Unsure Footing

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.

Rubin Okotie tries to score on Congo Goalkeeper Destin Onka at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Photo by Nick Wiebe  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Lonely Outsiders

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.

Liverpool FC. Photo by Дмитрий Садовников (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“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.”



Producer Emmett FitzGerald spoke with Adam Hurrey and author of Football Clichés; Justin Bryant, former soccer goalkeeper and author of Small Time: A Life in the Football Wilderness; and Craig Forrest, former goalkeeper.

Special thanks to Michael Cox, who we also spoke with for this story. His new book, The Mixer, is a great look at the evolution of soccer tactics since the backpass rule.

  1. Andrew Davidson

    Loved the story, but wanted to hear more about the Georgian guy who claims to have come up with the back pass rule: who and what is he? And how did his idea get to FIFA?

    And could you not get any better confirmation of the authenticity of the fax than it looks genuine from a couple of you? Couldn’t FIFA be asked to comment or corroborate that part of the story?

    Inquiring minds want to know!

    1. Ike

      My guess (hope) is that if and when they hear back from the Georgian man, it will be the basis for a sequel episode

  2. peter

    Just a short remark:
    The last video cannot be watched from germany:
    “Video nicht verfügbar Dieses Video umfasst Inhalte von Bundesliga. Dieser Partner hat das Video in deinem Land aus urheberrechtlichen Gründen gesperrt.” which translates to “Video not available. This video includes content from Bundesliga. This partner has blocked the video in your country for copyright reasons.”
    Which does not diminish this interesting article about a very uninteresting topic.

  3. Jimmy

    Long post, but thank you for a brilliant article about a genuine game-changer.

    2 points;
    1. Liverpool FC, the dominant European team in the 1980s, have not won a league championship since the back pass rule came into effect. Before the rule came in, you’d see the last 10 minutes of tight games with the winning team playing keep-ball. The players with the most touches would be the goalkeeper and 2 defenders, and Liverpool had perfected it. 3 players – Hansen, Grobbelaar and Lawrenson – could have exclusive possession during the most critical 10% of the game. It was a boring and frustrating anticlimax for all but the ardent Liverpool fans. This year, Liverpool have a chance to win it for the first time playing beautiful football for the full 90 minutes, and no-one will accuse them of being boring.

    2. The new goal kick rule mentioned. It might seems insignificant, but will change the game forever, for the youngest players. The sport’s governing body insist that the rules of the game are universal. Same rules apply for the Premier League and the cub scout league.

    The new rule says player taking a goal kick (which has to be taken within 6 yards of the goal) can now pass the ball to a teammate inside the 18-yard penalty box. Opposing players will still need to stay outside the box, but can enter as soon as the goal kick is taken. As of now, the ball cannot be touched by any other player until the kick is taken.

    This rule change will barely be noticeable in the Premier League. At the senior level, adult players have no problem kicking a standing ball 50+ yards, placing the ball in the opponent’s territory.

    For juniors, kicking the ball with enough power and trajectory to clear someone standing on the edge of the box is an emerging skill. They just don’t kick the ball that hard yet. Goal kicks at the under-10 levels present a great opportunity for your opponents. The ball is only 6 yards from goal, and a young kid has to kick it far enough to reach safety. Under the current rules, opponents can line up on the edge of the box, waiting for a scuffed kick to trickle into their path, giving them a clear shot on goal. That puts tremendous pressure on the kid taking the goal kick; mess it up and you’re likely to provide an assist to the opposition.

    The rule change means kids have more options to get the ball away from goal than relying on strength alone. We’ll see new tactics and less frustration for the youngest players. Looking forward to seeing that in the parks on Saturday mornings.

  4. Fabricio Ortiz de Montellano

    The best goalkeeper with footskills was left out of the story: Jorge Campos. Would have been interesting to see what others think of his skills. He revolutionized the position.

  5. Dan

    As a recovering goalkeeper myself, this was a great episode that highlights the eccentricities of goalies and our thankless job (unless you seal the win with a save in a shootout). But then to relive the moments of panic and dread after the rule change when a defender would pass the ball back and all sense of comfort on the ball would evaporate, thinking “what do I do? just don’t screw up”

    I was surprised that the keeper used as an example wasn’t Manuel Neuer from Germany/Bayern Munich, instead of Ederson. While Neuer is not currently regarded as the #1 goalkeeper in the world (he was not too long ago), he is the first keeper that comes to mind for me as an example of a “sweeper keeper” who uses his feet to get involved in the defense and move the ball out of the back. Neuer completely changed the position https://youtu.be/npiAfbtlwLc

  6. Mike

    As a soccer fan loved the episode.

    I wanted to add some potential info regarding the guy who allegedly invented the rule. I grew up in Georgia, and I always heard that there was this guy who invented a different rule in soccer regarding time-wasting!!!

    According to the story, back in the day, players would waste time by kicking the ball far out of the field. Since there were no ball kids around the field, it would take forever for them to get the ball back and the players would waste time this way. Well, according to the legend, this fan in Georgia wrote to Fifa, suggesting to have ball boys around the field who would immediately get another ball to the player. And that’s how that was introduced. I even heard the same facts about the fax of a thank you letter written by Fifa to him!

    Now I’m wondering if that story was true or not, or if this man is responsible for introducing both of these laws, which would be amazing!!! I hope you guys can investigate this a bit more :)


    1. Ovidius

      I was at an Italian 7th division Promozione match a few years ago, last game of the season between the home side chasing the playoffs and the away side fighting relegation so it was a cliffhanger. It was 4-3 in the end and at times when winning the home side would kick the ball out into the stinging nettles around the pitch to waste time and let the away player dig it out, no ball boys at that level. When the away team did the same when the game was even the home side would produce a spare ball from the dugout. I myself play in a tournament every year and there is a tricky fence and sheep field behind one goal, if we are winning and I need a rest if I know I won’t score I won’t tap a speculative effort in but make sure I blast it over the fence into the sheep so the keeper has to climb the fence and retrieve the ball costing loads of time. Top shithousery.

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