A definitive guide to the laws & regulations of soccer
Soccer, or football as it is known in some countries, is one of the oldest and most well-known sports globally. Some of the world’s strongest soccer leagues are in European countries such as Spain, England, Germany, and Italy. There are many international soccer tournaments where teams from different nations compete professionally. Some of these are the African Cup of Nations, the European Championships, and the Football World Cup.
Soccer games all over the world adhere to some basic rules which are universal in the game. This ensures the game is fair for all and is part of what makes international competitions possible. In this post, we provide a definitive guide to the laws and regulations of soccer.
Objectives of the game
Standard soccer matches are split into two 45-minute halves with a 15-minute break in the middle called half time. Two teams play against one another in a 90-minute game. The aim is for a team to score more goals than their opponent within the time limit.
There is a referee who must ensure the teams and players play by the rules. The referee can add time to each half of the game to compensate for stoppages and injuries.
How to score and win at soccer
To score a goal in soccer, a player must get the ball into the opponent’s goal. Both teams have a goal made from an 8-foot-high by 8-yards-wide frame with a net around the back. To navigate the ball and get the point, players can use their legs, torso, and shoulder but not their hands or arms.
To be considered a legitimate goal, the entire ball must be over the goal line, clearly marked on the pitch. In high-level matches, referees are increasingly using modern goal-line technology to determine whether contested goals are legitimate.
The team that scores the most goals in 90 minutes is declared the winner. Games end in a draw if teams are level in their scores when the final whistle blows. However, in important cup matches, where there must be a winner, extra time can be added. If neither team scores within this time, it goes to penalty shootouts to decide the winner.
The 17 Laws of Soccer
There are 17 laws, or rules, in soccer which exist to ensure the game is safe, enjoyable, and fair for all involved. These are:
- The Field of Play
The Field of Play dictates the layout of a soccer pitch. While all soccer pitches are essentially laid out in the same way, the size or scale can vary between different soccer leagues. Often this is determined by the age of the players.
- The Ball
The standard, regulated soccer ball size is a No.5 ball. There are some exceptions to this; youth leagues, for example, may play with a smaller ball.
- Number of Players
In standard soccer games, teams start with 11 players each. However, some leagues, such as 5-a-side or youth leagues, play with fewer players on each team. One of the players on each team is the designated goalkeeper. The goalkeeper is easily distinguishable because they wear a different colored shirt. Unlike the other players, goalkeepers are permitted to use their hands inside the penalty area.
- Player’s Equipment
The players on a team must wear the same colored shirt, except for the goalkeeper as mentioned above. In youth programs, players also have to wear shin guards. When playing on grass, players wear cleats, or studs, for safety specific to soccer. Unlike a baseball cleat, soccer cleats do not have cleats at the front edge of the shoe.
Each game has a designated referee responsible for ensuring the 17 laws are upheld during the game. The referee may stop play to call a foul and award yellow or red cards to offending players. They may also award a free kick or penalty to teams, where appropriate. There is an ‘advantage clause’ in soccer whereby the referee may let play continue, rather than calling a foul if they believe that stopping play might advantage the team that committed the foul. In these instances, the referee should say ‘play on.’
- Linesmen and Lineswomen
There may be two linesmen, or lineswomen, to assist a referee in managing the game. The linesmen, or lineswomen, are responsible for signaling to the referee when they notice the ball is out, designate which team is entitled to a throw-in, or indicate a goal kick or corner kick. They may also signal fouls, offsides, and misconduct concerning goals scored as well as desired substitutions.
Although linesmen and lineswomen may signal these cases, the referee makes the final and official decisions. The referee may not choose to act on the advice of linesmen and lineswomen.
- Duration of the Game
The typical duration of a soccer game is 90 minutes. However, time can be added by the referee for injuries and stoppages that delayed play. Time may also be added during cup games that end with a tie. In youth games, the game’s duration may be shorter depending on the children’s age.
Sometimes, younger children play soccer games of four quarters, rather than two halves. Whether this occurs, and how long the quarters or halves are, will depend on the league.
- Start of Play: Kick-Off and Drop Ball
The game starts with a kick-off. A Kick-off also marks the start of a new half and the restart of play following a scored goal. All players must be on their team’s designated half of the pitch before kick-off is taken. Before kick-off, the ball is placed in the center circle, on the center spot.
A coin is tossed between the referee and team captains to determine which team will kick off a game. The player kicking off must kick the ball into the opponent’s half, ensuring at least one full rotation. The team that is scored against starts the kick-offs after a score. Kick-offs that begin new halves and quarters are taken by the team that did not previously kick-off. A kick-off ball cannot score goals.
When the referee stops play for reasons other than rule-breaking, a drop ball is played to restart the game. This may be, for example, when an injury has occurred. A drop ball is when the referee drops the ball between two players of opposing teams. A drop ball has to touch the ground before being played.
- Ball In and Out of Play
When the ball goes completely outside the edge of the touchline or the goal line, it is considered out of play. This rule applies whether the ball is in the air or on the ground as this occurs. If the referee stops play at all, the ball is also considered out of play.
The ball is considered in play when it is inside the goal line, touchline, or touching either of these. It is also considered in play after it has bounced off the corner direct free flag, crossbar, goal post, referee, linesmen, or lineswomen, providing it remains on the playing field.
- Method of Scoring
For a legitimate score, the whole ball must go over the goal line. The ball must also be between the goalposts and under the crossbar (inside the goal). Any of the team’s players, including the goalkeeper, may score a goal. An auto goal occurs, awarding a score for the opposing team when a player scores into their own team’s goal. Exceptions to this are when an auto goal occurs from a throw-in, goal kick, free kick, kick-off, or penalty kick.
A player cannot be offside when attempting to score because this is against the rules. In these cases, goals scored will be disallowed. A player is considered to be offside when he/she is in the offside position and participates in play. The offside position is when a player is in the opponent’s half of the pitch. Furthermore, they must be ahead of the ball, with less than two opponents, either even or ahead of them.
There must be two opponents, including the other team’s goalkeeper, between a player and the goal line when the ball is passed to them – not when they receive it. Otherwise, they may be deemed to be in the offside position. Exceptions to this are when the player has received the ball directly from a goal kick, corner kick, or throw-in.
- Fouls and Misconduct
Soccer has two foul types: Minor (or non-penal) fouls and Major (or penal) fouls. The nine major fouls are:
- Jumping up at a player
- Hitting or spitting at a player
- Kicking a player
- Holding a player
- Pushing a player
- Tripping a player
- Charging a player from behind
- Charging a player in a rough way
- Handling the ball (except for goalkeepers)
If it is deemed a player has committed a foul intentionally, the referee may issue a Red Card, which will result in the player being sent off the pitch. In this event, the player is not allowed to return to the game. The referee is responsible for determining when a foul is committed, and they will blow their whistle to stop play and call the foul. The opposing team will get a direct free kick. They can use this free-kick to score a goal.
If a player commits a minor foul, the referee may issue a Yellow Card. There are five minor fouls in soccer, and these are:
- Illegal obstruction
- Dangerous play
- Fair charging when the ball is out of playing distance
- Goalkeeper infringements
- Charging the goalkeeper in the goal area
The opposition will be awarded an indirect free kick by the referee for a minor foul. Unlike a direct free kick, a goal can’t be scored from an indirect free-kick. For a goal to be legitimate following an indirect free-kick, another player must play the ball after the player taking the free-kick.
The referee may decide to warn a player about their conduct before issuing a yellow card, which is an official caution. When a player gets a red card, the referee also can issue red cards to spectators or coaches where there is deemed interference with the game or misconduct.
- Free Kick
As mentioned in law 12, there are two types of free-kick: indirect free kicks and direct free kicks. Direct free kicks are awarded to opposing teams following a major foul, and these are taken from the location where the foul occurred. Exceptions to this are when the foul occurs within the penalty box, at which point a penalty kick is awarded instead.
Indirect free kicks are awarded to the opposition following a minor foul. To signal an indirect kick, the referee will raise one arm straight in the air.
The ball must be motionless before a free-kick. The team that gets a free-kick is entitled to have all opposing players at least ten yards away from the ball when the free-kick is taken, but the player taking the kick may choose to kick if opposing players are closer than this. If the player taking the free-kick decides to request the referee to move the opposing players back, they must wait until the whistle blows to take the kick.
Free kicks taken within ten yards of the opposing team’s goal permit the opposing players to stand between their goalposts on the goal line. When a free kick is awarded to a defending team within its goal area, it may be taken from any point within half of the goal area in which it was granted.
If an indirect free kick is awarded to an attacking team within the defending team’s goal area, it should be taken at the nearest point to where the foul was committed, but on the six-yard line.
After a free-kick has been taken, this player should not play the ball again until a player from each team has first touched the ball in the interim period.
- Penalty Kick
When a player from the defending team commits a major foul within the penalty area, a penalty kick should be awarded to the attacking team. Penalties are taken from the penalty spot. When a penalty is taken, all players except the goalkeeper from the defending team must stay outside the penalty area and penalty arc.
It is considered encroachment if a player enters the penalty arc or penalty area before the ball is kicked. When encroachment occurs by a defending player, a shot that scores counts but a shot that doesn’t may be retaken. When encroachment occurs by an attacking player, a shot that scores is disallowed, and the kick must be retaken. If the shot does not score, the defending team is awarded a goal kick or indirect free kick. That depends on where the ball is when the whistle is blown.
If both the defending and attacking teams are deemed to encroach, the penalty must be retaken regardless of whether the shot is scored.
When a penalty kick is taken, the defending goalkeeper cannot move until the ball has been kicked. He/she must stand between the goalposts on the goal line. The penalty kick will be retaken if it does not score, but the goalkeeper moved before it was kicked.
After a ball goes out of play, a throw-in ball is taken to restart the game. The team that didn’t touch the ball last takes the throw-in. When a player takes a throw-in, they must have both hands on the ball over their head and both feet on the ground, either on or behind the touchline.
The player taking the throw-in must throw over the top of their head, from the back of their head, and use equal strength in both hands. A player from the other team must touch the ball before the player who took the throw-in can play the ball again. Goals cannot be scored directly from a throw-in. Throw-ins are exempt from the offside rule.
- Goal Kick
A goal kick is awarded to the defending team when the attacking team has last touched the ball prior to crossing the goal line. Any player on the defending team may take the goal kick. They must play the ball from within the section of the goal area on the pitch’s side where the ball went out. The goal area is the box directly in front of the goal.
When a goal kick is taken, the opposing team must stay outside the penalty area until it has left the goal area. If any player plays the ball before leaving the penalty area or crosses the goal line before leaving this area, or it does not leave the area, then the goal kick will be retaken.
The player taking the goal kick must wait until a player from either team has touched the ball before playing it again. Goal kicks are exempt from the offside rule.
- Corner Kick
A corner kick is awarded to the attacking team when the ball is last touched by the defending team before going over the goal line. Corner kicks are taken from within the corner arc on the side of the pitch where the ball went out. Any player on the attacking team may take the corner kick. Goals are allowed to be scored from corner kicks.
When a corner kick is taken, opposing players must remain ten yards back from the ball. The player taking a corner kick must wait for a player from either team to touch the ball before playing it again. Corner kicks are exempt from the offside rule.
Do Soccer Rules Ever Change?
The International Football Association Board (IFAB) is responsible for developing, preserving, and upholding soccer laws. Traditionally, this organization has been resistant to significant soccer law changes. However, the 2016-17 revision of the Laws of the Game saw the start of the most comprehensive and far-reaching period of law changes in the history of IFAB.
Consequently, the IFAB recognizes that changes need to be made that are not universal. There have been some changes to account for the differing needs of veteran, disabled, and youth players. Some examples of this are shortened match durations and reduced goal and pitch sizes.
One of the most radical changes in soccer Laws at the high-level game to date has been the 2018 introduction of Video Assistant Referee (VAR). This change has allowed referees to benefit from a colleague’s assistance watching a TV replay of incidents. This provides insight and clarity where it may have been missed or incorrectly perceived by the stadium’s officials.
The 17 basic soccer laws outlined in this post ensure that soccer is fair and safe for all who participate in the game. Although we are now seeing more changes than ever before that reflect players’ needs in different leagues and age groups, the laws generally still apply universally. This makes it possible for teams from all over the world to compete in international tournaments.
The basic soccer rules should be known and understood by all involved in the game. This includes players, coaches, referees, linesmen/lineswomen, and even parents of young players. This will ensure a level playing field for the development of all players and teams within the sport.