Why does Soccer Limit Subs?

Why does Soccer Limit Subs? - header image

While watching or playing soccer you will probably have noticed that during the course of the game each team makes multiple substitutions. If you have played often enough you may have even been the one who is being substituted on or off the field. But there is always a limit to how many substitutions can be made.

Why does soccer limit subs? The main reason for limiting subs, or substitutions, in soccer, is to prevent too much interference with play once the game is underway. Unlimited substitutions could significantly disrupt the flow of the game and potentially cause an unfair advantage to one of the teams.

The idea of using substitutions may seem like a good or bad idea to you. You may be comparing it to other sports that use substitutions differently. Especially sports that don’t limit subs. So, let’s look at this question in a bit more detail.

Limiting subs encourages a higher level of performance

In soccer, substitutions are limited for the duration of each game. One of the main ideas behind this is to allow the game to keep going. To not interfere too much with what is happening. Allowing multiple substitutions in a game could force an excessive amount of breaks in play.

You may have seen this for yourself. In some non-competitive, or “friendly” soccer games there is no limit put on the number of substitutions that can be made. These games can often feel like they are constantly stopping to let yet another player join the game.

All these breaks negatively affect the momentum of the game.

It takes time for a substitute to catch up to the pace of the game. I remember multiple times coming on as a substitute and it sometimes feels as though it’s taken me 20 minutes to be mentally and physically operating at the same pace as the players already on the field.

You have to remember the players who started the game have been operating a full speed from the moment the game started, whereas those on the sidelines have either just been sitting or doing some light exercise to keep warm. It’s a big jump to go from that to giving it all.

Limiting the substitutions also gives more weight to the tactical preparation of the team.

In other sports, such as American Football, different players, or groups of players, come on for different plays. In soccer, this isn’t an option.

All the 11 players who are starting the game have to be aware of multiple different tactical options and techniques they may need to use depending on how the game goes. A good coach will have often have prepared them for a number of scenarios and clearly explained to them how he/she wants them to adapt in those instances.

The substitution limit forces the players to not just be physically fit, but also tactically aware.

Limited substitutions mean the coach has to think very carefully about what players he/she want’s to introduce as well.

The coach can’t just throw on a player, see if it improves things, and if not just try someone else. They have to know their players, how they perform, and which player is going to be best to make any changes the coach feels needs to be made.

An unlimited amount of substitutions could also give a potential advantage to the team that is able to acquire the best players.

Clubs such as Real Madrid, or Manchester United, who are among the richest soccer clubs in the world have an unparalleled ability to pay for the best players in the world to play for them.

If they were given the ability to not just have the best starting 11 but also replace that 11 with the next best 11 in the world partway through a game that would be a significant advantage for them over a team that wasn’t in the same financial position that they are and whose substitutes weren’t as talented.

Other reasons for having a limit

Now, on one level, you may argue that there doesn’t need to be a “reason”. There have to be some rules in any sport to give it some structure, right?! Why not this rule? And there probably is some weight to that argument. But with any rule that’s made, there are a number of factors that are considered when the decision is made.

Another one of the reasons that we haven’t yet mentioned is the fact that having a limit allows the game to be affected by the stamina and/or endurance of the players. This applies to both physical and mental endurance.

Your first reaction to that maybe that this would surely be a negative affect. When players get tired the quality of the game will go down. And you would probably be right. But you have to remember that ultimately soccer is a sport played and watched for entertainment.

If soccer is for entertainment, why don’t you see more cheerleaders during the breaks in the game? Find out in my article: Does Soccer have cheerleaders?

As the game gets nearer to the end, players naturally get more tired and because of this, the game is more likely to open up. This has the potential to provide an exciting end to any game.

This also incentivizes the players to maintain a high level of fitness. If every player knew they would just be substituted as soon as they get tired there would be some players who may not worry about their ability to last to the end of the game.

Soccer players spend a large part of their week’s training hard aiming to improve their abilities both with the ball and without. This incentive to increase their stamina and athletic ability has the effect that they should be able to perform at a higher level for longer in a game.

Find out how a soccer player trains and specific workouts that the pro’s use in my article: “How a Soccer Player trains”.

It also prevents the game from simply becoming about the tactical side of things. If the coach could substitute a player as often as they wanted, the likelihood is that they would keep bringing in new players based on what was happening in the game at that time.

The advantage of not being able to do this is that you have to have more well-rounded players playing from the start. Players who are both tactically aware as well as physically and mentally fit.

In theory, every spectator should see a higher quality game if you’re watching players of higher physical and mental ability.

Limiting subs is a win for the players, the coaches, and the spectators.

What the substitution limit is in soccer

painting of the number 3
The number of substitutions allowed in soccer

A total of 3 substitutions per game are allowed in soccer. These can be made at any break in play throughout the game as long as the referee allows it. However, FIFA has made an exception to this rule during the current world situation and temporarily allows a team to make 5 substitutions during a game.

There is the allowance in the rules for a 4th substitution to be made if a game goes into extra time. This can only be used in specific soccer competitions such as the Champions League and Europa League.

In a non-competitive game such as a friendly match between two international teams, you may often see more than 3 substitutions allowed. This is because one of the main reasons for an international friendly is to try out some players and tactics in a non-competitive environment.

For more info on the current rules check out the FIFA Rules of the Game document.

How the limit has changed over time

The rules and limits around substitutions that are currently in place are not how they have always been.

Making any sort of substitutions in a soccer game was first introduced in 1958. Although it was used sporadically at times before that including in the qualifying games of the 1954 World Cup. At this stage, only 1 substitution of an outfield player was permitted per team(You could also substitute the goalkeeper if necessary).

Then around 1988 the number of substitutes allowed increased to 2 and in 1995 three substitutions per game were permitted.

See the table below for a rundown of how the substitution limits have developed over time.

YearHow many substitutions permitted
pre-1958Zero substitutions permitted
19581 substitution permitted
19882 substitutions permitted
19942 substitution plus 1 for injured goalkeeper
19953 substitutions permitted
20184th substitute permitted in extra time only
Substitution limits in soccer and the year the limits changed

If you’re interested in finding out more about the rules of soccer, have a look at this article I wrote – A Simple and Easy to Understand Guide to the Rules of Soccer

*Check out the next post – Does a Soccer Header Hurt? And How to Minimize any Pain*


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. Sign up to the yoursoccerhome.com newsletter here or check out more about me here - Ben Clayfield

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