What you didn’t know about substitutions in Football (pt. 1)

This is the first part of a thorough overview of the development of substitutions in football. Read the part 2 here.

No time to read? No problem, here is already a dr;tl.
See also: All changes of Law 11.

Substitutions in Football in the 19th century: Emergency!

In the second half of the 19th century, football was not yet so widespread outside the UK. In addition, substitutions in our modern understanding did not exist, but there was something similar that had the same name.

If not all the players of a team were present at the start of a match, the missing player was allowed – by prior, mutual agreement – to be replaced by another person for the duration of his or her delay.

However, there was rarely a substitute player in the team, which is why a spectator was accepted as a player instead. However, the players was not always recorded with their name, but sometimes as a substitute as S. Ubstitute or E. Mergency. The rules of the Eton Field Game in the 1850s did not call it substitution, but emergency, which describes it much better: It was an emergency that substitution was provided for.

“The Charterhouse eleven played a match in cloisters against some old Carthusians, but in consequence of the non-appearance of some of those who were expected it was necessary to provide three substitutions”
– Bell’s Life in London, an Sporting Chronicle, February 22, 1863. p. 7.

In an international match between Wales and Scotland, a player of the local football club replaced an international: On April 15, 1889, the match took place in Wrexham. The actual Welsh goalkeeper did not arrive – it took 30 minutes for another international goalkeeper of the Welsh to arrive in Wrexham. Therefore, for the first 30 minutes a Wrexham amateur footballer took over as goalkeeper.

Half a century later, the first mention of substitutions in football can be found in the minutes of The IFAB’s Annual General Meeting. In 1923, substitution is only possible in non-competition matches and in the event of a serious injury, and only after prior agreement between the two teams. The referee must also be informed of the agreement and of the substitutions during the match.

Exceptions in continental Europe between the World Wars

I cannot yet say with certainty which countries circumvented the substitution requirement during this period. In 1930, FIFA stated that it had become the custom for some associations to change players at non-competition matches, not only in the event of injury.

Then, in 1931, a Dutch official wrote a letter listing the countries that were circumventing the rule (including in competition matches?): Denmark, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, the then Czechoslovakia, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and – outside Europe – the USA. How these countries circumvented the rule was varied: Either only the goalkeeper was allowed to be replaced or generally players only during the first half or only until 20 minutes before the end.

Carl Koppehel, a German referee, functionary and publisher of the German Referee Newspaper (“Deutsche Schiedsrichter-Zeitung”) also names Scandinavia as one of the countries insisting on substitutions in football. Now, Scandinavia is not a country, but a term for several countries. However, Koppehel does not name it more precisely.

Koppehel was also a vehement opponent of football substitution. He described it as unsportsmanlike to allow the uncontrollable substitution of allegedly injured players. In his opinion, it was better to accept a weakening of the team through injury. In contrast, the previously mentioned Dutch official reported that public opinion in the Netherlands considers the prohibition of substitution to be unfair.

„An unsportsmanlike action just as well as any abuse of this courtesy“.

If a player is unable to play because of a serious injury and a team has to play with one less player for the rest of the season, then there is an imbalance.

As already written in the beginning: The four British associations unofficially tolerated the exceptions allowed by FIFA in 1931, while they still did not allow substitutions in football. They were of the same opinion as Carl Koppehel.

What if a serious injury is faked?
What if the substitution was only made for tactical reasons?
After all, you can’t look in the players’ head!

And therefore, substitutions remained completely forbidden.

These are arguments that make us both smile and seem familiar. Today, we’re changing mainly for tactical reasons.
But the argument „can’t look into the players‘ heads“ is still used today when discussing about foul play. Was a foul play deliberate, i.e. deliberately negligent?
And the justification of a tactical unfairness also came up in spring 2020, when the five substitutions per game were first introduced to keep the risk of injury low after the week-long break and the only short preparation phase before the restart due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But what if these two additional substitutions are used for tactical reasons rather than health concerns?

The same was discussed 90 years earlier: In case of injury, replacing a player is certainly fair, but not to make tactical finesses. After all, football is an honest competition. And tactical gimmicks were looked at disparaging, especially by those who were against substitutions.

After the Second World War: The dogma of substitutions in football is crumbling in Great Britain

Shortly before the Second World War, it was hardly imagined that a decade later the dogma of football substitution was beginning to crumble. In Nazi Germany in 1938, an injured goalkeeper was only allowed to be substituted in friendly matches – nobody else. And in the UK, it was not only the teams that had to give their mutual consent before friendly matches of international matches, but also the two national associations.

Nine years later, in 1947, the Referees‘ Committee advised FIFA to allow the change of goalkeeper always plus the replacement of a field player during the first half. Only in the case of serious injuries, of course.

FIFA submitted this proposal to the Annual General Meeting of The IFAB in 1948, but it did not receive the necessary majority. The same was true of other FIFA proposals, namely the substitution of two injured players up to the 42nd minute (1947) or the substitution of the goalkeeper (only) in competition matches (1948 and 1949).

And although The IFAB rejected FIFA’s proposal in 1948 to allow the replacement of an injured goalkeeper at all times and of an injured field player during the first half, they had this option tested. Presumably with the approval of the four associations from Great Britain. It was tested in 1951 at a FIFA international youth tournament, in the qualifying for the World Cup (1953) and at the 1954 World Cup itself.

That’s what made it so confusing for me at first: if FIFA’s proposals were rejected in those years, why were there players substituted at the 1954 World Cup and in the qualifying matches?

They were experiments.

And the home nations? After FIFA’s experiments in 1951, 1953 and 1954, FIFA submitted the proposal again in 1956 and 1957 – and it was rejected both times. A clear signal.

However, there was a slight concession in 1957: The IFAB granted the national associations to allow the substitution of injured players. In 1958, the committee added a recommendation that an injured goalkeeper could always be substituted plus one injured field player during the first half.
The reason for this was the increasing number of teams in FA Cup matches, whose injury-related fatigue had a decisive influence on the outcome of the games.