The back-pass rule

The introduction of the back pass rule in the early 1990s

As early as 1981, at the Annual General Meeting of The IFAB, the issue of the back-pass and wasting time was discussed.

In this year, the committee was of the opinion that it was not a waste of time, as the opposing players had the right to intervene. This opinion changed significantly during and after the 1990 World Cup. In 1991, The IFAB allowed FIFA to prohibit the back-pass as an experiment at the 1991 U17 Men’s World Cup. The experiment was successful and since the 1992/93 season, the deliberately back-pass is prohibited.

“On any occasion when a player deliberately kicks the ball to his own goalkeeper, the goalkeeper is not permitted to touch it with his hands. Otherwise, the match will be restarted with an indirect free kick from the place where the offense occurred for the opposing team.” (Minute of The IFAB, 1992)

During the 1992 European Championship the back-pass was still allowed. The Danish goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, made intensive use of it at that time. Those who have followed the European Championship certainly remember very well.

After the European Championship, starting in the season 1992/93, the back-pass was forbidden.


The back pass rule since 1997

Until 1997, the interdiction of the back-pass was not included in the text of the law, but was annexed to Law 12 as a decision.

“If a player pass the ball to his own goalkeeper for a deliberate trick in order to circumvent Article 5 (c) of Law XII [= “[goalkeeper] touches the ball with his hands after it has been deliberately kicked to him by a team-mate”], the player will be guilty of ungentlemanly conduct. The game will be restarted with an indirect free kick from the place where the player committed the offence. (Minute of The IFAB, 1993)

In the process of revising the Laws of the Game in 1997, the back-pass rule was reworded.

“It is added that a player using a deliberately trick to circumvent the Law while he is taking a free kick, is cautioned for unsporting behavior and shown the yellow card. “Subsequently, the free kick is retaken.” (Minute of The IFAB, 1997)

The subsequent revisions of the Laws of the Game also reworded the back-pass rule, but did not change the content. Since 2008 it is part of the legal text.


The goalkeepers’ permitted handball

  • 1871-1887: the goalkeeper may touch the ball with the hands anywhere, provided it is to protect the own goal
  • 1887-1912: The goalkeeper is allowed to touch the ball with the hands in the own half
  • Since 1912: The goalkeeper is allowed to touch the ball with the hands in the own penalty area

But it was not only limited where the goalkeeper was allowed to do the handball. The duration was also subject to conditions.

  • 1886-1931: Maximum two steps
  • 1931-2000: Maximum four steps
  • Since 2000: Maximum of six seconds (all this is not interpreted hard)


The indirect goal kick & the back pass rule

Since summer 2019, the ball is in play on the goal kick as soon as it moves. Of course, the tricksters were immediately on the ball: The ball was lobbed from the goalkeeper to a nearby player, who returned it to the goalkeeper with his chest or a header. The goalkeeper then put the ball into play with his hand.
A few days later, this trick was banned by a circular of The IFAB.

A look at football history, however, shows that this change was by no means an absolute innovation. For while in the 1930s in the British Isles the ball was kicked long from the penalty kick (kick and rush), on the European continent, and especially in Germany, a different way of continuing the game had become established. The ball was lobbed towards the goalkeeper, who put it into play by throwing the ball.


Why did this change?

The IFAB, then consisting of two officials from each of the four British associations and FIFA, decreed at its annual meeting in June 1936 that the ball was not in play until it had left the penalty area, i.e. it could no longer be passed directly to the goalkeeper, thus officially abolishing the indirect kick.

The reason for the change was to protect the goalkeeper “from wild attacks and injuries” when he received the ball, as the referees’ newspaper put it.

At that time, and even into the post-war period, it was customary to jostle the goalkeeper into the goal when he had the ball in his arms. And it was by no means always fair. Therefore, goalkeepers were advised to fist the ball and only catch and hold it when absolutely necessary. The rule change meant that he was better protected.


Great indignation in Germany

“Des ‘Wippertjes’ Ende” was the headline of the Deutsche Schiedsrichter-Zeitung in January 1937 in an almost dramatic way and had referee H. Huelsmeier, who was also active in the Netherlands, find a very clear choice of words against the British rule keepers: “The new rule change […] is a product of the fact that the English feel little for including an invention of the mainland in the football rules. […] The ‘wippertje’, as the Dutchman so aptly calls the indirect kick from the goalkeeper’s hands, had already for years acquired full citizenship in the game of football. But it is not an ‘English invention’. Indeed, this type of kick was almost exclusively performed on the mainland.”

Carl Koppehel, editor of the Referees’ Magazine, was also very clear in the introduction to the article: “The necessity of the latest rule change is denied in wide circles of the football world.” This also reflects the anger at the dominance of the British. This had already become apparent in the voting behaviour in the IFAB. While the British associations England, Ireland and Scotland voted in favour and thus had the necessary three-quarters majority, the two FIFA representatives were against.


2019: Nothing the same as 1936 due to back pass rule

But despite all the protests, the direct and long goal kick, which first had to be trained in Germany, soon became routine. So much so, that not only did the long goal kick quickly become history. But a good 80 years later even rule experts did not foresee this variation when The IFAB stipulated that the ball no longer had to leave the penalty area in order to be in play.

Therefore, the need to intervene arose shortly after its introduction in the summer of 2019. The IFAB issued a circular on 3 August and, with the new old “encore” in mind, announced: Even the technical and refereeing experts are divided on whether this type of play is in the spirit of the Laws of the Game. Therefore, it advised referees that until a further decision is made, “this practice should not be allowed and should not be penalised. If it occurs, the referee should order the goal kick to be retaken (but not a disciplinary measure)”.

Note: A detailed article on the history of the indirect goal kick was published in German Referee Magazine in November 2022. You can read it here, see page 26.