A History Of Substitutions In Football

A few football fans tend to argue with fellow fans how wrong the team is chosen. Not only in football, but all games have some very interesting stories in the history of substitutions. Sometimes the substitutions in football have been a great help to the team and even helped them win the match!

When a player gets injured in the game of football, the concept of substitutions in football comes into the picture. Not only in injury cases but also when a footballer is not playing well, and the team management feels that he or she is to be replaced, there are substitutions in football.

There are usually three players allowed as substitutions in football per match. But some leagues and matches have different rules with a maximum of six people as in-game substitutions.

But the problem with most of the football fans is that they tend to criticize the manager of the team on how well the game could have gone if the in-game substitutions were better. Sometimes there are fan discussions on how the history of substitutions was and did the current system change, or was it the same before?

The First ‘Substitutes’ in Football

Very few people have an idea of the earlier times football and the history of substitutions. Earlier team management was not as important as it is now, considering how football lacked basic rules. Even the equipment was to be bought by the players and leagues were not that easily held.

Now since the teams are looked after by clubs and there are funds, every aspect of the player including transport, equipment, salary, etc. But on the other hand, the olden times were the opposite of mostly lack of transport being the reason for in-game substitutions.

The substitutions in football were some temporary players kept on hold in case a player did not reach on time or backed out at the last minute. Since contracts were not an important thing back then, it was possible for such last-minute changes.

So to be exact, the first-ever substitute in the history of substitutions dates back to the 1800s. In a match held between Scotland and Wales, the Welsh goalkeeper could not be present at the time of the match which caused chaos between the team. Then in such an emergency, a local named Alf Pugh, who was a newbie in football, was taken in due to lack of options.

Since this international match was important and by the time Pugh played, which was around 15 to 20 minutes, the Welsh had called up Sam Gillian, an experienced player. With Gillian saving the day for the Wales football team, the substitutions in football had become a thing when the last-minute player replaced Pugh.

This made Gillian the first substitute in a football game, that also an international match, as per the records.

The Introduction Of In-Game Substitutions

The concept of in-game substitutions was not a thing until the 1800s, and even before that, it used to happen in casual games in schools. So the substitutions in football slowly started to gain importance.

The substitutions in the game of football were seen in the professional matches for the first time in the World Cup game of 1954 on 11th October. The game was played between Saarland and West Germany, and the historical move of West Germany to replace Eckel and bring Gottinger was duly noted.

This gave rise to the use of substitutions in football, and it is still remembered in the history of substitutions.

The number of substitutes in football was none, which then kept on increasing till the recent set up of the total in-game substitutes. Now, the two-plus one thing is applied in the substitution part of the football games. Here, the plus one stands for the extra goalkeeper who would play in case of an injury to the current goalkeeper.

The replacement rule of players aka the substitutions in football has seen a better chance recently in only some leagues with the numbers increasing to four. Even though the extra fourth player is to be used only during the extra time gameplay, it is quite some development.

The substitution game did not stop there. Now due to the pandemic which has been rising in the year 2020, the FIFA committee has made the rule of five substitutions in a game. As we know, the teams can replace during the half time, half time of extra time and also starting time of half time. Along with those, now there are only three more opportunities to substitute.

Famous Substitution Stories

Sometimes, the top players would rest and be on the substitutes’ bench. So during a tough time and unexpected gameplay, the managers tend to send them to finish the game in style! Ronaldo and Messi being prime examples of such substitution stories.

If you have heard of the term ‘super-subs’, you know how well the substitutions in football can save the day. A super-sub is nothing but a clever decision made by the manager of the team.

So here are some players that saved the team by scoring well and also making them win!

  • Lionel Messi (Barcelona): Well, Messi is not just a football champion, but an idol for the Barca fans. He scored a goal in 2013 against Real Betis as a substitute, after entering the ground in the second half.
  • Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich): One of the most famous football matches which made records in terms of winning goals by a substitute includes Lewandowski’s performance in 2015, in a game against Wolfsburg. The score was upgraded from 1-0 to 5-1, single-handedly by him.
  • David Trezeguet (France): Scored in the 2000 UEFA Euro Finale match between France and Italy, leading the French towards a great victory.

Some honourable mentions of some great and unexpected substitution stories:

  • Ole Gunnar Solskjær (Manchester United)
  • Jermain Defoe (England)
  • Didier Drogba (Chelsea)
  • Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool)


So, the first substitutions in football are not exactly what it is now, but were extra players filling spots in case of emergencies.

Now, the strict rules are the complete opposite of what it was in the history of substitutions. The player list and the substitutes are to be decided prior and to be informed to the referee. There have been some famous substitution stories that have impressed the fans over the years.

The extra substitute rule by FIFA in 2019 is provided keeping the COVID situation in mind.

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