Goalposts – A Bizarre History

By on May 19, 2017

The origins of the goal within football is still a source of mystery and intrigue to this day. With evidence suggesting that the ‘goal’ has varied from the balcony of a church, to a piece of fabric suspended nine metres off the ground, to the goalposts we are familiar with today. Its evolution has been almost irrevocably intertwined with controversy in its one-hundred-and-fifty-year history. Yet, despite our willingness to invest money into a range of full football equipment, we are completely ignorant of its only permanent fixture – the goalposts.

Ancient Greece is thought to have been the host of the earliest iteration of football. Although not strictly-speaking a predecessor of football, FIFA have acknowledged the Ancient Greek ball game – episkyros – as an extremely primitive version of football. The European Cup trophy itself features an image of a game of episkyros in full effect. With little in the way of rules or regulations, two teams of 12-14 would battle to reach the white line which resided behind their opponents.

To find a closer ancestor to modern football, it is necessary to look further afield. China‘s cuju (literally translated as kick ball) was at its peak during 3rd century BC, and was strikingly similar to the game we know and love today. Unlike many of football’s ancestors, cuju was notable because it forbade the use of the hands. The aim of cuju was to kick the ball through an opening into a net – sound familiar? Whilst cuju is startlingly similar to modern football, the two have no historical connection, and football, as we know today, is widely accepted to have developed in Britain.

Mob football took root in towns and villages across Britain – teams of unlimited number would compete to place an inflated pig’s bladder in a marked area, or more commonly – their rivals’ church balcony. Whilst derivatives of this game continued to flourish, it wasn’t until 1848 that this chaos began to gain a semblance of organisation and order. A gathering of students from six different public schools produced the Cambridge Rules.  A goal was awarded when the ball passed between upright posts and a string. There was no reference to the width or height of the goal posts and understandably, this caused a great deal of debate.

In 1863, the formation of the Football Association resulted in a further refinement of the rules. Goal posts were standardised to 24 feet apart (this rule remains intact to this day) and running with the ball in hand and ‘hacking’ down opponents were also outlawed. The last two rules led to a famous schism – a disillusioned representative from Blackheath withdrew his club from the FA and went on to form the Rugby Football Union in 1871.

Arguments over whether the ball had actually passed between the posts were rife and a series of changes were swiftly implemented. The first FA Cup final in 1872 became the first time the string crossbar was replaced with tape. In 1882, the crossbar was made compulsory, at a height of 8 feet above the ground. Yet another decade passed before football nets were introduced in 1892.

The final official update to the goalposts rulebook took place in 1987, in part due to the controversy-laden European Cup final of 1976. Saint Etienne rattled the square posts at Hampden Park twice only to see Bayern Munich run out 1-0 winners. Square posts were outlawed in favour of their more rounded counterparts. Eventually, even these were phased out, and replaced by the elliptical shape we are acquainted with today.

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