The Sweeper: Should the British have so much say in the Laws of the Game?

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The International Football Association Board (IFAB) is something of a curiosity in today’s system of global governance of the game. The board meets annually to discuss and decide on any changes to the Laws of the Game, which all national associations affiliated to FIFA are required to enforce in games under their auspices.

The curiosity is the board’s constitution.  It’s made up of four representatives of FIFA and one representative each from the football associations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It takes six votes for a rule to be changed.

Effectively, that gives the United Kingdom (a single nation, if not for FIFA purposes) a veto over all changes to the rules of the game.

The IFAB is holding its annual meeting this weekend in Zurich, and has five main changes on the agenda:

  • no automatic red card for denying a goal-scoring opportunity if a penalty is given;
  • the legality of players “feinting” before taking penalty kicks;
  • allowing direct input from the fourth official on the sideline to the referee on key decisions;
  • the future of goaline technology;
  • similarly, the possibility of introducing extra assistant referees on the goaline

The latter is obviously a hot topic because of the Henry handball against the Republic of Ireland. Which brings up back to the curiosity we started with: in an age when FIFA has over 200 member nations, is it fair or sensible that four member associations have such a disproportionate say in the rules of the game? Had it been Northern Ireland, rather than the Republic, robbed by Henry, how would that change the dynamic of this weekend’s meeting?

Historically, of course, this makes sense. The IFAB existed long before FIFA did: with various rules in place across the British Isles as the game began to be played in an organised fashion in the mid-nineteenth century, the Football Association pioneered standardisation of rules alongside the Scottish, Welsh and Irish associations in 1882, with the first meeting agreeing on the rules of the game taking place in 1886.

When FIFA was formed under continental leadership in 1904, it accepted the IFAB’s authority to determine the Laws of the Game, with Britain still very much the epicentre of the footballing world. FIFA itself was first invited to take part in the board’s discussions only in 1913.

The IFAB has guarded the rules with a respectable conservatism; is this historical provenance enough to justify the curiosity of so much British Isles representation on the board?

One might argue, of course, that anything which prevents Sepp Blatter’s FIFA leadership from having more say in the game’s rules is a good thing. That said, why not continue the same balance of power, but have four member associations randomly rotate each year on the board in place of the British associations?

Or is this a case of if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it?

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16 thoughts on “The Sweeper: Should the British have so much say in the Laws of the Game?

  1. Lanterne Rouge

    The board’s constitution is ridiculous indeed – so outrageously so, that it is almost quaint and makes one sigh for the early days of the game. In the same way that British football analysts often decry referees from “lesser nations”, I guess there might be the same response from mainstream panellists should these shady 4 officials be ousted. If only they would put a stop to booking players for celebrating.

  2. tracey

    I think it’s a peculiarly english self-loathing to want us to have less inflence on the game. Considering the generally positive influence we’ve had on it and the rampant corruption in world football (Blatter and his predecessors) I don’t see the harm. I wouldn’t object to the Greeks having a disproportionate influence on the Olympics, and I despise this apologising for saying we invented the sport.

    It’s just a shame our current rulers are so pitiful, a long way from the brave innovators of yore.

  3. Pingback: The Sweeper: Laws of the Game Stuck in the Past | Pitch Invasion

  4. Chad

    It goes like this…

    If you make up the game, you always have the final say on the rules of the game. And that shouldn’t ever change.

  5. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Does it though? I’d be really curious to see how many international games formalised in the nineteenth century follow that presumption. Cricket does with the role of the MCC. I’m not sure about tennis or rugby or many other sports.

    One could also argue these are far less “global” games than football.

  6. ursus arctos

    Even the MCC won’t change the Laws of Cricket without consulting the ICC.

    The laws of rugby union are now set by the IRB (without the British federations having disproportionate representation) and the situtation is the same with lawn tennis and the ITF. International rules for sports like basketball and ice hockey are also controlled by the international federations, and differ in certain expects from those applied professionally in North America (where those sports were “invented”).

    The IFAB is an anachronism, but a complicated one. It is interesting to note that in the vote on goal line technology, the Welsh and (Northern) Irish sided with FIFA, with the English and Scots taking the more “modern” position.

  7. joe shaw

    The British have too much power on the IFAB. The board should be comprised of 10 members: 3 from Britain, 2 each from Europe and South America, and 1 each from Africa, Asia and Concacaf. They have held the game hostage for decades. Thanks to the English for inventing the game but they cannot block meaningful modernization of the game forever.

  8. Tim Vickerman

    ‘Thanks to the English for inventing the game but they cannot block meaningful modernization of the game forever.’

    I think it’s fair to mention that the representatives for England and Scotland supported the change but the Welsh and Northern Irish representatives opposed it.