Unlucky 13: Revisit the original Laws of the Game

On Sunday 6 March 2016, The IFAB agreed to experiment with video technology for the first time. 152 years after they were first established, the Laws of the Game continue to evolve. Most history books state that there were 14 original Laws of the Game, but a recent discovery at the FIFA World Football Museum suggests otherwise.

152 years? Have the Laws changed much over that time?

You wouldn’t recognise the game they played in 1863. It would look more like rugby! Of the original 13 Laws of the Game, not one sentence remains the same. There have been three major revisions to the Laws - in 1891, 1938 and 1997 - and there are now 17 Laws in total.

Hang on a second. Don’t most history books state that there were 14 original Laws of the Game?

They do. And it’s a monumental error! Even former FIFA President Stanley Rous was taken in, and he was an expert on the Laws. From 1934 to 1936, Rous used his wide experience as a referee to re-write them (his handwritten draft is displayed in the FIFA World Football Museum). After being replaced as FIFA President in 1974, Rous wrote the definite history of the Laws – and in his book, he refers to the original 14 Laws.

So what’s going on? How could such a basic mistake be made?

For the answer, you have to go back to November 1863. The Football Association had just been formed in London (on 26 October) with the aim of creating a set of Laws that would unify the different forms of football played in the schools and universities across England. It wasn’t until the second and third meetings, on 10 November and 17 November, that the discussion turned to the Laws. An initial list of 23 was drawn up – and the FA secretary, Ebenezer Morley, was asked to redraft them and print a final list for approval. A week later, at a fourth meeting on 24 November, he presented his list of the 14 Laws of the Game.

It sounds like Rous was right after all...

Not exactly, because the debate over the Laws got a bit heated! Most of the representatives at the meeting were businessmen, and they were none too keen on the more violent aspects of the game. The threat of injuries, which could keep players from working, had persuaded Morley to tone down some of the original suggestions. But others at the meeting were unhappy at losing the vigour of the school games, especially the FA's young treasurer, Francis Maule Campbell from the Blackheath club. The meeting was adjourned without agreement.

See also

Lost and found: FIFA's masterpiece

An extraordinary discovery is unveiled at the FIFA World Football Museum.

So what happened next?

Morley was keen to keep everyone in the same association. So he came to the fifth meeting, on 1 December, with a new list of 13 Laws which he hoped would pacify opponents. Critically, however, one part of the game was no longer allowed. This was hacking, the practice of deliberately kicking an opponent on the shins. After another fierce debate, during which Blackheath withdrew from the Football Association in protest, these 13 Laws were accepted.

So why the confusion about 14?

These events were all recorded in the FA minute book. As Morley’s initial list of 14 had been printed and stuck into this book, they were very prominent – unlike the 13 Laws which were handwritten. Most researchers have simply assumed that the printed list was the final version. Either that or they couldn’t read Morley’s handwriting!

Morley sounds an interesting character...

Yes he was. All football fans owe a serious debt of gratitude to Ebenezer Cobb Morley. He drafted the Laws at his home at 26 The Terrace in Barnes, London – an event celebrated with a blue plaque on the wall of the building. The house has had a number of famous residents, including the Welsh singer Duffy – but in November 2015, it collapsed during building work and a significant historical landmark was lost.