Wednesday, 12 Jun 2024

The Back-Pass Rule: Improving the Game and Shaking Up Football Tradition


The Rules of the Game that govern football have evolved significantly since their inception in 1863. From the markings on the pitch to the shape of the ball, almost every aspect has seen changes. However, one rule change stands out in terms of confusion and impact – the introduction of the back-pass rule in 1992. This rule, which prohibits goalkeepers from picking up the ball directly from a teammate’s pass, has become a fundamental part of modern football. But where did it all begin?

The Predecessor: What Happened Before the Back-Pass Rule?

Sheffield Rules

To understand the significance of the back-pass rule, we must first look at what was allowed before its implementation. Prior to 1992, a goalkeeper was allowed to pick up the ball under any circumstances. This rule closely linked football to its cousin, rugby, from which it split in 1863.

While some teams used the back-pass as a strategic move to rebuild their play, others exploited it as a time-wasting tactic. Liverpool, for example, leveraged this strategy during their dominant period. However, many argue that their trophy drought in the years following the introduction of the back-pass rule was not a mere coincidence.

The Need for Change: Why Was the Rule Introduced?

goalkeeper picking ball up

Football is not just a competitive sport; it’s also a spectator sport. If matches are dull and lack excitement, fans may lose interest. The 1990 World Cup in Italy is often cited as the catalyst for the introduction of the back-pass rule. Teams excessively used the back-pass tactic during the tournament, resulting in an average of only 2.2 goals per game – an all-time low.

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When the First Division transitioned into the Premier League in 1992, it presented the perfect opportunity to revamp the Rules of the Game. The decision gained momentum after Denmark utilized the back-pass rule to waste time and secure victory in Euro 1992.

The main objective was to eliminate boring matches and place greater demands on goalkeepers, who previously relied on picking up the ball rather than using their feet.

Current Application: The Back-Pass Rule Today

Assistant Referee

The alteration to Law 12 of the Laws of the Game restricted goalkeepers from simply picking up the ball as they had done for over a century. They can still do so if the ball comes their way unintentionally or from an opponent. However, they can only use their hands if it is passed to them by a teammate using their head, chest, or knee.

Players have attempted various tactics to circumvent the rule in the past, but these are deemed illegal. For instance, flicking the ball up to themselves and heading it to the goalkeeper or heading the ball along the ground as one would with the foot are both violations.

According to the clear and concise explanation by the United States Soccer Federation:

  • If the ball is intentionally kicked toward the goalkeeper by a teammate using their foot,
  • The goalkeeper picks up the ball without it being touched by anyone else,

then the opposing team will be awarded an indirect free-kick.

It’s important to note that the name of the rule is slightly misleading, as the ball doesn’t have to be passed backward. Additionally, the player’s intention can vary – the pass could be an attempt to play the ball out or a pass to another teammate. If the goalkeeper picks it up before it reaches its intended destination, it is considered a deliberate action and an indirect free-kick is awarded.

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Q: When did the back-pass rule come into effect?
A: The rule was implemented in time for the 1992 Olympics, with the first high-profile game played between Italy and the USA on July 24th of that year.

Q: What was the last high-profile match featuring a legal back-pass?
A: The final whistle of the 1992 European Championship final witnessed Stefan Reuter of West Germany passing the ball to his goalkeeper, Bodo Illgner, legally.

Q: What was the last legal back-pass in English football?
A: Liverpool’s Steve Nicol played a back-pass to goalkeeper Bruce Grobelaar, who smothered the ball during the FA Cup final against Sunderland.


The introduction of the back-pass rule in 1992 significantly transformed the game of football. It eliminated the time-wasting tactic of goalkeepers picking up the ball from teammates’ passes, ensuring more exciting and dynamic matches. While initially met with confusion and resistance, the rule has now become an integral part of the sport. So, the next time you watch a game, remember the impact that this rule change had on football and appreciate the skill and strategy required of goalkeepers today.