What is a Foul in Soccer?

An illegal tackle by a player on an opponent results in a free-kick, or a penalty kick if the foul was adjudged to have been committed in the penalty area.

A foul is awarded if a tackle is deemed unfair by the referee. These fouls are usually punishment-free, however, if the referee deems the offense to be a professional foul then a caution may be given.

Fouls can be awarded when an advantage is gained by using any physical contact, e.g. kicking or pushing an opponent to take the ball. A handball can also result in a foul being awarded however this depends on whether the referee thinks the offense is deliberate. If the referee awards a foul for these offenses then a direct free kick will be given to the attacking team, giving them a direct advantage to shoot at goal or start an attack.

However, in some situations, the referee will award an indirect free kick. This is usually for offenses such as goalkeeper violations, e.g handling the ball outside the penalty area or picking up a back pass from a teammate. Another offense could be time-wasting on throw-ins or other set pieces disrupting the match.

Types of Fouls

Direct Free Kick Fouls

In soccer, direct free kick fouls are those that occur when a player commits a specific offense against an opponent. These offenses include:

  • Kicking or attempting to kick an opponent
  • Tripping or attempting to trip an opponent
  • Jumping at an opponent
  • Charging an opponent
  • Striking or attempting to strike an opponent
  • Pushing an opponent
  • Tackling an opponent

A direct free kick is awarded to the opposing team, allowing them to take a shot directly at the goal without the ball touching another player.

what is a foul in soccer

Indirect Free Kick Fouls

Indirect free kick fouls are less severe offenses that do not warrant a direct free kick, but still result in a free kick for the opposing team. Some common indirect free kick fouls include:

  • Dangerous play
  • Impeding the progress of an opponent
  • Preventing the goalkeeper from releasing the ball from their hands
  • Offside

An indirect free kick requires the ball to touch another player before a goal can be scored.

Penalty Kicks

A penalty kick is awarded when a defending team commits a direct free kick foul within their own 18-yard box. In this situation, the attacking team gets to take a penalty shot from the penalty spot, which is 12 yards from the goal line. The goalkeeper must remain on the goal line until the ball is kicked, and the shooter cannot hesitate or stop.

Yellow and Red Cards

Yellow and red cards are used to penalize players for misconduct or persistent fouling. A yellow card is a caution, warning the player that their behavior is unacceptable. If a player receives two yellow cards in a single match, they are shown a red card and sent off the field, leaving their team with one less player. A red card can also be given immediately for a serious offense, such as violent conduct or deliberately handling the ball to prevent a goal.

In summary, soccer fouls can occur in various forms and result in direct free kicks, indirect free kicks, penalty kicks, or even yellow and red cards. Understanding the different types of fouls and their consequences is crucial for players, coaches, and referees to maintain fair play and ensure an enjoyable game.

soccer referee giving a caution

Foul Recognition and Signaling

Referee’s Role

The referee plays a crucial role in identifying and signaling fouls in soccer. A foul is considered any action by a player that provides an unfair advantage to one team, endangers the well-being of an opponent, or is unsportsmanlike. When a referee detects a foul, they must signal the appropriate action to enforce the rules. The consequences for committing a foul include:

  • Direct Free Kick (DFK): Awarded when a player commits a physical offense or handles the ball deliberately.
  • Indirect Free Kick (IFK): Granted for non-physical offenses, such as offside, dangerous play, or obstruction.
  • Penalty Kick: Issued if a direct free kick foul occurs within the offending team’s penalty area.
  • Yellow Card: Served as a warning to the player for reckless or unsporting behavior.
  • Red Card: Ordered for severe offenses, such as violent conduct, deliberate handball, or receiving a second yellow card, resulting in the player’s ejection from the match.

Advantage Rule

In some situations, the referee may opt to apply the advantage rule. This means that if a player is fouled, but their team retains possession and stands to benefit from the continuity of play, the referee can allow the game to continue without stopping for a free kick or other signal. The advantage rule aims to maintain the flow of the game and give the fouled team an opportunity to capitalize on their attacking momentum. If the advantage does not materialize within a few seconds, the referee can stop play and signal the original foul.

Common Soccer Fouls

Handling the Ball

In soccer, intentionally touching the ball with hands or arms is considered a foul. However, goalkeepers are allowed to use their hands within their own penalty area. If a player commits a handball offense, the opposing team is awarded a free-kick or a penalty kick, depending on the location of the infraction.

Tripping or Kicking an Opponent

Tripping or kicking an opponent is a common foul that happens when a player intentionally or carelessly strikes or attempts to strike another player. This can include lunging, sliding tackles, or forceful kicks against an opponent. If a player commits this type of foul, the opposing team is awarded a free-kick or penalty kick.

Jumping or Charging

Jumping or charging an opponent in a manner that is deemed dangerous or reckless is considered a foul. This includes jumping at an opponent to win a header or charging into an opponent with excessive force. In such cases, a free-kick or penalty kick is awarded to the opposing team.


Pushing is a foul that involves using force against an opponent to gain an advantage. Examples of pushing include using arms, elbows, or shoulders to push an opponent away from the ball or off balance. If a player is caught pushing, a free-kick or penalty kick is awarded to the opposing team.


Holding an opponent to restrict their movement or gain an advantage is considered a foul. This can include grabbing or pulling an opponent’s jersey or using arms to obstruct their movement. If a player commits this type of foul, the opposing team is awarded a free-kick or penalty kick.

Dangerous Play

Dangerous play refers to any action that endangers the well-being of an opponent or poses a risk of injury. Examples of dangerous play include high kicks near an opponent’s head, playing with cleats exposed, or sliding with studs raised. In cases of dangerous play, a free-kick or penalty kick is awarded to the opposing team.

Foul Prevention Strategies

Risk Management

Managing risks on the field involves practicing proper technique and being aware of your surroundings. Players should focus on winning the ball fairly and avoiding dangerous tackles, which can lead to fouls and even injuries. A few key strategies involve:

  • Practicing good positioning to cut passing lanes and intercept the ball
  • Avoiding sliding tackles when unnecessary; rather opting for standing tackles
  • Communicating with teammates to cover and support each other in defensive situations

Respecting Opponents

Showing respect for your opponents means playing in a sportsmanlike manner and avoiding unnecessary fouls. To foster a positive attitude, players can:

  • Acknowledge the skill and effort of opponents
  • Offer assistance to opposing players while getting up after a tackle
  • Avoid trash talk or taunting other players
  • Apologize if you accidentally cause a foul

The Game

Respecting the game involves understanding and adhering to the rules of soccer. Players should:

  • Learn and abide by the rules to avoid fouls and penalties
  • Accept the referee’s decisions, even if they disagree
  • Emulate the behavior of experienced players who exhibit good sportsmanship
  • Remember that soccer is a team sport and all play a crucial part in its success

By implementing these strategies, players can minimize the risk of fouls and help create a sportsmanlike environment during the game.