Who are IFAB & are they fab? | @GJ_Thomas

Before the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak halted all football in Europe in March 2020, the story of the 2019/20 campaign in the Premier League was the introduction of VAR. Video Assistant Referees made the headlines on a weekly basis, with football fans struggling to come to terms with marginal offside calls or controversial handball decisions awarded by the system. However, before any rules change in football, there is a group that have the final say: the International Football Association Board (IFAB). But who are they?!

The International Football Association Board were founded in 1886 [1], at a meeting in the FA headquarters in London. The four home nation associations were present, the FA (England), the SFA (Scotland), the FAW (Wales) and IFA (Ireland). Each country were given equal voting rights with their purpose, to formally deal with question marks and disputes surrounding the laws of the game that had arisen between the four countries since the FA had been founded by back 1863.

One of the main issues needing debating in 1886 was how each country would accept/implement professionalism. The decision to legalise the paying of footballers for their talents was made in 1885 by the English FA, but the Scottish FA refused to play any international fixtures with professional players in their squad, and also refused to play the English should they feature professionals. This issue, alongside rising spectatorship, and the importance of uniform rules (90 minutes was not officially codified until 1897!) in the rapidly growing and immensely popular competitions such as the FA Cup and the Scottish FA Cup, saw the need for IFAB's founding.

'Professionalism' was a hot topic in 1885! - The Sportsman - 19 January 1885

The IFAB website themselves record each annual meeting between the associations. The spectacular source features the handwritten notes of each of those early meetings. However, early newspaper references of the group are limited, with the Paisley & Renfrewshire Gazette (below) being one of the first newspapers to make reference to IFAB after the AGM in 1887. At this meeting a number of 'alterations' to the laws of the game were made, such as 'tripping' (or a 'foul') to include 'throwing or attempting to throw an adversary' and that goalkeepers 'shall only be allowed to use his hands within his own half of the field' [2]. With the need for unanimous decisions between the associations, the issue of if a ball is out of play if it leaves the pitch in the air, was not decided upon that year.

Paisley & Renfrewshire Gazette - 04 June 1887

IFAB continued to meet annually but in 1904, the founding of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), would shake their hold on the laws of the game. FIFA had been founded to meet the ‘European hunger for the coordination of football’, but the home nations totally rejected this international federation [3]. The ‘proud and insular’ assocations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland were not interested in giving up their power. Despite this, FIFA would accept the 'laws of the game', as had been decided by IFAB and sought to bring unity to world football.

The rejection of the home nations though, was fairly short lived. England would join FIFA in 1905, with Scotland and Wales following suit in 1910, and Ireland the last to sign up in 1911. FIFA still did not have access to IFAB however, the home nations still setting the rules that the rest of FIFA's members would follow. It would be in 1913 that FIFA were finally allowed representation to sit on the IFAB meetings. After initially failing to find agreement in a January meeting, by April 1913 it was agreed but the power to change the rules would be carefully and strategically limited by the home associations. A majority of four out of five votes would be requried to change the laws of the game and so FIFA were still at the mercy of the home nations [5].

Pall Mall Gazette - Saturday 05 April 1913

Another flashpoint would come in 1921, when Ireland was 'partitioned'. The IFA would now represent the Northern Irish, and when the new Football Association of Ireland (FAI) sought to rejoin IFAB in 1923, they were refused. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, IFAB would experiment and implement changes to world football, including the rejected proposal for two onfield referees and the adapted offside law of 1925 that moved the requirement down from three defenders to the two we see today. 

A retired referee and key member of IFAB, would make a signficant impact to the game of football as we know it in 1937. Englishman (Sir) Stanley Rous, who was later instrumental in the arranging of the highly successful 1948 'Austerity' Olympics in London, and would be FIFA's sixth President (1961-1974), compacted the 'Laws of the Game' into the form of 17 different laws covering all aspects of the sport. These laws were approved, and as IFAB themselves state, 'Rous revised the rules so well that it was not until 1997 that the Laws would be revised again' [6]. 

Sir Stanley Rous (1895-1986) - A legendary football administrator

It would be 1958 where FIFA would eventually join IFAB as a fully recognised member. This move gave them half of the voting rights at IFAB general meetings, but the voting rules were still heavily weighted towards the home nations. To this day, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland retain one vote each at IFAB, whilst FIFA has an equal four votes, however, these four places are to represent all the other 207 member associations of FIFA! With new footballing laws requiring six of eight votes to pass, the four British nations enjoy ‘50 percent control of the laws of the game’, and of course, if they don't like an idea, the power of veto as a group [7].

Since then, IFAB have played their important role in developing the beautiful game for the better. In 1970 red and yellow cards were introduced in time for the World Cup in Mexico, whilst 1990 saw DOGSO (denying of a goalscoring opportunity) added to football vernacular. 1990 also brought 'level' into the offside law, giving the 'advantage' to the attacker (more on that in a minute!). Two years later IFAB made a seismic change - the backpass rule. Denmark's Euro 1992 victory, which at times heavily utilised the backpass, was the last where keepers could safely and legally pick the ball up from their own player. The move heavily praised as making football more exciting.

It would be the 2010s where football embraced technology. Following Frank Lampard's disallowed 'goal' against Germany in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter annouced that goal-line technology would be introduced to prevent further mishaps. By 2012, IFAB permitted its use and the system slipped seemlessly into the sport, the buzz of the referee's watch definitively letting everyone know whether the whole of the ball has crossed the whole of the line.

Frank Lampard's 'ghost goal' saw IFAB bring in goalline technology

2017 saw one of IFAB's most controversial suggestions hit the press. Their research found that matches contained, on average, fewer than 60 minutes of 'effective playing time' (EPT) where the ball is in open play. They proposed stopping the 'clock' for everything else: penalty decisions, the cautioning of players, treatment of injured players, substitutions being made, and the celebration of a goal being scored [8]. This would in effect mean a consistent 60 minutes in every game across the world, but the idea of getting rid of 90 minute matches shocked, and in some cases appalled, many fans. Whilst not yet taken further, do not expect this plan to have totally disappeared.

This brings us to 2018 and VAR. Video Assistant Referees, after many years of trials across the world, were permitted (but not required) by IFAB's updated laws. It is important to remember the make up of IFAB here, 50% of the board are British associations; and so the regular gripe that has sprung up, that VAR is FIFA ruining the 'our' game, actually has been led and developed by British football administrators.

Marginal (but correct) VAR offside calls have led to must debate in 2020/21

VAR's controversy (something debated almost every podcast of ours!), has surrounded 'tight' offside calls and handballs that 'would never have been seen before VAR'. Ultimately VAR means that decisions are correct according to the laws of the game, correct when referees would previously have got them wrong. This has left football fans in a quandry, do we accept mistakes that 'look right', to save having to analyse marginal errors? Of course, VAR cannot ignore incorrect calls, and whilst Gary Lineker may lead the calls for deciding offside by 'one quick look of a referee', this is never going to be the case whilst we now have the ability to check for certain.

Another call from many spectators has been 'how do you know the exact moment when the ball has left the passer's foot'? This however, is something IFAB addressed before VAR was brought in. With the law now stating that it is not when the ball leaves the passer's foot, but in fact when the passer makes their move and contact to play the ball. This means the need for seeing 'daylight' between passer and ball has already been covered/removed. Other opinions have included 'if any part of the body is onside, then the attacker is onside', but as shown below, this would significantly shift the advantage the other direction and would also not mean the end to marginal calls ('calibrated VAR' would still be needed here).

Some suggest any part of the body means onside, but this would allow this extreme distance is onside

IFAB have allowed each league to 'implement' VAR and the use of video monitors for 'subjective calls' (penalties/red cards) however they so wish. The Premier League elected for a 'high bar' and less use of the video monitor, keeping the power with the onfield official. ESPN's Dale Johnson has spent the season valiantly committed to explaining each VAR decision, and as he puts it:

'In the Premier League, protocol is for the referee to describe to the VAR what has happened. If this is a good description of what the VAR has watched, there will be no overturn. This, together with the high bar, means on-pitch decisions carry huge weight.' [9]

Next season (2020/21), handballs will be clarified by the continuing work of IFAB. It will remain 'any part of the head, body or feet', but plans laid out very clearly by IFAB dictate that the upper arm (as shown below) is not a handball, whilst anything below that will be. Again, this will still lead to marginal decisions - what if the ball hits halfway between the two? This will impact all incidents and will include offsides, upper arm now being a point that can be onside. So where do you draw the line? Because you have to somewhere, for both handballs and offsides. That is the question for fans - how correct do you want decisions? How much controversy do you want?

IFAB's handball 'clarifications' for 2020/21

So, with it clear that the power of the Laws of the Game are still in British hands via IFAB, how should that influence the raging arguments about how FIFA/UEFA/the rich clubs/the FA/the media/the broadcasters are 'ruining football' with their 'agendas'?! Hate the introduction of VAR or love it, think it is a way of helping LiVARpool & VARchester United stay successful or not, please just promise to head over to IFAB's VAR section for 2020/21 and ingest it. Let us make sure we understand it properly, before another year of filling social media with demands of what VAR/the onfield referee 'should' do, but cannot! IFAB are a vitally important body, a story that started right back in 1886.

This piece was written by Gareth Thomas, you can follow him on Twitter: @GJ_Thomas  & @TFHBs.


[1] The IFAB website: https://www.theifab.com/history/ifab 
[2] Paisley & Renfrewshire Gazette - 04 June 1887
[3] Ben Jones and Gareth Thomas, Football’s Fifty Most Important Moments (Brighton: Pitch Publishing, 2020) p.35
[4] Richard Holt, Sport and The British (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) p.273
[5] Kevin Moore, What You Think You Know About Football Is Wrong (London: Bloomsbury, 2019) p.22
[6] The IFAB website: https://www.theifab.com/history/ifab 
[7] Kevin Moore, p.23
[8] Play Fair!, ‘The IFAB strategy to develop the Laws of the Game to improve football 2017–2022’, IFAB, 2017: https://www.play-fair.com/
[9] Dale Johnson on Twitter.

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©The Football History Boys, 2020
(All pictured borrowed kindly & not owned by TFHB)


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