noun: arbitrator; plural noun: arbitrators

In Rome the gladiatorial games were very popular spectacles, many of them pitting men against each other in a fight to death. Although deaths from fighting wounds were common, art representations from the period tell us that battles were not always the no-holds-barred fights to the eventual end of life as depicted by Hollywood.

Historians of the period tell us that gladiator fights had very detailed rules sets which regulated gladiatorial combat.  Though the exact rules are not well understood or scripted, some information can be gleaned from references in surviving texts and art.

It is thought battles were overseen by a summa rudis – who essentially were a type of referee.  These were the most elite and experienced of retired gladiators. They wore white tunics to make them noticable and distinctive.

Of course sport or at least a form of ‘football’ goes further back than even the roman period.  The very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence was a physical exercise from a military manual dating to ancient China.

Generally, the first scripted codes of football were those written by English public schools in the early 19th century.  These in turn were largely standardised into the so-called Cambridge Rules of 1848.

It was not until the introduction of the first thirteen ‘Rules of Association Football,’ (handwritten in the Freemasons’ Tavern in Lincoln’s Inn Fields London, by the newly formed Football Association ‘The FA’ on 26 October 1863) that a referee for the first time had a standard set of codified Laws to apply.

As football became more popular towards the end of the 19th century – as well as more physical and highly competitive – so a central referee to apply final timekeeping and decision making was needed to become centre stage to each match.  The flag become a feature of a football match used to mark or bring notice of the location of infractions that occured during regular play.

In 1886 the International Football Association Board (IFAB) was founded by the four British football associations. This body would stand as the worldwide body with sole responsibility for developing and preserving the laws of the game.

In 1891 a referee started to enter the field with two linesmen rather than ‘umpires’ who worked from the marked out pitchlines. As football began to be watched by thousands and club allegiances emerged so criticism of the referee increased; a tradition that exists to this day.

It was not unusual even in the Victorian period for the referee to be attacked by players or supporters.

As football grew by the turn of the 20th century and leagues developed so the demand for referees to officiate football matches increased as did the unification of rules across the home associations.

Referee Associations or clubs emerged each with regional branches who oversaw the making of appointments.  In England the increased workload and administration surrounding refereeing meant that responsibility for refereeing was transferred to the FA. But the status of the ‘referee’ that we know today had by 1900 been embedded into the game.

When the international football body on the continent FIFA was founded in Paris in 1904, it immediately declared that it would adhere to the rules laid down by the IFAB and they joined together in 1913.

The rules of football and the role of the referee have then undergone various developments over the past 170 years.   But the current Laws of Game used by referees were composed in 1938 by the Englishman Sir Stanley Rous while he was Secretary of The Football Association.

A newer version of Football’s Laws of the Game came into force during July 1997 but the philosophy and spirit of the 17 laws remain the same.  The revised 1997 text came as a result of a large project overseen by football’s world governing body FIFA, IFAB and representatives of the Scottish and English FA’s refereeing departments.

Today’s football referee still uses the same basic rules in the same sequence as in 1938.

However, the big change is in the style and the format of the text, which is in a more modern idiom rather than a Victorian form of English.    More graphical representations of referee positioning, protocols and a glossary are also included.

The 2016/17 revision of the Laws of the Game are probably the most far reaching and comprehensive in the history of IFAB.

In addition, refereeing today (at its most elite levels) is wholly reflective of the players who play the game namely being more technical in character and being more time pressured.  Moreover, while it was not unusual for the referee of yesteryear to wear a blazer and be portly in appearance, so physical appearance and fitness has become pivotal.

Where technical kit and underarmour was once only the wear of the player now referees can be seen in highly technical outfits created by the same sportswear firms who create player kits.  The height of the referee has also become increasingly important.

Moreover a sleeker athletic professional presence on and aroundthe pitch has become a reality if not a pre-requisite for the top referees whether they are operating as referee, AR or AAR.

Technical tools and procedures are now part of the ‘referees’ tool kit especially with the introduction of video assistant referees (VAR’s) and telecommunication tools.

Top level UEFA Champions League and Europa League football sees a team of six referees officate a match.  Namely a ‘referee team’ is appointed to oversee a game – one referee, two Assistant referees (AR), two additional assistant referees (AAR’s) and a 4th official.

Off the pitch scrutiny of the referee has become an all pervading reality both for game governance and technical review purposes.  Media dominance of the game sees every single decision reviewed while referee calls on the pitch are often referred to legally backed judicial panel institutions at national association level.

While the earliest forms of refereeing that we see whether from the late 19th century to the 1970’s has in effect become obsolete the modern referee today still operates within the spirit of original customised laws and procedures as laid out by Sir Stanley Rous.

The concept of the football referee remains valid and has stood the test of time even where the laws and clarifications of the rules have changed and been amended.

Some images of referees operating from around Europe can be seen here.

Milestones in Referee History

1866 – The strict rugby-style offside rule is relaxed: a player is onside as long as there are three opponents between the player and the opposing goal. The award of a free kick for a fair catch (still seen in other football codes) is eliminated. A tape (corresponding to the modern crossbar) is added to the goals; previously goals could be scored at any height (as today in Australian rules football).

1867 – The situation when the ball goes behind the goal-line is simplified: all rugby-like elements are removed, with the defending team being awarded a goal-kick regardless of which team touched the ball.

1871 – Introduction of the specific position of goalkeeper, who is allowed to handle the ball “for the protection of his goal”.

1872 – The indirect free kick is introduced as a punishment for a handball, the first mention of a punitive action for contravening the rules. The corner kick is introduced. Teams do not change ends after goals scored during the second half

1873 – The throw-in is awarded against the team who kicked the ball into touch (previously it was awarded to the first player from either team to touch the ball after it went out of play). The goalkeeper may not “carry” the ball.

1874 – The indirect free kick, previously used only to punish handball, is extended to cover foul play and offside. The first reference to a match official (the “umpire”). Previously, team captains had generally been expected to enforce the laws

1875 – A goal may not be directly scored from a corner-kick or from the kick-off. Teams change ends at half-time only. The goal may have either a crossbar or tape.

1877 – The throw-in may go in any direction (previously it had to be thrown in at right-angles to the touchline, as today in rugby union). As a result of this change, the clubs of the Sheffield Football Association agreed to abandon their own distinctive “Sheffield Rules” and adopt the FA laws.

1878 – A player can be offside from a throw-in

1881 – The referee is introduced, to decide disputes between the umpires. The caution (for “ungentlemanly behaviour”) and the sending-off (for violent conduct) appear in the laws for the first time.

1883 – An “international conference” between the English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh football associations, held in December 1882, resulted in the unification of the rules across the home nations, which entailed several changes to the FA’s laws the following year. The throw-in finally reaches its modern form, with players required to throw the ball from above the head using two hands. A player cannot be offside from a corner kick. The goalkeeper may take up to two steps while holding the ball. The goal must have a crossbar (the option of using tape is removed). The kick-off must be kicked forwards. The touch-line is introduced (previously, the boundary of the field of play had been marked by flags).

1887 – The goalkeeper may not handle the ball in the opposition’s half.

1888 – The drop ball is introduced as a means of restarting play after it has been suspended by the referee.

1889 – A player may be sent off for repeated cautionable behaviour.

1890 – A goal may not be scored directly from a goal kick.

1891 – The penalty kick is introduced, for handball or foul play within 12 yards of the goal line. The umpires are replaced by linesmen. Pitch markings are introduced for the goal area, penalty area, centre spot and centre circle.

1897 – The laws specify, for the first time, the number of players on each team (11) and the duration of each match (90 minutes, unless agreed otherwise). The half-way line is introduced. The maximum length of the ground is reduced from 200 yards to 130 yards.

1901 – Goalkeepers may handle the ball for any purpose (previously the goalkeeper was permitted to handle the ball only “in defence of his goal”).

1902 – The goal area and penalty area assume their modern dimensions, extending six yards and eighteen yards respectively from the goal posts. The penalty spot is introduced.

1903 – A goal may be scored directly from a free kick awarded for handball or foul play (previously all free-kicks awarded for infringements of the laws, other than penalty kicks, had been indirect). A referee may refrain from awarding a free kick or penalty in order to give advantage to the attacking team. A player may be sent off for “bad or violent language to a Referee”.

1907 – Players cannot be offside when in their own half.

1912 – The goalkeeper may handle the ball only in the penalty area.

1920 – A player cannot be offside from a throw-in.

1924 – A goal may be scored directly from a corner kick.

1925 – The offside rule is relaxed further: a player is onside as long as there are two opponents between the player and the oppponents’ goal-line (previously, three opponents had been required).

1931 – The goalkeeper may take four steps (rather than two) while carrying the ball.

1937 – The “D” is added to the pitch markings, to ensure that players do not encroach within 10 yards of the player taking a penalty kick.

1938 – The laws are completely rewritten by Stanley Rous. A player may be sent off for “serious foul play”.

1970 – Introduction of red and yellow cards.

1990 – A further relaxation of the offside rule: a player level with the second-last opponent is considered onside (previously, such a player would have been considered offside). A player may be sent off for an offence that denies opponents a “clear goalscoring opportunity”.

1992 – Introduction of the back-pass rule: the goalkeeper may not handle the ball after it has been deliberately kicked to him/her by a teammate.

1997 – The rules are completely rewritten, for the first time since 1938.[9] A goal may be scored directly from the kick-off or from the goal kick. The goalkeeper may not handle the ball after receiving it directly from a team-mate’s throw-in.

2000 – The four-step restriction on the goalkeeper handling the ball is repealed and replaced by the “six-second rule”: the goalkeeper may not handle the ball for more than six seconds. The goalkeeper may no longer be charged while holding the ball.

2012 – Goal-line technology permitted (but not required).

2016 – The kick-off may be kicked in any direction.

2018 – Video assistant referees permitted (but not required). A fourth substitution is permitted in extra time