Celebrating 30 years of the back-pass law – the greatest change in modern football history

Dave Tickner

The final of Euro 92 was a strange game. A post-80s greatness Denmark, who hadn’t originally even qualified for the tournament, beat the reigning world champions Germany 2-0 in what remains one of the great shock results of all time.

But watch proper full highlights of that match now and it isn’t the result that makes the match seem weird; it is at times barely recognisable as the same sport we watch today. Because the final of Euro 92 is just about the last major game of football played before a revolutionary and brilliant law change kicked in. A law change that at the time was laughed at and considered a joke that would soon be kicked into touch, just as ball after ball was being kicked into touch by panicking, clodhopping goalkeepers.

That law change was, of course, the back-pass law. It’s absolutely wild not that it has been around for 30 years but that it took the sport so very, very long to eradicate such a blatant, miserable act of time-wasting when the solution was so straightforward and obvious. Other wild things about the back-pass law include the fact football still owes Sepp Blatter a debt of gratitude for being one of its great early champions at a time when support was not widespread. Don’t know what happened to him, but one assumes such a visionary is still busy making beneficial changes to the beautiful game.

The back-pass law coinciding with the launch of the Premier League also offers a pretty significant riposte when yer da starts harrumphing about ‘Premier League era’ records and insisting “there was football before 1992, you know”. He’s right, there was. But it was a totally different sport. There really has been no other more significant or beneficial change in what might loosely be termed football’s modern era.

The formation of the Premier League revolutionised the top level of English football, but the back-pass law changed it here and all around the world. It is no coincidence, for instance, that the last real First Division champions, Leeds, slumped to 17th in the first year of the Premier League with the back-pass law in place. If you watch full match or lengthy highlights from matches in the 80s it is bizarre to watch minutes tick by while goalkeepers and defenders just knock the ball about between themselves. It’s a miracle every game didn’t end 1-0 or 0-0. Does this mean that all of, say, Liverpool’s achievements in the 1970s and 1980s are irredeemably tainted and don’t count or are at least heavily asterisked? Not for me to say, but, sadly, the answer must be yes. The back-pass law change was so big and so good that actually all football before 1992 doesn’t really count and the young people are right.

It’s easy to forget now that the back-pass law has been so obviously beneficial and revolutionary that it now almost never even needs to be enforced, but the scepticism around its introduction was very real and very deep.

Obviously, goalkeepers hated it. Plenty of keepers – Ireland Italia 90 hero Packie Bonner perhaps the most high-profile – reckon the back-pass law ended their careers because they were so rubbish with the ball at their feet, especially on their weaker foot. They were suddenly forced to play in a completely new way and it left several irredeemably exposed before training methods changed. These poor sods were, alas, necessary collateral damage for the betterment of the sport.

Gary Lineker Italia 90 England Belgium

Italia 90 is a relevant point here as well. While for England fans of a certain age it remains a tournament remembered with enormous fondness, it was also for the most part really quite shit. The football was generally abysmally dull and negative, culminating in what was at the time comfortably the worst final in the tournament’s history.

That set the ball rolling for Blatter and others to start thinking about finding ways to change the game. The likelihood of the back-pass law having a long-term future at that stage is perhaps best highlighted by the fact it was one of two potential new game-changing laws trialled at the 1991 Under-17s World Championship in Italy.

The other one proposed that attackers could only be offside if they were further forward than the edge of the penalty area. That goalhanger’s charter was, inevitably, swiftly discovered to be an absolute f*cking disaster. But the back-pass law did enough to enter the game for real the following year.

Teams and players immediately started looking for ways round a late change to the law, one that stated only kicking the ball back to the keeper would be in breach of the law. Chesting or heading the ball back would be fine. So players started lying down to head the ball back to the keeper or flicking it up to themselves to nod back. FIFA had to tell everyone that any such ‘trick’ would amount to ungentlemanly conduct and be punished accordingly. While Marco Verratti produced a high-profile and starkly recent example of this phenomenon as recently as five years ago, it’s still quite staggering that so many teams’ initial response to the law was ‘Can we find mad ways to circumvent this rule?’ rather than ‘Should we teach our goalkeepers, who are professional footballers, to control the ball and be able to hoof it halfway acceptably with either of their two feet?’

It really is a perfect law. After a brief Wild West period where goalkeepers were getting in an awful tangle and hoofing the ball out for throw-ins in a blind panic, the game changed to meet the requirements of the new normal. Goalkeepers were forced to adapt or die, and you now have the perfect outcome. The desired change to the game took place and now the law itself almost never needs to be enforced at all. And on the rare occasions it is required, you get an indirect free-kick in the penalty area, which is one of the greatest rare treats football has to offer. Keepers charging off the line! Ten-man walls on the goal-line! Way fewer goals than you’d actually expect from such an opportunity! Lovely stuff.

You do wonder how much of the scepticism around the law change at the time was based on it being so deceptively simple. It’s almost embarrassing to think that such an easy change was there staring everyone in the face. It shows how resistant to change sport can counter-intuitively be that even while watching centre-backs taking it in turns to pass the ball back to the keeper for minutes at a time it took so long for something so staggeringly obvious as ‘just don’t let the keeper pick it up’ to get tried. Look at that mad offside law it was up against, for crying out loud. That’s the level of nonsense the sport was investigating when it had the answer all along.