Football’s Laws: The pitch, the goals, the flags

Football is a game, and games have rules. One of the great things about football, though, is that it doesn’t have all that many rules, and sometimes doesn’t even follow the rules it has. For example, most free-kicks are taken from the approximate spot where the foul occurs, and if it’s not exactly on the spot we don’t worry about it. And then there’s the awarding of penalties, where something which, as they say, “would be a foul anywhere else on the pitch” isn’t given in the area. And so on.

This informality, leaning toward anarchy, helps make football the people’s game. A big pitch, the freedom to express yourself, and only a few things you can’t do – it’s what we all want out of life.

Nevertheless, the game does have rules, which FIFA and IFAB, bodies without much sense of humour, rather pretentiously call the Laws of the Game. And although we all know the laws well enough to insult the ref for applying them improperly against our side, we rarely take a close look at what they say (unless there’s a You Are The Ref quiz).

So since there’s not much actual football to talk about this summer, today we’ll start a new series on said Laws: some of the oddities, uncertainties, and surprises around which our beloved game is built, and which we usually do our best to ignore. Our source is the official IFAB publication Laws of the Game, available in living color on any computer terminal near you.

Before we even get to ‘Law 01—The Field of Play’, there’s a provision that should warm the heart of any Brexit supporter. The Laws are published in English, French, German and Spanish (not Italian, you should note, which means Serie A must be a laugh a minute), but ‘if there is any divergence in the wording, the English text is authoritative’.

Good for us Anglophones. But think about that for a moment. If there’s a divergence, someone must have translated the English inaccurately. But if that’s so, the authoritative English text still has to be translated to be applied so that non-English players can understand it. And if the IFAB can’t get it right, who can you trust? Forget video-assisted refereeing, can you imagine El Clásico interrupted for half an hour while expert philologists are consulted on the Spanish equivalent of ‘dissent’?

But onto Law 01. Did you know that at no point does it say you have to play on grass? It merely says ‘a wholly natural, or, if competition rules permit, a wholly artificial playing surface’, and then talks about combinations of natural and artificial. The Premier League Handbook mentions grass, so we’re safe, but I’m sure you can think up a list of intriguing ‘natural’ surfaces for the game.

Of course there have to be lines marking out the field, which we are told ‘should not be dangerous’, so you can’t use plutonium. And ‘a player who makes unauthorised marks on the field’ receives a yellow card. I live for the day a player gets cautioned for spelling out ‘W**ker’ in soap powder behind the ref’s back.

But the heart of Law 01 is the dimensions of the field of play and the mandated areas within. The Laws supply both metric and imperial measurements, which is all well and good, but the equivalents show a surprising range of precision and imprecision.

For example, the penalty spot must be either 12 yards or 11 meters from the goal. In fact, ‘penalty’ in German is ‘Elfmeter’, literally ‘eleven metres’. But 12 yards is 10.9728 meters, more than an inch shorter. So the imperial system gives a tiny advantage to the shooter. If you don’t think this matters, ask yourself why penalty takers always put the ball at the front edge of the spot.

A better equivalent is the 10 yards of the centre circle, which is 9.15 metres, less than a quarter of an inch off. And the most important measurements, the width and height of the goal, are only .18 inch and .06 inch apart. But the 18 yards of the penalty area become 16.5 metres, more than an inch and a half different.

My favorite discrepancy involves the little arc at the corner flag. They don’t even try for an equivalent: it’s either one yard or one metre. That’s more than three inches difference. Remember that next time you watch a referee solemnly trot over to the corner to make sure the kicker isn’t taking the kick even a millimetre short.

That same discrepancy, by the way, shows up when defining the technical area – it can come up to within one metre or one yard of the pitch. Not that managers pay attention to it anyway.

Going back to the penalty spot, we rarely think about the spot itself. It just seems to be a small circle, we assume the proper distance from the goal. What does Law 01 say about it? Nothing. That’s right, absolutely nothing. It merely refers to a ‘penalty mark’, not a spot, and there’s nothing about size or even shape. Even if we assume it’s a circle, where do we reach 12 yards, the centre or the front edge? If it’s the former, a lot depends on how big the circle is, and since the laws offer no guidance, theoretically the size and shape of your mark could make a few inches difference.

A little Googling suggests that a circle 9 inches or 22 centimetres in diameter has at certain times been shown on official diagrams, although not in the laws themselves. But at least since the 1997 revision of the laws, no official measurement has appeared anywhere, and the Premier League Handbook, which covers all the rules of the competition, is silent. So I’d be interested in finding out if there are any differences at Premier League stadiums, and if so, what the referees have to say about it.

Now to the size of the pitch. The range of acceptable sizes is remarkably large, again part of the informality that makes the game so special. The pitch has to be longer than it is wide, but otherwise length can vary from 90 metres to 120, width from 45 metres to 90. The Premier League has sought to standardise pitches at 105 X 68, almost exactly in the middle of the range. So we rarely hear about size of the pitch affecting play, an occasional and now nostalgic exception being Spurs at White Hart Lane, a smaller pitch than most.

In the early days of MLS, though, when all the clubs used stadiums that were built for American football, you could get some strange outliers. Columbus Crew and San José Clash played on pitches that were approximately 62 yards wide, which translates to 56.69 metres, which translates to more than 37 feet narrower than Premier League standard, which translates to a bowling alley. Games there tended to resemble 22 bumper cars going in all directions at once.

But pitch size can matter in England, too. Just ask Paul Robinson

Asmir Begovic

and Tim Howard

the three keepers I know to have scored from long distance in the Premier League. It’s no coincidence that all three scored on pitches that measured 100 metres (in Everton’s case actually a fraction of a metre more), the shortest pitches in the league.

As for the largest pitches, the excellent website reports that Brighton & Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town, two of the clubs coming up, have pitches that measure 105 x 69. But the league says that if you can, you have to go with 105 c 68. Winty’s up every night worrying about losing that extra yard.

The corner flag, or to be more precise, the corner flagpost, is at its best when being wielded by a player in celebration or disgust. What makes it so useful for emotive displays is that it must be at least 5 feet or 1.5 metres high, which when you think about it is pretty tall. I guess it’s that high to allow referees to better see which side of the post the ball has gone, but it’s quite an obstacle, especially when bent by the wind. Fortunately the top must be ‘non-pointed’, or on-field melees might be significantly more dicey than they are now.

We’ll close for today with a look at what Law 01 has to say about the goal itself. The posts and crossbar must be made of ‘approved material’, although we’re not told what that might be. They must also ‘not be dangerous’, which leaves out the plutonium again.

They also must be white, which makes me think back to the old days, when the bottoms of the posts were sometimes black or red, presumably to aid the referees. Here are highlights from the 1978 World Cup final…

…where you can see a decent-sized black band near the bottom of the posts, stopping just a bit short of the ground.

Then there are the posts themselves, which cannot exceed 5 inches or 12 centimetres in width. I have no idea how these vary among teams in England, if they vary at all, but I can imagine an inch or two adding or subtracting to the metaphysical well-being of would-be goalscorers. After all, when they miss entirely, we say they were close, but when they hit the post, we say they were “desperately unlucky”.

Finally, we’re told that if the crossbar becomes ‘displaced or broken’, play must be stopped, and if it can’t be properly repaired or replaced, the game must be abandoned. But for some reason it doesn’t say the same about the posts, perhaps because such a thing is unimaginable. Not to me – going down memory lane again, I certainly could imagine the great José Luis Chilavert breaking a post with one smash of his mighty fist. But in the real world we’ll have to settle for Marcelo Bernal, who broke one of the net stanchions during Mexico-Bulgaria in the 1994 World Cup (about 23 minutes into the video).

Next time: Law 02—The Ball, and Law 03—The Players.

Peter Goldstein