What Is a Friendly in Soccer, and Why Are They Played?

what is a friendly in soccer - post image

When watching or playing soccer, you will sometimes see a team involved in a friendly game. But many people don’t fully understand what that means. In this article, I will explain all you need to know about friendly games in soccer.

A friendly or exhibition game in soccer is a non-competitive game played outside of any recognized soccer competition. The result of this stand-alone game has no effect on the standings of the teams in either a league or tournament. Because they are not competitive, they are known as friendly games.

This definition of a friendly explains what it is, but to really understand its importance, we need to look at why they are played and if they count towards anything outside of the game.

Why Soccer Teams Play Friendlies

When I first started playing and watching soccer, it took me a while to understand all the different types of games that are played in soccer. Whether it was a tournament game, a league game, or a cup game, I had to figure out what each one meant.

One type of game that seemed the most confusing was a friendly or exhibition game.

(1) USWNT vs Mexico 5.26.2019
Check out this friendly between US Women’s national team and Mexico

It didn’t fit into either a league or a tournament and seemed to have little significance over anything else the team was involved in. The team didn’t earn any points from the game; they wouldn’t progress to the next round of a competition, and it appeared that they had nothing to show for it.

If there is no benefit for either team, what is the reason to play the game?

Thankfully, once I started looking into it it didn’t take me long to realize why teams play friendly games.

There are 5 main reasons teams play in friendlies, or exhibition games:

  1. To increase the player’s fitness levels
  2. To provide more time for the players to play alongside each other
  3. To test themselves against the opposition and try new tactics
  4. To mark an occasion
  5. For charity or to raise money

Let’s look at each of these 5 reasons in a bit more detail.

1.To increase the player’s fitness levels

One of the most common reasons you will see a friendly game take place in soccer is to increase the player’s fitness levels before a new season begins.

At the end of a season, soccer players take a deserved break from the game. Depending on the club, league, and team coach, that break can last from a few weeks to a few months. Although many players work hard at staying fit during this break, not all players are as successful as others!

To bring the entire team back up to a similar level of game fitness for when the new season starts a selection of friendly games is organized to allow the players to get used to playing together again and improve their in-game fitness levels for the many games ahead. (To find out how many games are in a soccer season, click here to go to my article revealing the answer.)

Although a team can work hard on the training ground, there is nothing like an actual game setting to accurately assess a player’s progress, how fit they are, and how prepared they are for the upcoming season.

2. To provide more time for the players to play alongside each other

Another common situation where you will see a friendly game played is by an international team.

Throughout the course of a soccer season, there will be a handful of times where the players will leave their club teams and join up with their national team, usually for a week or two at most.

These gatherings as a national team allow time for the players to represent their country in games against other nations and potentially qualify for a tournament such as the FIFA World Cup or the Copa América.

These qualifying games for a tournament are obviously very important but the reality is that the players can go into one of these games without having played a competitive game together for months.

To compensate for this reality a friendly game is often organized before the competitive game to allow the players to get used to playing together again and prepare them for the upcoming qualifying game.

The national teams will also often play a set of friendly games before an international tournament to get used to playing together before they start the first competitive game of the tournament.

3. To test themselves against the opposition and try new tactics

A friendly game also allows the coaching team to see where the players are at compared to the opposition and try new tactics without any negative impact outside of that specific game.

Because a friendly, or exhibition game is non-competitive and doesn’t affect any other competition that the team is involved in it allows the coach more freedom to try something that they would otherwise not consider trying.

For instance:

  • A coach may try including a new player they are unsure about
  • or play a specific player in a different position to where they would normally play.
  • The team may play an untested formation to see how it works
  • Or the offensive players may try a different tactic to see if it is more effective than what they usually do.

The nature of a friendly game allows the coaching staff to try different ideas with no significant consequences.

4. To mark an occasion

Another reason you may see a friendly game played is to mark an occasion of some sort.

Whether it’s celebrating the end of a player’s career or to mark the anniversary of an event sometimes a club and the players will come together and play a game to honor an occasion.

5. To raise money

The last reason a friendly game is played is to raise money.

This can be for a variety of reasons from raising money for a charity or a specific person. At the organized game the money from all the tickets sold plus any financial donations would go to the designated charity or person. At a game involving thousands of spectators, this can be fairly lucrative.

One of the most common situations this takes place is at a testimonial game.

In soccer, a testimonial game is a game organized to honor a player who has given a significant portion of their career to one team. Traditionally the game was played near the end of a player’s career and they would take home the financial earning from that game as a sort of retirement gift.[source]

In modern-day soccer, the earnings from these games are usually given to the player’s charity of choice as many of the players in the top leagues are already highly paid.

Do Soccer Friendlies Count?

A friendly soccer game

Once the meaning of a friendly has been understood, many people want to know whether a soccer friendly counts towards anything.

Most soccer friendly’s don’t count towards anything. They are stand-alone games. However, an international friendly game does count towards a national team’s international standing and a pre-season friendly can count towards a mini preseason tournament.

Each national team is given a place on the FIFA world rankings.

Friendlies do affect FIFA world rankings. A score of either 05 or 10 is given to a friendly game depending on the importance of the game. This number is then inserted into the formula for FIFA’s algorithm to establish the rankings of each national team. [source]

Friendly games hold the lowest importance of any international game in the FIFA world rankings table due in part to their non-competitive nature.

Friendlies count towards a player’s goals and caps

Two other areas where soccer friendlies count is regarding a player’s goals and caps.

Goals scored in an international friendly count towards a player’s career records. These goals have as much value and are worth the same as a goal scored in any other soccer game because these games are officially sanctioned by FIFA.

A player will receive a cap for playing in a friendly game. Whether they play the whole game or simply make a substitute appearance at the end of the game they will be given one cap to recognize their participation in the game.

The Rules for a Friendly Are the Same…Most of the Time!

In the majority of friendly games, the rules stay exactly the same as any other game. This includes the length of the game as a friendly game lasts for 90 minutes. Exactly the same length as a competitive game. (check out my easy to understand guide to the rules of soccer by clicking here)

However, there are times when some rules are changed or ignored.

This is allowed because a friendly is not a competitive game and what happens in the game doesn’t have as many implications as a competitive game.

The most common one is the use of substitutions.

In a normal competitive game, only 3 substitutions are permitted. In a friendly game, this is often changed as a friendly is a great opportunity to try out different players and tactics. Because of this, you may see many more than 3 substitutions take place throughout the duration of a game.

Another suspension of the rules is around how strict the referee is with punishing players.

Within the name of a friendly game itself is the suggestion that the game should be played in a friendly manner! Because of this, the referee expects the players to play less competitively than they normally would and will let play continue in situations where they ordinarily would not.


Hopefully, you now feel you have a much better understanding of what a friendly is in soccer and the term will make much more sense next time you hear it.

Soccer is full of terms that are often difficult to understand. On this website, I’ve tried to clearly explain some of those terms. Check out one of my other articles below to understand more of what each of these topics means.

What Is a Cap in Soccer? the Meaning and History of the Term

First Touch in Soccer: What It Means and How to Improve

A Goal in Soccer: What It Is, the Rules, and It’s Worth

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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