The rules of soccer provide players, fans, and referees with guidelines for how the game should be played. But for many people, especially beginners to the sport, they can seem confusing.
In this article, I’m going to give you a simple and easy-to-understand guide to the soccer rules that will leave you confident you know what is happening.
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 precisely during a professional soccer game but are often 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 and appreciate what’s happening during the game. Or maybe you’re a beginner to the game, and you want to learn to enjoy the game.
Whatever the reason that you’re here, the aim of this guide is to help you understand and appreciate the rules of soccer more than you already do.
This guide is for you!
What the Official Rules of Soccer Look Like
The game of soccer’s official laws are decided on and maintained by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). Each year they reassess the rules of soccer and release a document covering every little detail of what should and shouldn’t be happening.
This document often runs well over 100 pages long!
Most of us understand why these laws exist – but also don’t feel the need to spend hours reading through all the intricate details!
Although this process is vital when you are playing the game at a professional level, and millions of dollars are involved, most of us just want to know the basics of what is and isn’t allowed on the soccer field.
Especially when you’re new to the game.
So, I’ve done the hard work for you.
I’ve been through the document, broken it down, and laid out the rules of soccer in a simple, easy-to-understand format below.
I’ve also created a cheat sheet at the bottom of this article that you can download and take away with you so you always have a copy of the rules easily accessible.
So, let’s look at the 17 rules of soccer now.
The 17 Rules of Soccer
(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.)
1. The field of play must be rectangular and have clearly marked boundary lines
In the rules of soccer, the field of play is the surface on which the soccer game is played.
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.
Remember, these are the dimensions of a professional field. For the dimensions of other soccer fields, check out my article – Youth Soccer Field Dimensions – or – High School Vs. Professional Soccer Field Dimensions.
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 must be spherical and made of suitable material
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. There can be a maximum of 11 players on one team
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.
For details about the rules for teams with fewer players, have a look at my article – Soccer Formations – or – Youth Soccer Positions.
4. There are five pieces of equipment that every player is required to wear
This rule covers what a player can and can’t wear during a game.
There are five pieces of equipment that every soccer player is required to wear during a game. They are:
- a jersey with sleeves
- shinguards – the player’s socks must cover these
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 has the authority to enforce the laws of the game
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 referee may be assisted by 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, multiple other game officials may assist 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 a game is 90 minutes
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 game’s length is often reduced to compensate for the young age of the players.
Between each half, there is an interval not exceeding 15 minutes. This is known as half-time.
The referee makes allowance 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 to the end of the half.
8. A game begins with a kick-off from the center of the field
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 is out of play when it has wholly passed over the goal line or touchline
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 referee has stopped play
Play will be restarted with either a throw-in, a corner, or a goal-kick.
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. The number of goals scored determines the outcome of a game
Everyone who plays 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 scores 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)
11. A player is offside if they are ahead of their second-to-last opponent
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 relatively straightforward 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 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
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. A foul is an action considered to gain an unfair advantage for one team
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.
The referee penalizes these offenses 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 are taken from the spot the offense occurred
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.
If you are interested in finding out more about free-kicks, check out my article – Free-Kicks in Soccer: Everything you need to know.
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. A penalty kick is awarded if a player commits an offense in their penalty area
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 the 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. A throw-in takes place when the ball has gone out of play over the touchline
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. A goal kick is awarded when the ball goes over the goal line
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. A corner kick must be taken from the side of the field the ball went out
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
Downloadable Copy of the Rules
Find out more (including a downloadable PDF Cheat Sheet)
So, there you have it! That was an overview of the 17 rules that govern the game of soccer.
Hopefully, you now feel like you have a better understanding of the rules of soccer and can appreciate the game more than you did before.
If you would like to download a PDF copy of 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.)
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.
If you are interested in finding out about the rules that apply specifically to goalies, check out my article – 8 Soccer Goalie Rules That Every Goalkeeper Should Know.
If you want to know the rules for a throw-in, check out – 11 Rules for a Throw-in.
And if you want to know how the game starts, check out – A Kick Off in Soccer, Meaning, Rules, and strategy.
Thanks for reading!