regulated by fixed laws as well as any other game?

Different sets of rules from rudimentary to very detailed
Football had always been governed by local custom, but the advent of train travel meant that by the middle of the 19th century people were much more mobile. Local customs were no longer enough. Many of these local traditions were not recorded for posterity, but some were, the earliest example being the rules played by the Edinburgh Foot-Ball club which had been formed in 1824. It’s founder, John Hope, wrote down six rules on a slip of paper that is now housed in Scotland’s National Archive. The rules were:

1. a free kick if ball out of bounds
2. Pushing is allowed. Holding not illegal
3. Allow the ball to be lifted between fields
4. single soled shoes, no iron
5. no tripping
6. Ball to cross imaginary line.

It wasn’t much to go on, but others followed suit. The 1840s also saw the publication of the rules which governed the play in the major schools of the country, the oldest example of which remains the booklet produced at Rugby School in 1845 and which is on display at the World Rugby Museum in Twickenham. Unlike the rules produced by Hope, school rules were often very detailed, covering seven major aspects of the game.

Firstly, there was the definition of the field of play – dimensions, construction of the goals and pitch markings; secondly, how to score; thirdly, how you start the game, either at the beginning, after scoring, when the ball goes out of touch at the sides or the end, after half-time and for free-kicks. The fourth area of focus was on the conduct of players, such as regulating physical conduct and how infringements were punished. Equipment such as the ball and kit was a fifth area are while the role of officials such as umpires and captains formed a sixth. That left the most complex of all – the mechanics of the game – and this invariably came down to how schools formulated their offside rules. Offside is what gives football its structure, differentiating it from a mass free-for-all.

An early attempt to generalise the rules ends in abuse
In the quest for a universal game, the criteria for offside was as much a debating point as was the use of hands or feet, or the physicality of the game such as tripping or hacking. All of the schools had different versions of offside and when students progressed to university, they were reluctant to give up the traditions of their youth. In 1848, Cambridge University student Charles Thring came up with the first attempt at a universal code. The “Cambridge rules” of 1848 are often regarded as the pivotal moment in the development of football, with students of the various schools coming together to create a code that would appeal to all. But 12 years later each of the major schools – Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Westminster, Winchester, Marlborough and Charterhouse - were all still sticking to their own version of football, with each regarding their version as the best.

In response to the 1858 letter by Juvenis, Floreat Rugbona replied “At the foot of the letter you propose that Eton rules should be adopted, since they are printed. But rugby rules are printed also, and I am sure that Rugboeians would never agree to take their rules from any other school, why could not Rugby rules be played everywhere?” Ten letters and a month later, the editor of Bell’s Life held his hands up in despair. “We have received many other letters on this subject from public schoolmen, but they are so mixed up with abuse of each other that we consider them better unpublished,” and he promptly brought the debate to an end. “We should have seen with pleasure some proposition for a generalisation of the rules, but there seems no disposition to concession on any side.”

Different actors – same outcome
It wasn’t, however, just in the schools that football was growing in stature and importance. Members of cricket clubs across the country were beginning to see the benefit of playing football in the winter. In 1845, Surrey County Cricket Club had been formed in South London. Four years later Bell’s Life reported that the club wanted to “restore the equally healthful game of foot-ball.” Six rules were agreed on, the first three of which dealt with membership while the other three stipulated that matches should be no more than 22-a-side, wilful kicking should not be allowed, and that “the game be determined in favour of that side which shall first kick the ball over the ‘goal rope’ of their opponents.”

Like the rules of The Foot-Ball Club in Edinburgh from 26 years earlier, the Surrey Foot-Ball Club rules were very basic. In 1857, when the Sheffield Football Club was formed the rules were more complex, numbering 11 in total and published under the heading “Laws. For the guidance of playing members.” Between 1858 and 1863, the debate on creating a universal football game raged in the newspapers with notable contributions from Charles Thring, the author of the Cambridge rules.

Clubs take the initiative to form a football association
With no compromise forthcoming, and with the emergence of a number of new clubs in London, the debate shifted away from the schools. Five clubs were especially important. Forest Football Club had been formed in 1858 by old boys from Harrow, notably the Alcock brothers Charles and John. In March 1862 there were newspaper reports of Forest playing against Crystal Palace, a club taking its name from the famous London landmark and its cricket club. Barnes, with the formidable presence of Ebenezer Morley, made their first appearance in the newspaper columns in December 1862, as did Blackheath, while No Names of Kilburn, for whom Arthur Pember was a leading figure, joined the fray in April 1863.

A further round of letters from public schoolboys to newspapers followed in October 1863, most notably in The Times. But at the same time, representatives of the five London clubs advertised for a meeting to coincide with the start of the new football season. The aim was to form a football association with the purpose of finally creating a universal code of football Laws. These clubs needed agreed rules by which they could play each other and so on the 26th they met at the Freemason’s Tavern. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Except it wasn’t that simple.

A slow start for the universal code leads to separation of sports
Repeated attempts to get the schools on board failed miserably. And at the sixth meeting on 8 December, Blackheath withdrew from the association. Their members, who all favoured the Laws of Rugby school, were unhappy that the new Laws of the Football Association forbade hacking. Just one week after having created what they thought would be a new universal football game, the dream looked to be dead in the water.

The split was not even about handling the ball… the first Football Association Laws allowed handling, but as the decade went on, it became apparent that football was dividing itself into two codes, one which was based on dribbling and kicking the ball, with the other based on handling and running with the ball. Of the large number of clubs formed in the 1860s and 1870s, the majority chose to follow Blackheath’s lead and that led in turn to the creation of the Rugby Football Union and the modern games of rugby union and rugby league.

When the Football Association met in February 1867, its president Ebenezer Morley, even wondered if it would be best to disband the three-and-a-half-year-old association, such was the paucity of attendance and lack of interest. The quest for a universal code of football Laws was a failure. Football, in Britain and elsewhere in the world was set on a course of fracturing into a number of different codes. Had every club fallen into line behind the Football Association there would have been no rugby union or rugby league. A strong unified football code may even have supressed the growth of American football, Gaelic football and Australian rules football.

The fight for acceptance continues
Despite the initial lack of success, The Football Association decided to carry on, and the code of football it governed – association football – fought for acceptance in the face of tough competition from the other codes. That it overcame these hurdles to become the most popular sport on the planet was down in no small measure to one man – Charles Alcock. In the next of our features on the origins of football, we will tell the story of how Alcock changed the sporting world, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of perhaps his greatest inspiration, the launch of international football on 5 March 1870.