How a little-known Kerala amateur footballer PR Jacob's recommendation gave birth to the 'back-pass rule'

Nevin Thomas

On a summer afternoon, an unsuspecting postman delivered a bundle of letters at the St Thomas College in Thrissur in Kerala. Strangely, one letter in that bundle had a Swiss stamp on it. It was addressed to PR Jacob, a Chemistry professor at the college. The letter was from the Assistant to the General Secretary, Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

"For your information, an experiment in this respect will be put to test by FIFA during the U-17 World Championship 1991 next August."

On the left: The letter sent by PR Jacob to FIFA. Right: The reply from FIFA.

On the left: The letter sent by PR Jacob to FIFA. Right: The reply from FIFA.

Jacob's suggestion to improve the game, by introducing a "back-pass rule", post a low-scoring 1990 World Cup where defenders played it safe by passing the ball to their goalkeeper, was going to be tested out.

A recommendation from a little-known Indian was going to change the beautiful game forever.

A life dedicated to football

Football ran in the veins of Jacob's family. His elder brother, PR Antony, was the first footballer from Thrissur district to play for the national team. Though Jacob had his fair experiences as a footballer €" he represented Kerala University at the college level €" he never reached the levels like his elder brother and gave up a career as a football player to become a Chemistry professor.

"He (Jacob) wasn't that great as a footballer to be very honest," remembers Victor Manjila, former Indian national team goalkeeper and a close friend of Jacob. "Some would even argue he got lucky because his brother was a great player. Jacob's interest was always in management. He was what you called a visionary. Always planning and organizing things."

Jacob did not give up on football though. He became the Thrissur District Football Association secretary and later the president, and it was during his time the district identified the likes of CV Pappachan, IM Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri. He was also the Kerala state football team manager during the 1988 Santosh Trophy held in Kollam (Kerala) in which the hosts finished runners-up and also saw Vijayan become the youngest goal-scorer in the competition's history.

Records and Reforms

"We didn't know daddy was part of a Guinness World Record until very recently," says Austin Jacob. "He was a very quiet man at home. Never talked that much about his work."

Jacob's son Austin while talking to Firstpost.

Jacob's son Austin while talking to Firstpost.

Austin was talking about the 1990 Federation Cup and the role of his father. Under the leadership of Jacob, who was the working committee chairman for the event, Thrissur had hosted the country's top club knockout competition that year. And with Kerala Police, comprising of local heroes Vijayan and Pappachan, favourites to win the tournament, the interest was sky-high. To meet the demands, the tournament organisers constructed the largest ever temporary football stand at that time, spending around 13 lakhs, in Thrissur's Corporation Stadium to enter the Guinness World Records.

The inaugural match of the 1990 Federation Cup between Kerala Police and Salgaocar Goa €

The inaugural match of the 1990 Federation Cup between Kerala Police and Salgaocar Goa €" Photo credits (www.Chuttuvattom.com)

Apart from being a manager, Jacob was also a certified football referee and always stressed the importance of keeping the game free-flowing and true to the spirit of the sport. Many regard Tele Santana-coached Brazil's loss against Italy in the 1982 World Cup as the day "football died". But if 1982 was the death of football, 1990 was the hell that followed. The dullest World Cup in the history generated just an average of 2.2 goals per game €" a record low that still stands. The tournament also saw massive indiscipline with a then-record 16 red cards being shown including one in the final.

As a lover of the game, Jacob was disappointed with that he had seen in the World Cup but the idea of the back-pass rule hit him in 1991 in a match between Kerala and Maharashtra.

"His logic was simple. When an underdog scored first, there was a tendency for them to shut down the game, defend in numbers and just pass the ball back to the keeper. Dad wanted this to go away from the game and for that to go away, the keeper had to be treated like any other outfield player when a defender is passing to him," explains Austin.

The back-pass rule prohibits the goalkeeper from handling the ball in most cases when it is passed to them by a teammate.

The back-pass rule prohibits the goalkeeper from handling the ball in most cases when it is passed to them by a teammate.

The rule, after successful testing in the U-17 championship, was made official in 1992 by FIFA in a bid to discourage teams from taking a defensive approach. The first games with the new rules were played at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The back pass rule was a very popular move as it prevented dull play and also required goalkeepers to be more effective with their feet. The rule led to a change in training routines and development programs for future goalkeepers with a greater emphasis on having control with their feet. Today, goalkeepers such as Manuel Neuer and Ederson are as good with their feet as their on-field teammates that they are sometimes called "sweeper keepers".

Voice of football

Jacob was a man of multiple talents. He was a licensed pilot with more than 20 hours of flying time under his belt. He also had an inclination to challenge the status quo. In 1996, he contested state assembly elections as a mode of protest against the candidates fielded by Kerala's two major political parties.

"His campaign was very clear. There were many candidates but we as voters don't have the option to say no to all of these people. We are being forced to select one from the candidates. He stood in the elections and asked people to vote for him to show the lawmakers and everyone else concerned that people were unhappy with the quality of the candidates. The electoral symbol was a sword and a shield but essentially what he had in his mind was what we call NOTA (None Of The Above) today," says Austin.

But people of Kerala remember Jacob as the sound of football. He was the chief commentator for football and other Olympic sports for the All India Radio (AIR) in the 80s and 90s, and also lend his voice for Doordarshan after the advent of television.

"He had great knowledge of the game and a great voice to match it. He was a perfect fit for radio," says Manjila. "People would not him if you say 'Kerala team football manager' or 'the person behind the back-pass rule. But people always understood when one said 'AIR commentator'".

Jacob also was a keen observer and suggested a new format called 'Pyaar Total Cricket' in which it was mandatory for all the players to bat and bowl, roughly modeled around the principles of Total Football by Johan Cruyff which required all 11 football players to be able to play in multiple positions.

14th January 2019

The Indian football team is playing Bahrain in a crucial encounter in the AFC Asia Cup. A draw can secure a place for the Indians in the second round and alter the history books. The Blues have opted for a more pragmatic approach to the match. The calmness, that helped them dominate the first two matches of the tournament, is absent.

On the 73rd minute, left-back Subhasish Bose is forced to lunge into the ground to make a last-ditch clearance to keep the scores nil-nil. Unfortunately for Bose, his clearance goes straight to his goalkeeper Gurpreet Sandhu, who collects it with his hands.

Whistle.

The referee adjudges it as a back-pass.

Millions watching the game grappled through the FIFA rule books as Bahrain players lined up to take the indirect free-kick from barely outside the goal-line. What is this bizarre 'back-pass' rule? The others cried foul. Surely, that wasn't deliberate?

What everyone collectively didn't know, as they waited for Bahrain to take the resultant kick was that the brains behind the rule the brought beauty of attack back in football, was a little known Indian from a small town in Kerala.

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