Why Do We Still Have Yards in Football?

football close up on six yard boxThere are many rules and systems in place when it comes to football. Some of them are quite self-explanatory, while others get lost on people. Of course, rules are in place so that everything remains regulated within the sport. These rules and regulations are generally an accepted part of it.

In some circumstances, the introduction of new rules isn’t met with positivity. When the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) came into play, supporters weren’t happy. Today, it stands as a crucial part of the game to ensure accurate referee calls.

Yet it could be this push against change that has kept yards as the default measurement in football. Where did those rules come from, though? Plus, why are they still in operation today, considering not much of the world uses yards anymore.

Why are football pitches measured and marked out in yards? Here, we’ll take a look at the different football area measurements and figure out why they exist. This is sure to take you on a journey back in time to the origins of football and its fields. Join us to find out more about why yards are still used in football and a lot of other sports.

How Did Markings Come About?

football tactics board formationTo get a grasp on the origins of the markings on a football pitch, we need to go back to the 19th century. At that time, measurements in England would always take place in imperial format. Therefore, miles, feet and inches were always used:

  • 12 inches = 1 foot
  • 2.54 centimetres = 1 inch
  • 30.5 centimetres = 1 foot
  • 1.61 kilometres = 1 mile

There isn’t any kind of correlation between the two measurement systems. Besides which, those conversions are rough figures. Actually, the conversions equate to several decimal points and back in the 19th century, it wasn’t easy to be precise with the measurements.

Football pitches needed measuring out. Decisions were decided based on where important things on the field would happen. The locations of these areas on the pitch had to be easy enough for the average man to map out. That’s because measuring devices were not so common or accurate back then. It is from this that round numbers of yards and feet came into effect.

People could then measure out the various distances of the football pitch with no issue.  They would often do this by walking a set number of paces that represent roughly a yard.  You still see referees do this when they give a free kick to estimate the 10 yards that opposition players must be away from the ball.

The official laws of football came into effect in 1863 with the Football Association (FA). It is the oldest football association in the world, overseeing all aspects of the game. In the 1800s, all measurements were in nice, round numbers. The radius of the centre circle on the pitch is 10 yards. In modern measurements, that equates to around 9.15 metres, though. Everything on the pitch remains rounded and even in yards. The distance between the goal posts is 8 yards (or 24 feet). The height of the goal is 8ft. Converted to the metric system, these figures become a lot more messy.

There is no definitive explanation about why the measurements are as they are. When creating the football rules, the people doing so didn’t think to explain them. Instead, they wrote the measurements down and that was it. Further to this, football pitches today are able to be anywhere from 50 to 100 yards in width. They can also be anywhere between 100 and 130 yards in length.

If we take a look at cricket, there may be some explanation. Cricket was around much earlier than football. As a result of that, many football games took place on pre-existing cricket grounds. From this, various crossovers are visible, despite the two sports being very different. First of all, the penalty box is 12 yards from the goal line. Where did this come from? Well, the small rectangle within the box is the 6-yard box. This is 6 yards out from the goal and begins at 6 yards either side of the posts. Combining that gives the 12 yards.

Add an extra 6 yards on top of that and you reach 18 yards. This is the distance from the goal line that the edge of the area runs. It also starts 18 yards from either post, giving the rectangular penalty box. Each measurement on a football pitch centres around a multiple of six yards.

Where does cricket come into this? Well, if you take 18 yards, add it to 18 and then add 8 yards, the width of the goal equates to 44 yards. That’s exactly double the length of a cricket wicket, which stands at 22 yards. That measurement is historic in its own right, used in Tudor England.

Back then, people knew it as a chain. This was also a standard land measurement. Farmers and surveyors were still using it right into the mid-1950s. Once acre equalled 10 square chains. Because a chain was so well-known and used, it was an easy choice to utilise. It served as an ideal measurement for both cricket grounds, and doubled, for football pitches.

The ‘D’ in the penalty box was first used in 1937. The decision on this was that it should have a radius of 10 yards. From this, the circle would be centred on the penalty spot. Because of this, all players would be at least 10 yards from that same spot. That does seem quite irrelevant in comparison. Yet the penalty spot stood at 12 yards from the goal line for decades prior. The distance from the goal line to the tip of the ‘D’ now measured at 22 yards with the 10-yard radius. That old Tudor measurement returned to form, even in the 1930s.

Why Are Yards Still in Effect Today?

football pitch centre circle markings

Of course, we’re no longer living in the 19th century, so, why hasn’t football adjusted its measurements into metres. Most of the world makes use of these units for measuring. Why not football?

Well, the rules surrounding football were first written down in England. With the founding of the FA, the rules for the game came about in the country. Back then, imperial measurements were all that anyone knew. Those measurements stuck with the sport throughout the years.

Since 1997 though, the Laws of the Game have preferred metric units. Imperial equivalents are often only given in brackets. Yet because the actual values haven’t changed since back in the day, the imperial numbers are rounder. Even though the preferred units are metric, imperial values remain common. This is especially true in the United Kingdom, of course.

In fact, the whole of the Laws of the Game are visible in English Common Law style. To simplify and strengthen the principles within, a review was undertaken in 1997. Through this, whole paragraphs disappeared from the text. The original version included 50 pages extra of material to read. These were all organised in different sections, including diagrams. Yet these were not part of the main 17 football laws. Ten years after that, many of the extra sections went through a restructuring. They were then returned to the guidelines for referees.

When it all boils down to it though, the reason yards remain in effect is due to history. Imperial measurements are rounder numbers to work with, even today.  Although we can measure things far more accurately on a pitch during an actual match that isn’t practical.  A referee measuring out 10 yards can do so by pacing it out, it becomes a lot more complicated if he or she has to measure out precisely 9.15 meters

The United Kingdom may have a quasi-metric system in place, but not everywhere does. In fact, only three countries still use yards more so than metric. Those are the United States of America, Liberia and Myanmar.

Why Didn’t The EU Force Metric Measurements?

world map showing countries that still exclusively use the imperial measurement system
World map showing countries that still exclusively use the imperial measurement system

Britain is no longer a part of the European Union (EU). It did enter into that union in 1972. Before joining, the country did take some steps to adopt the metric system, though. Some people suggested that the EU forced Britain into doing this. Those people stated that the EU actually outlawed the imperial system. This is not actually the truth. While using imperial measurements alone is illegal in many circumstances, it wasn’t outlawed.

The Weights and Measures Act came into British law in 1985. This saw imperial units defined in their metric equivalents. The partial transition to the metric system occurred in 1995. Imperial units are still mandated for certain applications in a legal way. Draught beer and cider, for example, utilise those units. The same is true for road signs. Some British people still make use of the imperial system for various other things, too.

It wasn’t at the behest of the EU for this to happen, though. Neither did the union outlaw imperial measurements altogether. It was in late May of 2022 that Tweets came about on this. The Bruges Group claimed that using the imperial system in the UK became a criminal offence. It stated that the European Union forced this into effect. The Tweets popped up in response to a government announcement. This surrounded a consultation on whether to stop selling goods in metric units.

It is true that imperial measurement usage for selling packaged goods became illegal. Yet only if imperial units were present without metric at the same time. Plus, there were a few stubborn people who refused to include metric measurements. They did end up prosecuted for criminal offences., yet, it all had little to do with the entry of the UK into the EU. As highlighted, the UK took steps towards the implementation of metric before joining.

Keeping that in mind, it is very much unlikely that the EU could have forced change in the FA. The imperial units of yards is a simple way of keeping everything rounded. It has existed in this way for decades upon decades. It doesn’t make sense to alter the use of yards for the football pitch. The FA is its own specific body. While the EU may be able to make suggestions about rules in football, it cannot enforce these. It would also be safe to say that the EU has far bigger things to focus on, too.

Even while the UK was part of the EU, the likelihood of football rule changes was minimal. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) determines the laws of the game. Standardised laws came about because of this body, and it remains in place as the guardian of the laws. If a change from imperial to metric did happen, then IFAB would likely be the reason for it.

It is also key to note that different football pitches are different sizes. The differences aren’t massive, but they are there. For example:

  • Anfield, home of Liverpool F.C., is 100 yards x 74 yards
  • The Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal F.C., is 115 yards x 74 yards
  • Old Trafford, home of Manchester United F.C., is 116 yards x 76 yards
  • Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea F.C., is 112 yards x 73 yards

All those figures are easy numbers. They’re rounded. There are no decimal points in them. 100 yards in metres is 91.44 metres. 74 yards in metres is 67.6656 metres. 115 yards in metres is 105.156 metres. It is clear from making these points that it would be silly to change the measurements to metric.