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When did the back-pass law change in football?

The game of soccer has undergone many changes in its long and illustrious life. And despite the game being essentially the same iteration for the past 30 or so years, the back-pass rule which was introduced in 1992 had a big impact on how the game would be played for future generations. For more articles about those crazy guys between the sticks check out our Goalkeeper page.

What is the back-pass rule?

Introduced in 1992, the back-pass rule prevents the goalkeeper from handling the ball if the ball is played intentionally to the keeper with their feet/legs. It also applies to throw-ins, with keepers unable to pick the ball up directly after a ball is thrown back to them.

Back-passes with parts of the body other than the foot, such as headers, are an exception to the rule. However, a player cannot deliberately usurp the rule through flicking the ball up and heading the ball back, in other words it can only be headed back if the ball is played initially by an opponent.

Despite its name, the “back-pass rule”, does not refer to the direction of the pass in any way. If the ball is played to a keeper in the box ahead of a player they still can’t pick it up.

In the rare occasions a back-pass occurs, an indirect free-kick is awarded, the only time in which a free-kick can occur in the box. When it does occur, it often leads to bizarre defensive scenarios of teams packing the goal mouth with defenders forming a wall on the goal line.

Goalkeepers are allowed to handle the ball if the ball is played back to them by an action other than a kick or throw-in (such as a header), but defenders are not permitted to attempt to use a work around to pass the ball to the goalkeeper.

This would include flicking the ball up with the foot and then heading the ball back to the goalkeeper, or using your head to play the ball back to the keeper when it’s on the floor/playable with your feet.

Why was it introduced?

As iterated, of all the rule changes that have occurred in football’s long, illustrious life the pass-back rule might be hands down the most important. Prior to a keeper not being able to pick up the ball from a team mate’s pass, a goalkeeper in effect was guaranteed to keep hold of possession (literally).

Why? Because if a defender was in trouble they could just nonchalantly play the ball back to their keeper who’d hold it safely in their hands and be able to smash it 50 yards up the field. It was a metaphorical crutch for defenders who didn’t want to take any risks and as a result, spoiled the flow and dynamism of a game.

After the 1990 Italian World Cup, pundits, fans and football cynics heavily criticised the current state of football. With the matches in the recent World Cup being among the most defensive and dull spectacles in footballing history, capped off by the tournament setting a record low for goals scored per game.

Keepers holding the ball was a particularly big part of this. During Italia 90, Ireland goalkeeper Packie Bonner held the ball for nearly six minutes when they faced off against Egypt in the group stage.

Time wasting was out of control, and unlike today’s exaggerated, faux injuries, there was no solace in injury time. Every second the keeper held the ball in his hands was deemed as in play, with nothing the other team could do to win back possession.

Revolutionised the game

Since the rule change though, the job spec of a goalkeeper changed dramatically, as did that of a defender to some extent. Despite the sport being known as ‘football’, goalkeepers (save from a goal kick) could just use their legs and feet for standing on most of the time. As long as they had good handling, shot stopping skills and good distribution when kicking out of their hands, they could get by in the beautiful game just fine. 

Now with the rule change, they were forced to control the ball closely with their feet whenever a team mate passed to them. Granted, a lot of the time the keepers would still smash the ball up the field first time but the law change meant there was now extra jeopardy with the keeper having to time their kick against a moving ball (which could prove difficult on bobbly pitches of yesteryear). However, further development of the game from a tactical sense in Europe’s top leagues meant the job required of a no 1 on the field deviated even further from what it was.

Playing out from the back and Tiki-Taka’s influence on the role of a Goalkeeper

Perhaps the canary in the coal mine for an ‘old school’ keeper’s lifespan in the game coming to an end was when Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola famously axed his number 1 Joe Hart (of whom was the highly regarded England goalkeeper at the time).

Despite his consistency and multiple league titles Hart was quickly phased out in favour of an ageing Claudio Bravo in 2016, who was a lesser shot stopper. Bravo however, was considerably better with the ball at his feet, and with Guardiola’s play style dependent on a goalkeeper that could pick out a pass and play football, Hart was made surplus to requirements . Hoofing the ball up field every opportunity just isn’t an option in the Tiki-Taka style, and a keeper’s ball playing ability in this system has to be better than just good enough.

Why do Keepers have to be good on the ball?

A goalkeeper is expected to do much more than just play a short 5 yard pass to a defender in front of him instead of hoofing it; he needs to have the skill and know how to play around the pressing attackers. The natural counter to Tiki-Taka is a well drilled press, and a keeper without sufficient on-the-ball skills in today’s game will be caught out horribly. If a keeper is able to not just see a pass to the right man, but execute it, 5 opposing players can be taken out of the game in just a few passes.

It’s all about beating the initial wave of pressing from the attackers. Play around it, and your midfield suddenly has so much space to move into, allowing a swift attack. The back-pass rule is intrinsic to the evolution of the goalkeeper’s role. It’s survival of the fittest, or those whom can adapt quickest, and it’s safe to say even now, many goalkeepers struggle with the ball at their feet.

The removal of a defensive fail-safe meant players, defenders and keeper, had to become better footballers to counteract this lack of a safe option when in doubt. By discouraging overly defensive and passive play, teams overtime began to explore ways to attack, due to an inability to play overly cautious.

Was the back-pass rule a success?

The formation of the Premier League in terms of development, commercialisation and growth of the game brought football into the 21st century and arguably the introduction of the back-pass rule was the perfect accompaniment, making the game a more palatable and dynamic viewing experience for fans.

As much as it made life harder for goalkeepers and defenders, more goals and drama is only a good thing for spectators and the sport. At the same time, the drama the rule causes isn’t a manufactured drama, it doesn’t feel forced like some of Infantino’s proposed changes to force excitement. The back pass rule served to solve a problem rife in football at the time, and did so in a manner that felt natural and necessary.

The rule has led to a fundamental change in the way teams approach football, with the now prehistoric hoof ball seen in only the most desperate/outmatched sides.

As important as shot stopping, handling and all the traditional values that make up a good keeper are, passing, vision and ball control are all just as important in the modern game.

It’s safe to say the back-pass rule has been a massive success, making football at its core a more nuanced and complex sport. It was an addition that was needed to take football into the 21st century.

The pass back rule in 5 a side

5 a side football, a soccer variation of 11 a side with fewer players on a smaller pitch is a very popular, faster paced variation on the sport. Goalkeepers are confined to a small zone in the shape of a semicircle, known as a “D”, that attackers are not allowed to enter.
Picking the ball up from a backpass is still forbidden, but a further rule means that keepers cannot receive the ball from a defender if they were the last player to pass it to them. In other words, “If a goalkeeper distributes the ball to a defender, that defender must then pass to an outfield player before returning the ball to the goalkeeper.”

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