Whether you’re new to the game of soccer, or a seasoned veteran of the game, it can sometimes feel overwhelming to begin to grasp everything that is going on on the soccer field.
This easy to understand guide to the rules of soccer should help take away any confusion you may have when it comes to understanding how this incredibly popular and beautiful game is played.
The rules of soccer are broken down into 17 sections. Each section lays out the requirements for a specific area of the game. The rules must be followed exactly during a professional soccer game, but may be adapted slightly at youth or recreational level games.
Maybe you’re a parent with a child who has just started playing soccer and you’re hoping to understand what’s happening during the game.
You may be someone who’s a beginner to the game and you want to understand more.
Or you may even be someone who has been around the game for a long time but you just want to a refresher on the rules.
Whatever the reason is that you’re here, the aim of this guide is to help you understand and appreciate the rules of soccer even more than you already do.
This guide is for you!
What the rules look like
The official laws of the game are decided on and maintained by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). Each year they reassess the rule of soccer and release a document covering every little detail.
These documents can run to well over 100 pages long!
Most people who are fans of soccer are happy these laws exist – but don’t feel the need to spend hours reading through all the intricate details!
Especially when you’re new to the game.
So, I’ve done the work for you and laid it out in a simple, easy to understand format below.
Downloadable PDF of the guide
To make things even easier I’ve also put together a downloadable PDF at the bottom of this article with an overview of the rules that you can download and keep with you wherever you are.
With this, you no longer have to worry when you don’t understand what is happening during a soccer game.
You can pull out the guide and it will hopefully have the answer to the question you have
(To jump straight to this PDF click here.)
An Overview of Soccer
We will look at those specific 17 rules shortly but before we do that let’s look at a quick overview of the game.
(Or, if you would rather jump straight to the 17 rules of soccer click here)
Aim of the game
The aim of the game of soccer is to score more goals than the opposing team. The team with the most goals scored at the end of the game will be the winning team.
The game lasts for a total of 90 minutes. This time allocation is split into 2 halves of 45 minutes each with a 15-minute break allowed between the halves.
If the score is tied at the end of 90 minutes and a winner needs to be decided on, an extra 30 minutes of play, known as overtime or extra time, will be added on to the end of the game.
If the scores are still level after overtime, a penalty kick competition will take place. For this, each team will take it in turns to try and score a goal by kicking the ball from the penalty mark towards the goal. This continues until one team has scored more teams than the other team.
How to score a goal
For a goal to be scored the whole of the soccer ball must pass over the goal line, between the goalposts and beneath the crossbar at either end of the soccer field. Essentially the ball needs to go into the goal!
A goal can be scored with any part of a player’s body except the hands or arm. In fact, touching the ball with your hands or arms at any point is not permitted.
If a player(other than the goalkeeper) does deliberately touches the ball with their hands or arm at any time throughout the game they will be penalized.
The most common thing you will see is a player scoring a goal with their foot or head, but occasionally you will see a goal scored with a player’s knee, shoulder, or even their back!
Players and positions
Each team is permitted to field up to 11 players at one time and no fewer than 7. One of these players must be a goalkeeper.
At youth soccer level you may see fewer players on a team, but the number will depend on the specific competition the game is a part of.
A team can substitute a player during a stoppage in the play and the number of times a team can make a substitution during a game is decided by the individual competition rules for that game. At a professional level, they are only permitted to make 3 substitutions throughout a game.
Each player on a team will be allocated a different position on the field as well.
The most common soccer positions used are:
2– Right Fullback
3– Left Fullback
4– Center Back
5– Center Back (or Sweeper, if used)
6– Defensive/Holding Midfielder
7– Right Midfielder/Winger
8– Central/Box-to-Box Midfielder
10– Attacking Midfielder/Playmaker
11– Left Midfielder/Wingers
The players in each of these positions perform a different role and each carries different responsibilities.
The position of goalkeeper is the most unique on the team.
They are the only player permitted to use their hands and arms to touch the ball. But they can only use their hands and arms when they are within their own penalty area, or “goalkeepers box”.
Even then they can only use their hands to pick up the ball when:
- It was last touched by an opposition player
- When it was last touched by the head or chest of a player on the same team
- Or when the last touch was a deflection off a player on the same team.
A soccer goalie can never pick up the ball from a deliberate back pass from the foot or leg of a player on their own team.
If they use their hands or arms outside of their penalty area they will be penalized and probably cautioned.
The first 5 are compulsory under the laws of the game. They are:
- a jersey with sleeves
- shinguards – these must be covered by the socks
- And footwear
The 6th piece of equipment that is needed is – a soccer ball! You can’t play a game without this!
Field of play
The requirements for the dimensions of a soccer field at a professional level allows for some flexibility and variation.
The table below shows what is permitted.
There are also certain requirements regarding the markings on the field as you can see in the image of the soccer field above.
At a non-professional level or youth soccer level you may often see smaller soccer fields used.
This is due to the fact that non-professional, and younger players don’t have the stamina to cover such a large area for such a long period of time. In these situations, the quality of the game is maintained for longer if a smaller playing area is used.
The 17 Rules of Soccer
So hopefully that has given you a better understanding of the basics of how a soccer game works.
Now let’s look at the 17 rules of the game.
(Remember these are the official rules of the game. Although they are followed precisely at a professional level they are often slightly adapted by non-professional leagues and organizations. Because of that, it can be worth checking with the coach, referee, or other players to discover if any rules have been adapted for the game you are at.)
Here they are the rules:
1. The Field of Play
In the rules of soccer, the field of play is the surface that the soccer game is played on.
The rules say that it can be a natural(grass) playing surface, an artificial playing surface, or a hybrid of both and it must be rectangular and have clearly marked boundary lines.
There are also specific requirements for the dimensions of the field. There are:
- Length of the field (touchline): minimum 100 yds (90 m); maximum 130 yds (120 m)
- Width of the field (goal line): minimum 50 yds (45 m); maximum 100 yds (90 m) The touchline must be longer than the goal line.
In no circumstances should the touchline(the length of the field) must be shorter than the goal line(The width of the field).
(If you’re interested in finding out more about the dimensions of a soccer field have a look at this other article I wrote – A Complete Guide to a Soccer Field – Size and Dimensions )
2. The Ball
You can’t play a game of soccer without a soccer ball! And this rule covers the requirements for the ball.
There are 5 main requirements for the ball:
- The ball must be spherical
- It must be made of suitable material
- It should have a circumference of between 27 ins (68 cm) and 28 ins (70 cm)
- It should be between 14 oz (410 g) and 16 oz (450 g) in weight at the start of the game
- It should have a pressure equal to 0.6–1.1 atmosphere (600 –1,100 g/cm²) at sea level (8.5lbs/sq in–15.6 lbs/sq in)
3. The Players
This rule covers everything to do with soccer players.
The important things to know about this rule are:
- A game is played by two teams, each with a maximum of eleven players on the field at one time.
- One of the players on the field must be a goalkeeper.
- A game may not start or continue if either team has fewer than seven players.
- A substitution can only be made during a stoppage in play and the referee must be informed before the substitution is made.
- The number of substitutes that may be named, from three to a maximum of twelve, is dependent on the rules of the specific competition.
4. The Player’s Equipment
This rule covers what a player can and can’t wear during a game.
There are 5 pieces of equipment that every soccer player is required to wear during a game. They are:
- a jersey with sleeves
- shinguards – these must be covered by the player’s socks
A player must also not use equipment or wear anything that is dangerous.
This includes all items of jewelry, that are forbidden and must be removed before the game starts.
It is also a requirement that the two teams must wear colors that distinguish them from each other and the match officials.
Each goalkeeper must also wear colors that are distinguishable from the other players and the match officials.
5. The Referee
Each soccer game is controlled by a referee who has full authority to enforce the rules of the game.
In all circumstances, the decisions of the referee are final and must be respected.
The referee controls the game in cooperation with the other game officials acting as timekeeper and keeping an official record of the match
6. The Other Game Officials
The referee does not officiate the game on their own.
There are ‘on-field’ game officials who assist the referee with offenses when they have a clearer view than the referee.
In pro games, there are multiple other game officials that may be assisting the referee. The list includes
- two assistant referees,
- fourth official,
- two additional assistant referees,
- reserve assistant referee,
- video assistant referee (VAR) and
- at least one assistant VAR (AVAR)
All these officials may be appointed to one game.
7. The Duration of the Game
A soccer game lasts for two equal halves of 45 minutes.
Though be aware that if you are watching or participating in a youth soccer game the length of the game is often reduced to compensate for the young age of the players.
Between each half, there is an interval not exceeding 15 minutes.
Allowance is made by the referee in each half for all time lost during that half.
For example, for every substitution made, or every stoppage that delays the game, the referee will keep a note of the length of that delay and add that time on to the end of the half.
8. The Start and Restart of Play
Kick-Off from the center of the soccer field starts:
- both halves of a game,
- both halves of extra time
- and restarts play after a goal has been scored
A coin toss before the game determines which team will take the kick-off at the beginning of the game.
When the teams come back onto the field for the second half of the game, the teams change ends and attack the opposite goals
- All players, except the player taking the kick-off, must be in their own half of the field of play
- The opponents of the team taking the kick-off must be at least 10 yds (9.15 m) from the ball until it is in play
- The ball must be stationary on the center mark
9. The Ball In and Out of Play
Knowing when the ball is in play and when it is out of play is vital to understanding what is happening during a soccer game.
The ball is out of play when:
- it has wholly passed over the goal line or touchline on the ground or in the air
- the play has been stopped by the referee
The ball is in play at all other times including:
- when it touches a match official and remains on the field of play
- when it rebounds off a goalpost, crossbar or corner flagpost and remains on the field of play.
10. Determining the Outcome of a Game
Everyone who plays in a competitive game in any sport wants to win! And it’s no different in soccer. There can only be one winner and it’s important to know who that winner is.
This is the essentials of what you need to know about determining the outcome of the game:
- A goal is scored when the whole of the ball passes over the goal line, between the goalposts, and under the crossbar.
- The team scoring the greater number of goals in the game is the winner.
- If both teams score no goals or an equal number of goals, the game is drawn.
In situations where competition rules require a winning team the procedures to determine the winning team are:
- Firstly, two equal periods of extra time, or overtime, not exceeding 15 minutes each are played.
- Secondly, if the game is still drawn after extra time, or overtime, each team takes it, in turn, to take kicks from the penalty mark. The team who score the most goals this way is declared the winner of the game.
(If you are interested in how “overtime“ works in soccer check out this recent article I wrote – Does Soccer have Overtime? – How, When, and Why it’s Used)
The offside rule is often considered to be one of the most confusing or misunderstood rules in the game of soccer. Although it can seem confusing at first. It’s fairly straight forward when you break it down.
For a deeper and more detailed look at the offside rule check out this post I wrote about it – A Complete Guide to the Offside Rule in Soccer
A player is in an offside position if:
- any part of the head, body or feet is in the opponents’ half (excluding the halfway line)
- and any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent
It’s important to remember though that it is not an offense to be in an offside position.
A player is only penalized for being offside once they become actively involved with the play from an offside position.
A player cannot be penalized for being offside if they receive the ball directly from a throw-in, corner kick, or goal kick.
12. Fouls and Misconduct
In soccer a foul is any action that is:
- considered to gain an unfair advantage for one team or player. This includes the use of hands. Or…
- Considered to be a dangerous play.
These offenses are penalized by the referee by awarding a free-kick to the team on the receiving end of the offense.
In general, the important things to know are:
A player cannot:
- jump at,
- or spit at an opponent
If the offense is considered serious enough the offending player may be shown a yellow card, indicating they have been cautioned.
If a player is shown a 2nd yellow card they will be shown a red card which means they must leave the field of play immediately and can take no further part in the game.
If a player commits the most serious of fouls, they will be shown a red card immediately and sent from the field of play.
This player can take no further part or action in the current game and the team cannot replace this player.
If you’re interested in finding out more about yellow and red cards and what they mean check out this article I wrote – Yellow Card in Soccer – A Complete Guide to What it Means
13. Free Kicks
There are two types of free-kick in a soccer game: a direct free-kick and an indirect free-kick.
A direct free kick is a kick where the player taking the free-kick can score a goal directly without any other player having to touch the ball first.
An indirect free kick is a free-kick where the player taking the kick cannot score directly from the kick. The ball must touch another player before a goal can be scored.
There is a long list of fouls that result in a direct free kick. To summarise that list I would say that any free-kick that results from a contact foul or a handball usually results in a direct free kick.
Most other types of fouls result in an indirect free-kick.
The other important points to know about a free-kick are:
- free kicks are awarded to the opposing team of a player, or team official, guilty of an offense.
- All free kicks are taken from the place where the offense occurred
- The ball must be stationary and the kicker must not touch the ball again until it has touched another player
- Until the ball is in play, all opponents must remain at least 10 yds (9.15 m) from the ball
14. The Penalty Kick
A penalty kick is one of the most exciting set-pieces in a soccer game, as it is a great opportunity to score a goal.
An attacking player places the ball on the ground, 12 yards from the goal, and is given the chance to take a shot at goal with only the goalkeeper there to stop the ball.
The main points to understand about the penalty kick rule are:
- A penalty kick is awarded if a player commits a direct free kick offense inside their penalty area
- A goal may be scored directly from a penalty kick.
- The defending goalkeeper must remain on the goal line until the ball has been kicked.
- The players other than the kicker and goalkeeper must be at least 10 yds (9.15 m) from the penalty mark behind the penalty mark
15. The Throw-in
A throw-in takes place when the ball has gone out of play over the touchline, or sideline, of the soccer field.
The opposing team of the player who last touched the ball is required to throw the ball back into play with their hands.
The main points to know about this rule are:
- A throw-in is awarded to the opponents of the player who last touched the ball when the whole of the ball passes over the touchline, on the ground or in the air.
- A goal cannot be scored directly from a throw-in
- At the moment of delivering the ball, the thrower must:
- stand facing the field of play
- have part of each foot on the touchline or on the ground outside the touchline
- throw the ball with both hands from behind and over the head from the point where it left the field of play
- All opponents must stand at least 2 yds (2 m) from the point on the touchline where the throw-in is to be taken.
- The thrower must not touch the ball again until it has touched another player.
16. The Goal Kick
A goal kick is a kick taken from within the goal area after the ball has gone out of play over the goal line and a player from the attacking team was the last to touch the ball.
The main points to know about this rule are:
- A goal kick is awarded when the whole of the ball passes over the goal line, on the ground or in the air, having last touched a player of the attacking team, and a goal is not scored.
- A goal may be scored directly from a goal kick
- After the ball is in play the kicker cannot touch the ball again before it has touched another player
- The ball must be stationary and is kicked from any point within the goal area by a player of the defending team
- The ball is in play when it is kicked and clearly moves
- Opponents must be outside the penalty area until the ball is in play
17. The Corner Kick
You won’t be surprised to learn that a corner kick is a kick taken from one of the corners of the soccer field!
- A corner kick is awarded when the whole of the ball passes over the goal line at the end of the field having last touched a player of the defending team.
- The ball must be placed in the corner area nearest to the point where the ball passed over the goal line
- The ball must be stationary when kicked
- A goal may be scored directly from a corner kick.
- After the ball is in play the kicker cannot touch the ball again before it has touched another player
- Opponents must remain at least 10 yds (9.15 m) from the corner arc until the ball is in play
Find out more (including downloadable PDF)
So, there you have it! That was an overview of the game of soccer and the 17 rules that govern the game.
Hopefully, you feel like you have a better understanding of the rules of soccer and can appreciate the game even more than you did before.
If you would like to download a PDF copy this summary of the rules of soccer click on this link here – Your Guide to the 17 Rules of Soccer. (The link will open the PDF in a new tab where you can download, print, or use however you would like.)
If you are interested in finding out about the 8 soccer rules that apply specifically to goalies then click here to go to another article that I wrote all about it.
If you are interested in diving into more detail about the rules of the game you can click on this link which will take you to the IFAB website and give you the rules in all their details.
Thanks for reading!
*Check out the next post – “50 Best Soccer Jokes You Will Read Today!”*