The ongoing Fifa World Cup in Qatar has seen many firsts. For the first time ever, three nations from the Asian Football Confederation made it into the World Cup round of 16. This included Australia, who had not made it to the knockout stages since 2006. Something similar happened with the rules of the game. The five substitutions rule also came into effect in Qatar. Each team is now allowed to make 5 substitutions, as compared to 3 at previous tournaments.
Perhaps the biggest change seen in this year’s World Cup is the additional time at the end of every half. The group game between England and Iran went on for 117 minutes. It was the longest World Cup group stage match held so far. These long periods of additional time are part of governing body Fifa’s new time-policing efforts—taking into account stoppages for injuries, goal celebrations, substitutions, video assistant referee (VAR) reviews – to maximize playing time. Down the years, the Fifa World Cup has seen many other rules that changed over time. Here’s a look at some of them
Goal average: The term ‘goal difference’, as we know it, was first introduced as a tiebreaker in football in the 1970 World Cup. Before that, ‘goal average’—the number of goals scored divided by the number of goals conceded—was the go-to method for a tie-breaker in the group stage. But there were complications. The rule proved ineffective in case a team conceded no goals during the group stage, like England in the 1966 World Cup. ‘Goal difference’ was also thought to promote more attacking football as teams went in search to score more goals.
Golden and silver goals: The rule was pretty simple – the first team to score a goal in extra time wins the match. It was introduced in the 1998 World Cup in France. But instead of promoting more attacking football, the ‘golden goal’ ensured teams instead went on the defensive, preferring not to concede a goal. There were some memorable ‘golden goal’ moments—Laurent Blanc’s goal for France against Paraguay in a last-16 match (1998) and three golden goals scored during the 2002 tournament by Senegal, South Korea and Turkey—but the rule was eventually abolished after the 2004 Euros. In fact, Fifa even tried an alternative: the ‘silver goal’ rule, the side leading after the first half of extra time would be the winners. But that experiment too failed.
The goalkeeper back pass: Modern football fans would be well-versed with the fact that a goal-keeper is not allowed to pick up a back pass from a teammate. But before 1992, a goalkeeper could pick up the ball with their hands under any circumstances. Some teams preferred to do this as a means to build an attack from the back, but it soon became a time-wasting tactic for many teams—both at the club and international level, especially in the early 1990s. However, after the 1992 Euros, Fifa changed the rule—which meant that goalkeepers were prohibited from handling deliberate back passes.
Tournament format: There is perhaps a reason why the 2022 World Cup group stages were so exciting and caused multiple upsets. The modern-day format—of 8 groups of 4 teams each—allows for simultaneous last round of matches with more sporting drama and unexpected results. At the 2026 World Cup, the tournament will be expanded to 48 teams and there are still doubts over whether we could see a 3-group format with 16 teams each. But if you go back in history, from 1934 to 1978, 16 teams participated in each tournament. It was then expanded to 24 teams for the 1982 World Cup in Spain and then for the first time in the competition, the group stage was expanded from 24 teams to 32 for the 1998 World Cup.