Soccer Explained: How the Game Works

how soccer works post title image

Soccer is a fantastic and popular sport, but many people don’t really know how it works.

I know it took me a significant amount of time to work it out at first, and I needed someone to explain the game to me!

If you’re new to soccer or interested in finding out more about the essentials of the game, then this guide is for you.

I’m going to explain, as clearly as I can, how the game works.

Here’s a quick overview:

The way soccer works is two teams compete against each other to score more goals than the opposing team. Each team has 90 minutes to score as many goals as possible, and the team with the most goals at the end of the game is the winner.

Learning something new can sometimes be hard because you don’t always know what to ask, and you don’t know what you don’t know!

To help you grasp the basics and feel more confident in your understanding of the game, I’ve broken the essentials down into 21 steps, and I’ll explain each one to you.

Each step explains a different aspect of soccer, and many of the sections give you a link to another article that will help explain each concept further.

Let’s start with the most basic principle of soccer.

1. The Aim of Soccer Is to Score More Goals Than the Opposition

In soccer, the object of the game is to score more goals than the opposition.

Throughout a game, there may be 1, 2, or 10 goals scored by each team, but what really matters is which team has scored the most goals at the end of the game.

For example, if Team A scores three goals during a game but the team they are playing against, Team B, scores four goals, then Team B will be the winner.

Likewise, if Team C scores four goals during a soccer game and their opponents, Team D, only score two goals, then Team C is the winner.

Because of this, soccer tactics usually fall into one of three categories.

  1. Teams either try to score as many goals as they can and hope the opposition doesn’t score more.
  2. Teams work to concede as few goals as possible and hope they can still score more than their opponents.
  3. Or teams use a combination of these two tactics.

2. A Goal Is Scored by Getting the Ball Through the Goal Posts

Soccer terminology can be confusing.

Feel free to check out my glossary for all the terms used in soccer, but the word “goal” means two things in soccer.

  1. “Scoring a goal” is the action of putting the soccer ball into “the goal.”
  2. “The goal” is the structure at either end of the soccer field consisting of two vertical goalposts and a horizontal crossbar spanning the gap between the goalposts.

To score a goal in soccer, the ball must travel over the goal line at either end of the soccer field, between the goalposts, and underneath the crossbar.

If you look at the image below, you will see what I mean.

soccer goal
A goal in soccer

In the image, you will see the vertical goalposts and the horizontal crossbar, with a white line along the ground between the posts. (Note: the rest of the frame is to support the goal net. The goal net is there simply to catch and stop the ball after it goes between the posts.)

The white line between the posts is what is known as the goal line.

There are a few requirements that must be fulfilled for a goal to be counted, but the main things to remember are:

  • A goal is scored only when the entire ball has crossed the goal line
  • A player can’t use any part of their hand or arm to force the ball into the goal
  • The last player to touch the ball can be from either team.

There are also many ways a player can score a goal. For example, they can use their foot, knee, shoulder, or head. A player can also score a goal from any part of the field.

3. There Are 11 Players on Each Team

Each soccer team can have 11 players on the field at one time. The only exceptions to this are during youth soccer games, where the soccer fields are smaller, so the players don’t have to run as much. Because of the smaller field size, fewer players play at one time.

The 11 players are all given a specific position on the field and a number that relates to that position.

The 11 positions in soccer are:

Position NumberSoccer Position
1Goalie or Goalkeeper
2Right Fullback or Wingback
3Left Fullback or Wingback
4Center Back
5Center Back or Sweeper
6Defending or Center Midfielder
7Right Midfielder and Winger
8Center Midfielder
9Center Forward or Striker
10Attacking Midfielder or Center Forward
11Left Midfielder and Winger
Soccer Position Numbers

There are several other articles you can look at here to explore this section further.

For example, check out one of these options:

And if you want to know more about soccer positions in general, then have a look at my Easy to Understand Guide to Soccer Positions.

Or to specifically learn more about Youth soccer positions, by going to my article explaining all you need to know about youth soccer positions.

I realize that’s a lot of choices for articles(!), but I want to provide as much information as I can to help you enjoy and appreciate this great game!

4. Soccer Is Played on a Large Grass Field

As with many other outdoor team sports, soccer is played on a large grass field.

soccer field markings
Soccer field

As you can see in the above image, the field is rectangular in shape with a goal at either end.

The boxes at each end are called the penalty area, and the dot in the penalty area is known as the penalty spot. The penalty spot is where penalty kicks are taken from.

The line down the center of the field is to mark where the middle of the field is. The circle in the middle is where the first kick of the game is taken and where the game is restarted from following a goal.

The size of a soccer field can vary but must always be between set parameters.

For more info and details on the size, markings, and dimensions of a soccer field, check out my article – How Big is a Soccer Field? It will tell you everything you need to know.

Or, to see how a soccer field compares to a football field, check out the article I wrote. You may be surprised by what you find out!

5. A Game Lasts for Approximately 90 Minutes

A soccer game lasts for 90 minutes.

The only exception to this is youth soccer, where the games may be shorter as the players are younger and don’t have the stamina to keep going for 90 minutes.

The referee keeps track of the time and will blow their whistle to start and stop the game when the time is up.

There is, however, one thing that can be confusing here. Soccer uses stoppage time. That is time added to the end of a game to make up for any stoppages during the game.

This is why you will sometimes see a game not ending after 90 minutes but still going at 92, 94, or even 96 minutes.

If there are any stoppages during the game from incidents such as an injury to a player or a prolonged substitution, the referee will add the time used for those incidents to the end of the game.

This aims to stop players from using these incidents to waste time and allow the clock to run down.

6. Half Time Is 15 Minutes Long

Although a soccer game lasts for 90 minutes, the players don’t have to keep going all this time without stopping!

At the halfway point, after 45 minutes, the game stops for what is known as half-time.

Half-time in soccer lasts for 15 minutes.

Players can use this time to rest, rehydrate, and discuss tactics with the team’s coaches. Then, after 15 minutes of half-time, the players return to the field and restart the game.

There are no other opportunities to stop during a soccer game as soccer doesn’t have options such as time-outs available to either team.

7. The Clock Counts Up

One interesting thing about soccer that makes it different from many other sports is that the clock counts up rather than counting down.

In football, basketball, or hockey, you will have noticed that the clock will start at the maximum amount of time allowed for that period and then count down until the timer reaches zero.

This is where soccer is different.

In soccer, the clock starts at zero and then counts up all the way to 90 minutes and beyond if there is stoppage time. Unlike other sports, the time also doesn’t stop during a game.

I recently wrote a post about why the clock in soccer goes up and never stops if you want to know more about this area of soccer.

8. A Game Can End in a Tie

Although the aim of a game of soccer is to win, this doesn’t always happen. Many games end with the scores tied.

This is acceptable because many soccer games are played in the context of league competition.

In a soccer league, each team plays every other team at least once throughout the season. At the end of each game, the winning team will receive 3 points, and the losing team receives zero points.

But if the game ends in a tie, then both sides receive 1 point.

At the end of the season, the team that has earned the most points is declared the winner of the league.

This is why it is acceptable for a game to end in a tie. The amount of points earned throughout the season is more important than winning a single game. A tied game still earns a point for each team.

To go into this in more detail, check out my article – What Happens in Soccer When There Is a Tie? The 3 Options.

9. The Rules Give the Game Structure

As with any sport, there are many rules in soccer that the players must abide by. The International Football Association Board is the organization responsible for governing the laws of the game of soccer worldwide.

The rules of soccer can be complicated to understand, and that’s why I wrote a Simple and Easy to Understand Guide to the Rules of Soccer. (It even has a downloadable cheat sheet you can print off and take with you to your next game!)

But one rule I quickly wanted to mention is the offside rule, as it is the most confusing and most often talked about rule in soccer.

example of offside position
The highlighted player is in an offside position

A player is in an offside position if:

  • any part of their head, body, or feet is in the opponent’s half (excluding the halfway line), and
  • any part of the head, body, or feet is nearer to the opponent’s goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent

But that player will not be penalized until they become involved in active play.

Active play is when they are interfering with an opponent or the ball, or they are gaining an advantage by playing the ball or interfering with an opponent. [source]

For more explanation about the offside rulehave a look at this article I wrote, answering all the questions you may have.

10. There Are Nine Major Fouls

In the rules of soccer, there are specific major fouls that a player may commit. The major fouls in soccer are:

  • charging at an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless, or using excessive force
  • jumping at an opponent in a way considered by the referee to be careless, reckless, or using excessive force
  • kicking or attempting to kick an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless, or using excessive force
  • pushing an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless, or using excessive force
  • striking or attempting to strike (including head-butt) an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless, or using excessive force
  • tackling or challenging an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless, or using excessive force
  • tripping or attempts to trip an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless, or using excessive force
  • a handball offense (except for the goalkeeper within their penalty area)
  • holding an opponent
  • impeding an opponent with contact
  • biting or spitting at someone
  • throwing an object at the ball, an opponent or a game official, or making contact with the ball with a held object.

If a player commits any of these offenses, then a free-kick will be given to the opposing team at the point on the field where the foul occurred.

11. The Referee Has the Final Say

In soccer, there is one referee, and they have the final say on any decisions that are made throughout the game. A player may disagree with them, but ultimately, the referee has the final say. Find out why soccer players argue with referees in this article I wrote.

At a professional-level soccer game, a referee is assisted by up to 8 different game officials.

These include:

  • Assistant referees
  • A fourth official
  • Additional assistant referees
  • Reserve assistant referee
  • Video match officials

Each of these officials performs a particular role. However, during a recreational level game, it’s not uncommon to see only one referee and an assistant on either side of the soccer field.

If you’re hoping to become a soccer referee someday, have a look at one of my related articles:

12. A Player Can Be Shown a Yellow Card or a Red Card

During a soccer game, there are many occasions where a player commits an offense, and the referee will award a free-kick to the opposing team.

There are, however, times when the offense committed is severe enough to warrant an official warning from the referee.

The referee has two options available when a player commits a serious foul.

They can either show that player a yellow card or a red card.

  • A yellow card means that a player has been cautioned or given a warning. If they now commit the same offense or an equivalent offense again, they will no longer be permitted to take part in the game.
  • A red card means a player must leave the field of play immediately. A player will be shown a red card because they have either already been shown a yellow card or the offense they have committed is severe enough to result in them being banned from playing any more of the game.

For more info about this, I wrote a Complete Guide to Yellow Cards in Soccer and a Complete Guide to Red Cards in Soccer. These two guides will give you everything you need to know, including which offenses will result in a yellow or a red card.

13. Only the Goalie Can Use Their Hands

One of the facts most people know about soccer is that a player cannot use their hands to touch the soccer ball. But there is one player on each team who can: the goalkeeper.

Check out my article – a complete guide to handball in soccer to where I explain everything you need to know.

A goalkeeper, or goalie, in soccer, is positioned in front of the goal their team is defending. They are the furthest back on a team and are responsible for stopping the ball from going into their team’s goal.

To help them stop or save the ball, they are permitted to use their hands, but only within their penalty area and only in specific situations.

Soccer goalie penalty area marked on image
Goalie penalty area

I’ve outlined where and when a goalie can use their hands in a previous article if you want to know more. Or check out my article listing all the dos and don’ts of using your arms in soccer.

14. When the Ball Goes Out, Possession Changes

One of the essentials of soccer is that when the ball goes out of play, the team who last touched the ball surrenders possession to the opposing team.

For example, if a player from Team A kicks the ball out of play along the field’s sideline, then a player from Team B will be given the ball to throw it back in.

Or if a player from Team B heads the ball out of play over the crossbar of the goal, then a player from Team A will be given the ball to play it back in.

Have a look at my article on the 11 rules for a throw-in or this article on corner kicks to find out more.

15. A Maximum of Three Substitutions Are Allowed

In other major sports, such as football, basketball, or hockey, you’ll be aware that they all use unlimited substitutions throughout a game. Players come on and off the field multiple times.

Soccer is different.

Only a maximum of three substitutions is allowed throughout a game.

This is one of the reasons why I would consider soccer to be harder than football and harder than basketball.

This means that soccer coaches have to be very strategic about when they make a substitution. Most players have to be prepared to play for a full 90 minutes without being substituted at any point.

To find out why soccer limits substitutions check out my article explaining all the reasons why.

16. The Uniform Is a Jersey, Shorts, and Socks

There are 5 essential pieces of equipment that all soccer players must have.

  • A jersey
  • Shorts
  • socks
  • shin guards
  • footwear [source]

If a player isn’t wearing all of this equipment, they won’t be allowed to play in a soccer game. If you need to get hold of any of these items, click here to check out my recommended product pages.

You’ll have, no doubt, noticed that the 10 outfield players on a team all wear the same color jersey, shorts, and socks.

This is to help the players quickly identify each other as they play a game. In a fast-moving game, it is often much easier to notice the color a player is wearing before recognizing their face.

The goalie wears a different color than the rest of the team to help identify them as they perform a different role than the rest of the team. Different rules apply to them that don’t apply to the rest of the team. To find out more, have a look at my article explaining why goalies wear different colors.

17. Soccer Players Wear Cleats

Although there is no requirement in the rules of soccer for a player to wear cleats, almost all players do.

As we just saw, the only requirement is that a player must wear some sort of footwear. But to get the best performance, it makes sense to wear cleats.

This is because soccer cleats have the advantage of giving players a better grip and traction on the ground as they move around the soccer field.

A soccer player will change direction or accelerate multiple times throughout a game. To enable them to do this as quickly and efficiently as possible, it makes sense for them to use the best footwear available.

This is why players wear cleats.

The small cleats on the bottom of the shoe dig into the ground and give players more stability and traction as they move around the field.

If you want more info on soccer cleats, have a look at my article, where I give you all the information you need to fully understand what soccer cleats are and how they are used.

18. There Are a Variety of Different Team Formations

When each team comes onto the soccer field at the beginning of a game, they don’t just stand wherever they want to. They arrange themselves in a specific formation that has been decided on before the game.

soccer formation 4-4-2
4-4-2 soccer formation

The most common formations for a team to use are 4-4-2, 4-3-3, or 4-2-3-1. Although there are many other variations of these, these are the formations you will see used the most.

Each number in a formation represents several players and where they are standing on the field.

So, for example, in a 4-4-2 formation, there will be 4 players in defense, 4 players in midfield, and 2 players in the offense. And in a 4-3-3 formation, there will be 4 players in defense, 3 players in midfield, and 3 players in the attack.

For more information on soccer formations, check out my article – Soccer Formations: A Complete Guide.

19. Teams Compete in Leagues and Tournaments

Most soccer games are played in the context of a competitive league or a tournament. There are also some games played as friendlies, but most are competitive games.

The FIFA World Cup is an example of a soccer tournament.

At each round of a tournament, 1 team (or sometimes two teams at the beginning of a tournament) is knocked out, and the other team, or teams, progress to the next round of the tournament.

This keeps happening until there are only two teams left in the tournament. Then, those two teams will play each other, and the winning team of that game will be declared the tournament’s winner.

In a league setting, each team will play every other at least once in a round-robin-style competition.

After each game, the teams will be allocated a certain amount of points depending on the game’s result. Then the team with the most points at the end of the competition will be declared the winners of the league.

As you can see, the main difference between a tournament and a league is that every team plays every other side in a league. In a tournament, each team only plays a selection of all the teams in the competition.

Find out what happens to a team if they finish bottom of a league; check out my article – Understanding Relegation: What does it mean?.

20. FIFA Is the Governing Body for World Soccer

When soccer first began, there were many different variations of how the game was played.

In some areas, they used one set of rules, and in other areas, they used different rules. For the game to be played consistently worldwide, there needed to be an organization that governed the way the game was played.

This is why FIFA was created. FIFA, also known as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, is the highest governing body of soccer worldwide.

Every other local and regional organization, such as CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) and UEFA (Union of European Football Associations), is a part of FIFA and must abide by the guidelines and rules that FIFA set.

21. The History of Soccer Goes Back Centuries

Modern-day soccer, as we now know it, really began in England in 1863 when the Football Association was created. However, there are many claims made about when the game was first played or invented.

One of the most substantial claims comes from ancient China, where they played a game called Cuju that had many similarities to modern-day soccer. But other places such as Greece, Rome, and Scotland all claim to have influenced the invention of soccer.

You can find out much more about soccer history in my article – The History of Soccer: From Origin to Modern-Day.

Soccer Is Called Football in Most of the World

Lastly, if you are in the United States, it may surprise you to learn that the game you know as soccer is known as football in most of the world.

There are a variety of reasons for this, and I look at this in much more detail in my article – Why America Calls it Soccer -but here is the main reason:

Soccer is called soccer in the United States to differentiate it from the sport known as football in the US. When soccer began to grow in popularity, football had already established itself. So those responsible decided that soccer would be known as soccer and not football to avoid any confusion. [source]

Although Americans know the sport as soccer, the word soccer is actually an English term for the game.

In the late 1800s, soccer was known as association football in England, and many people would shorten this to soccer. However, in recent times, the use of the word soccer in England has lost its popularity, and England, along with most of the rest of the world, calls the game football.


I hope you now feel you have a much better understanding of the game! If you want to get out on the soccer field and improve your soccer skills, or if you know someone else who does, I recommend checking out this fantastic soccer training program on that will set you up to succeed at this incredible sport!

Ben Clayfield

Hi! My name's Ben. I've played, watched, read about, and enjoyed soccer throughout my life. I really enjoy finding out more about the game I love and sharing it with you all. Find out more about me here - Ben Clayfield

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