There’s a common complaint about soccer that you often hear in the United States—that it’s not exciting enough. “They don’t score enough points!” lament these haters. But whatever your feelings about the relative excitement of the beautiful game, soccer was undoubtedly more boring 30 years ago.
“The world was in general agreement that the game was too slow and that it needed to be made more dynamic,” says soccer writer, Adam Hurrey. And Hurrey says that the main culprit slowing the game down was the goalkeeper. Basically teams would score a goal or two and then they would do anything they could just to waste time and protect that lead. The easiest way to do that was just to pass it to the goalkeeper, who back then, could pick the ball up, and run a few seconds off the clock before throwing it back into play.
This uninspiring tactic was particularly popular during the 1990 World Cup in Italy. There were lots of low scoring games, lots of passing the ball back to the keeper, and lots of time-wasting. “There is one story about a game at Italia 90 between Egypt and Republic of Ireland where someone totaled up the amount of time the Irish goalkeeper had the ball in his hands throughout the game and he added up to six minutes,” says Hurrey. In other words, fans spent about seven percent of the game watching the goalkeeper just hold the ball!
Goalkeepers Are Not Above the Law
Something needed to be done. And so in 1992, the International Football Association Board, the committee in charge of determining the rules of soccer, made a minor change to the laws of the game. From that season forward, in every league throughout the world, when a player passed the ball back to the goalkeeper, the goalkeeper could no longer use their hands.
The backpass law might seem like a pretty subtle tweak to the rules of soccer, but over time it would completely transform the game in ways that FIFA could never have envisioned. This little rule change would become one of the most consequential in the history of the sport, and it would force nearly every player on the field to adapt. But, in the short term, the player most severely impacted was undoubtedly the goalkeeper.
The goalkeeper has always been this unique, specialist position—almost like a field goal kicker in American football or a coxswain in rowing. They even wear a different colored shirt from their teammates as if to signify… I am not like the rest of you. The most obvious difference is that they are allowed to do something that no one else on the field can—touch the ball with their hands. Goalkeepers have this strange superpower, which they use to ruin everyone else’s fun.
“Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and what most people love about it is the goals,” explains Justin Bryant, author of Small Time: A Life in the Football Wilderness and a former goalkeeper for Boreham Wood FC. “And it’s actually our ambition to prevent goals from happening so we’re sort of trying to disappoint the entire world.” Bryant grew up playing soccer in Florida and then ended up playing professionally in England in the 80s and 90s for a small club called Boreham Wood FC.
Goalkeeping requires a very particular type of intensity and focus. Unlike outfield players, a goalkeeper might go the whole game without really doing all that much, but they have to stay ready because one mistake can be catastrophic. “We can make utter fools of ourselves,” says Bryant, “We can make just the most horrific mistakes that lose games and it’s very evident to everybody watching when that happens.” While everyone else on the team is trying to work together, using their feet to put the ball in the back of the net, the goalkeeper’s mission is to keep the ball out of the net using their hands. For that reason, the goalkeeper developed a reputation as a kind of lonely outsider.
And in 1992, these outsiders were about to get even lonelier. Goalkeepers in England were trained in how to block shots, catch crosses, and fight for loose balls, which are all things you do with your hands. In a training session in the 80s, a goalkeeper probably wouldn’t play the ball with their feet at all. But now if someone on their own team passed them the ball, the goalkeeper would be stripped of their superpowers. They would need to use their feet just like everyone else. This turned out to be a bit of a problem because a lot of them just didn’t know how.
All Eyes on the Premier League
1992 was a big year for English soccer. It was the start of a brand new, highly commercialized league that would go on to become the most lucrative in the world. The English Premier League. There was a new TV deal and big money sponsorships. They were really trying to sell British soccer as an entertainment product, but at first, things were pretty sloppy. Adam Hurrey explains, “We had a weekend full of goalkeepers making horrendous errors because they just didn’t know what to do.” Goalkeepers would have the ball kicked back to them and react with sheer terror.
More often though, when someone passed the ball back to the goalkeeper they would just kick it as far away as they could. Sometimes straight up the field, but often the ball would end up out of bounds. Hurrey says that people were questioning whether this had been a good idea. They were asking: “how is this improved our game? If anything it’s less enjoyable to watch because now the ball’s in the stands instead of the goalkeeper’s hands.”
Another goalkeeper from that time, Craig Forrest, remembers the rule causing friction between goalkeepers and defenders. Forrest played goalie for a Premier League team called Ipswich Town, and he says that first season his defenders would forget about the rule change and pass him the ball in really dangerous situations. Some goalkeepers already had decent foot skills, and so over time they were able to adjust to the rule change, but that wasn’t the case for every goalkeeper. Over the course of the 1990s, lots of goalkeepers were just weeded out because they couldn’t adapt to this new reality.
Survival of the Footiest
The rule change rendered lots of goalkeepers obsolete, but over time it proved remarkably successful. It completely did away with time-wasting, and after a few rough years soon goalkeepers just started developing the necessary foot skills. Justin Bryant had a goalkeeper coach at Boreham Wood who really made a point of this, and he says it was fun to play the ball with your feet. “I think it made us feel better about being goalkeepers because now we weren’t just these weirdos who stood back there and swatted the ball with our hands,” explains Bryant, “ we were soccer players.”
But the goalkeepers weren’t the only ones who had to adjust to the rule. From the perspective of the defenders, the game changed a lot too. Before when they got into a sticky situation they could just pass the ball back to the goalkeeper who would pick it up, but now they didn’t have that option. But over time defenders also became better at playing the ball with their feet. And as defenders and goalkeepers got more skilled, the tactics of the game evolved. Instead of just hitting long balls forward to the big bruising striker, teams started trying to possess the ball with quick intricate passes. Possession of the ball became absolutely imperative, and if you had a goalkeeper who could play with their feet, it was like getting an additional player on the field. This new rule created an opportunity, not a restriction.
Adam Hurrey says that the rule change even made players more physically fit! Before whenever someone passed it back to the goalkeeper the outfield players had a moment to catch their breath, but now there is no letup. The average outfield player today runs about 7 miles in a single match. It’s become a completely different sport.
Part of the Team
There’s one goalkeeper in the Premier League who really represents just how far the game has come since this rule change back in 1992. His name is Ederson, and he plays for Manchester City. He’s a big guy with good hands, and he’s good at blocking shots. But what makes Ederson special is his spellbinding foot skills. In some ways, Ederson is a unique talent, but at every level of soccer, coaches are treating goalkeepers more like full members of the team. Justin Bryant says that this rule that initially seemed so unfair to goalkeepers has made them more like everyone else. “You still have individualistic iconoclastic loner personalities but you have to know we are in a very real sense more a part of the team now.”