Rules of Football Worldwide

Soccer, Rugby, Gridiron and More...

Historical Football

It is not known what the real origins of football are, but it is known that the ancient Greeks played some such game, called Episkyro, from as early as 800BC. There were 12 players on each team, and players could use both hands and feet. They also had a handball game, called Harpastron. The Romans played a game with a very similar name, Harpastum, which they probably got by combining these two Greek games, and adding more emphasis on kicking the ball. It was something like rugby football, involving hands and feet. Modern versions of football are derived from this, via the Romans in Britain.

Elsewhere in the world, the ancient Aztecs had a game called Tlatchli, something of a mixture of football, basketball and volleyball - although the losing team would be sacrificed. Other American Indians had a very violent football game, Pasuckuakohowog, with up to 500 players on each side: it was a kind of a controlled war, really, and players would often receive severe injuries. It is thought that the ancient Egyptians had some sort of football game as far back as 1800BC, and the Chinese by 2500BC.

In medieval Europe, a football-like game was played between villages, the idea being to get the ball across the boundary line of one village or another to win the game. These games, like some of the other historical games, were usually pretty violent as there were few rules, so injuries and deaths were not uncommon - a bit like the modern-day hangover from such times, the Coopers Hill Cheese Rolling event in Gloucestershire, England: another crazy event with no serious rules - they chase a roll of Double-Gloucester cheese down a 1:1 slope: the winner keeps the cheese (and the broken legs, etc.). I urge you to watch the video (second one on the page)... people are crazy!

These days there are in fact dozens, if not hundreds, of variants of these and other ancient games still being played around the world, although most modern versions are now derived at least in part from Soccer and Rugby. The following is a brief description of the most common modern variants.

Soccer (Association Football)

Soccer is the British form of football, although now it is played in more countries than any other version - indeed, in more countries than there are members of the United Nations! It became so famous because of the influence of the British Empire back in the 19th Century.

The basic idea of this version is that the players are not supposed to touch the (spherical) ball with their hands (except for the goalkeepers, one on each team, who try to prevent goals being scored). The goal itself consists of two posts and a crossbar, and the ball has to pass between the posts and below the crossbar. In professional games this area is enclosed by a net to catch the ball. Games are typically low-scoring, with 0-0 being common, and more than 4 goals by any one team in a match being fairly scarce. The game has an offside rule, meaning that when a player ‘shoots’ at goal (tries to score a goal), there must be opposing players other than the goalkeeper closer than the shooter to the goal as well. This can lead to the rather unedifying sight of opposing players actually running away from the ball to prevent an inevitable shot from counting - especially in European soccer. The idea of the offside rule is in fact to compensate for the fact that forward passing is allowed - indeed, is completely normal in this game, and this is thought to give the team in possession too much of an advantage without some rule to limit it.

Players also cheat a lot, pretending they are hurt whenever they fall over, and so on, to try and persuade the referee to send an opposing player off.


Named after the influential school at which modern versions of the game were first formulated, this is a much more action-packed game of football than soccer. It is played with an oblong ball (technically a prolate spheroid) and players can use hands and feet as they please, although when handing the ball to each other, they must pass it ‘backwards,’ that is, away from the goal they are trying to reach. In Britain there are two main versions of the game, Rugby League and Rugby Union.

In Rugby Union, after a player is tackled, possession of the ball is contested via a ‘ruck’ if the ball is on the ground or ‘maul’ if the player keeps it off the ground. A ruck is where the players lock themselves together into a group on either side of the ball and try to push the opposing team’s members back, to get a better position over the ball and kick it back to a team-mate who can grab it and run with it. In Rugby League this is not used, except when the ball has passed out of play, in which case the ruck is called a ‘scrum’ and the ball is rolled back in underneath the locked-together players who try to get possession with their feet. A maul happens in Rugby Union if a player is tackled but is not brought down. Players kind of line up behind him trying to keep pushing him (and the ball) forward. Opposing players try to push back. If the ball stops moving for too long, then possession is contested via a scrum as in Rugby League! In Rugby Union of the ball passes out of play, it is brought back in via a line-out, where the ball is thrown back over two parallel lines of opposing players who jump up to try and gain possession of it.

The Rugby League pitch is a kind of gridiron pitch, marked in a similar way to that of American and Canadian football pitches. In Rugby league, when a player is tackled, play is stopped and the player with possession puts the ball on the ground and rakes it back to a team-mate with his foot. The sixth time a tackle stops play, possession is transferred to the opposing team.

The goal is H shaped, the idea being to get the ball between the posts and above the crossbar. If the ball is touched to the ground behind the goal-line (a line on the ground across the pitch and intersecting the goal posts), then the team scores a ‘try’ worth 4 points they may therefore attempt an uncontested ‘conversion’ kick to score a further two points. A penalty kick may get them a further two points, and a drop-kick taken at any time is worth one point. With a drop kick, the ball must be kicked after it has bounced at least once.

The rules of both games are ridiculously long and complex, and there are many other less obvious differences, but both games are pretty fast-moving.

American and Canadian Football (Gridiron Football)

These versions of football are derived from Rugby and Soccer, and most closely resemble Rugby League. There are slightly different versions of the rules in use at different levels of play, in High Schools and Colleges, and so on.

To outsiders, the game can look rather mysterious: the players line up facing each other, shouting out their desired girfriends’ vital statistics: 38-24-36... Hot! And then they all run about in random directions until someone with the ball is brought down and the whole process starts again.

Of course, this isn’t exactly what’s happening. The game is very intellectualized and tactics are pre-planned. The numbers are a way of communicating to team-mates which ‘play’ they are to try next, the idea being to confuse the opposing team about where the ball is going so that it can reach the goal-line the most rapidly without its possessor being tackled. When a player is tackled and brought down, possession is contested by way of a ‘line of scrimmage’ in which the opposing teams line up facing each other on either side of imaginary lines from either end of the ball to the edges of the field, parallel to the goal lines. In the Canadian version, the defensive players have to be at least a yard away from the nearest scrimmage line. The snapper, who is allowed to handle the ball, ‘snaps’ it to a team-mate behind him and the play commences until the next tackle, or ‘down’ (a tackle, a goal, or the ball out of play).

Unlike in Rugby, a forward pass is permitted, from behind the scrimmage line, but the ball must not be dropped by the receiver or a fresh scrimmage will result. There are various rules limiting who can throw, who can receive, and how often it can be done (once, until possession changes).

The team in possession, the offensive team, must progress at least 10 yards towards the opposing goal-line in 4 plays or downs (3 in Canada). If they make this much progress, they achieve a ‘first down’ and get to try for another 10 or more yards, and so on. If they don’t make enough progress, possession is lost. If a team thinks they aren’t going to make it, they will usually kick the ball downfield from the scrimmage leaving the opposing team to try to advance from wherever they manage to stop the ball, or they may try kicking the ball to score a goal, either with a place-kick (the ball is stationary and upright on the ground) or with a drop-kick.

The drop-kick doesn’t work very well in these forms of football, however, as since 1934 the ball has been too pointed at the ends to bounce predictably: it is optimized for hand-passing rather than for kicking.

On any part of the ball reaching the opposing goal-line or touching the goal posts while still in possession of an offensive player (achieving a ‘touchdown’), the team scores six points and gets a free play known as a ‘try’, from which they can score 1 more point by kicking the ball over the crossbar as in Rugby or by advancing the ball across the goal line again for another touchdown to get 2 more points. The defensive side can score a touchdown too, if they manage to get the ball to the opposing goal line.

Australian Rules Football (Aussie Rules Football)

Also derived from Rugby and Soccer, although the exact process of descent is not recorded, Aussie Rules Football has 18 players to a side and uses an oblong ball. It is normally played on an oval-shaped pitch or even an adapted cricket-pitch. There are four goal posts at either end of the pitch, two major posts and beside them, two ‘behind’ posts, which are shorter than the major ones. The four posts are arranged in a straight line. Six points are scored when the ball is kicked between or above the gap between the major posts, provided it has not been touched by any player since being kicked. One point is scored by getting the ball between the behind posts instead, or by it hitting a (major) goal post, or by it passing the goal line after being propelled by any other part of the attacker’s body, or if it touches a defending player first. This latter behind is known as a rushed behind, and since 2009 is worth a penalty for the attackers if the defending player caused it to happen deliberately.

Players may use any part of their body to move the ball, but if they run while holding the ball they must bounce it at least once every 15 metres. They must not throw the ball, although they can bounce it from their hands, punch it, and so on. Players must dispose of the ball if tackled; usually they will kick it or ‘handpass’ it to someone else on their team. A handpass is done by punching the ball from one hand with the other. They are not supposed to just drop the ball but must get rid of it in a controlled manner.

There is no offside rule in Australian Rules Football, and there are no set positions for the players in the rules (although teams often arrange themselves on the pitch according to their own preferred schemes).

Gaelic Football (Peil Ghaelach)

Gaelic Football is an entirely amateur sport, with no professional players allowed as yet. It is played with a spherical ball like Soccer, on a rectangular pitch, with goalkeepers. Goals, worth 3 points, are scored only by kicking the ball into the net, but single points can also be scored by either kicking or punching (‘fisting’) the ball over the crossbar.

The ball can be carried up to 4 steps, or kicked, bounced (one consecutive bounce is allowed only) or hand-passed. Hand passing is done by punching the ball with the thumb-knuckle of the fist, as in a volleyball service punch. The ball may also be soloed, which involves kicking the ball into your own hands. Although players may not bounce the ball more than once at a time, they can solo it continuously. Female players may pass the ball from hand to hand, or pick the ball up from the ground, but men may not (they have to kick the ball up to their hands if they want to hold the ball).

Gaelic Football games are typically very fast, action-packed and high-scoring.