Soccer Rules – Introduction
In the beginning of the 19th century, a people’s game that has been around ever since medieval times started becoming more and more popular in England: soccer. Back then soccer was played using ad-hoc pitches and most teams were formed either because they were part of the same village, organization, factory or whatnot.
Obviously, these guys were playing along to some basic soccer rules, but without a referee to enforce them, or clear specifications to these rules. For example, what would have been considered a foul in Liverpool might have been accepted as a fair tackle in London.
Since soccer sparks some pretty intense competition at times, playing it without a lot of strict rules and without a referee to enforce them caused serious troubles in mid 19th century England. Soccer fights became something that was seen as normal and they gave the game an aura of violence that in truth it didn’t deserve.
By 1860, soccer clubs were already popping up in England, especially around London and they were becoming semi-professional, as the competition level started rising.
This caused most of the London clubs to meet in the Freemasons’ Tavern in London on 26 October 1863, forming the Football Association (FA), which is still the governing soccer organization in England. They decided that they would need certain rules for the game of soccer if they were to keep on playing competitively.
By the second meeting on the 8th of December 1863, they decided to draw up the plans for the Laws of the Game, which is a sort of constitution holding all of the rules for soccer up till this date, with some modifications.
The 17 Rules for Soccer from the Laws of the Game
This soccer constitution that was the Laws of the Game now holds 17 specific key points that determine the rules of soccer. Let’s go through each and explain them in more detail.
1. The Field of Play – The field of play is the surface on which the game of soccer is played on. This law regulates everything regarding line markings, soccer pitch dimensions and how to use them properly. For example, a soccer pitch must be between 90 and 120 meters long and 45 to 90 meters wide. However, it must also have a rectangular shape, so you can’t have a square field with a length and width of 90 at the same time.
Other basic rules of soccer and field measurements are specified in this law, such as the dimensions of each goal (7.32 meters long and 2.44 meters high), the diameter of the centre circle (18.30 meters) or the distance between the penalty spot and the goal (11 meters, perpendicularly on the goal).
Standard Soccer Field Layout
While watching several soccer matches either live or on TV, you might have noticed the fact that the game sometimes seems loose, whereas other times it feels like the players are all chunked in with little distances between them.
This is due to the fact that the stadiums the matches were played on, all had different soccer field layouts as FIFA doesn’t restrict them to a particular size (although official rules state the at the soccer field dimensions must be contained in some standard limits).
Different soccer field sizes can affect a lot of factors, including entertainment value, stadium capacity and most importantly, the tactics and the formation a team will choose. Before seeing exactly how these elements are affected by the soccer field layout, let me start by giving you the exact rules and soccer field dimensions that are set as standard by FIFA.
The standard soccer field measurement limits changed over time, adapting to the particular period of time they applied to. With the rise in popularity of soccer and the increasing number of live spectators to each match, the upper width and length limits were also raised, allowing for bigger stadiums and better entertainment. In 2007, the minimum and maximum values for soccer field sizes are:
Minimum length: 100 yards (90 meters)
Maximum length: 130 yards (120 meters)
Minimum width: 50 yards (45 meters)
Maximum width: 100 yards (90 meters)
Although these sizes apply for local matches, there is a slight adjustment in the field layout when it comes to international matches:
International match minimum length: 110 yards (100 meters)
International match maximum length: 120 yards (110 meters)
International match minimum width: 70 yards (64 meters)
International match maximum width: 80 yards (75 meters)
2. The Ball – Throughout the time, the rules for soccer regarding the football remained the same, but the way in which they were applied was on a constant change. The rules state that the soccer bull must have a circumference between 68 and 70 centimeters and a weight between 410 and 450 grams but they also state that the ball can be made out of “leather or any similar material”.
Well that “any similar material” bit constantly improved over time and nowadays soccer balls reached near-perfection. Almost each World Cup brought a new type of soccer ball, with improved characteristics, although all of them stayed inside the official soccer rules stated in the Laws.
3. The Number of Players – According to the official soccer rules, a team can bring in 10 outfield players and one goalkeeper on the pitch and can have several substitutes on the bench. The numbers of benched subs as well as the actual number of substitutions that are allowed in a single match vary with the type of the game played. For example, in official matches only 3 substitutions are allowed, with 5, 7 or 9 players on the bench.
In friendlies however, a coach can fit in as many players as he wants on the bench and usually he can also make as many substitutions as he needs. In the past, the official soccer rules regarding substitutions were a lot stricter than this.
4. The Player’s Equipment – Just like with the soccer ball, soccer equipment maintained most of the original rules in the Laws of the Game, but the way people interpret them today is quite different from how they did back in 1863. Basically the rules of soccer say that a player must wear a shirt or jersey, footwear, shin pads, shorts and socks and the two teams must have different equipment so that they can be differentiated on the pitch.
Back then however, a soccer jersey was a largely uncomfortable one and it was very simple, without too many details strapped on it. Today’s jerseys are very light and comfortable and on many occasions they have the club’s sponsors imprinted on them, they have the number of the player (and the name in some cases) on the back and the club’s badge on the chest. These are not enforced by the soccer rules, but they have become common standards in today’s game.
5. The Referee – Well the man in black (or more recently phosphorus green) is probably the biggest “invention” that came with the initial soccer rules constitution and his role is to enforce these official rules of soccer “in connection to the match he has been appointed to”.
The center referee is accompanied and helped by two assistant referees (one on each side of the pitch) and a fourth one that handles small issues like showing injury time duration, checking a substitute player’s equipment and replacing one of the three main referees if they can’t continue the game.
Soccer Referee – Before the English organized soccer under a set of common rules, the matches were played entirely without a referee. The two teams would simply agree on a set of rules and conducts before the game and tried to stick to them.
Now, imagine a team of harsh, hard-working brits, each with a wife and 4 kids to feed at home, relaxing on a Saturday afternoon in England on a soccer match.
All the tensions and frustrations that gathered up during the week would spill out at the slightest touch and all that was needed for a full-fledged fistfight to break out between the two teams was a harder tackle or a disputable goal.
The soccer referee was “invented” to keep things in order and look out to the official rules for soccer and although it’s admittedly not the best method to do this, referees are still used for this purpose today.
Strangely enough, during the entire history of soccer referees, their evolution was extremely small in comparison to other aspects of the game, such as the gaming rules, tactical and technical aspects of the players and even the soccer ball, which went through different phases of evolution. The “man in black” at the center of the pitch seen today is almost a copy of the same guy at the center of an 1890 match.
The main role of a soccer referee is to make sure that the players respect the official rules for soccer and to punish a breaking of such a rule. A player breaking a rule, for example committing a foul, can be punished by the referee by him whistling a direct or indirect kick for the other team and additionally showing the “outlaw” a yellow or red card.
The latter would mean that the player at thereceiving end of the red card is sent off and must immediately leave the pitch and the same thing happens if he cumulates 2 yellow cards in the same match (after being shown the second yellow card, the player will automatically receive a red card).
Although we usually say that a decision was taken by “the referee” and use the singular for the term, there’s actually a team of four refs on the pitch.The central referee is the one doing most of the running and decision making, but he is helped from each sideline by an assistant referee. The assistants’s main job is to signal offsides but they can also intervene when an offence takes place near their side of the field.
It’s often the case that an assistant referee signals a foul close to the side-line, that the central referee did not notice, being further away from the spot. The fourth ref, or fourth official handles mostly organization issues, such as making sure the substitutes warm up in the designated warm-up area or that the coaches don’t step over their bench line area and so forth.
In addition, the fourth ref will also handle extra time and substitutions and he can even substitute the central referee or one of the assistants in case they cannot continue the game.
Since soccer referees are only human, they are prone to make mistakes. To some extent this provides a certain unpredictability and excitement to the game, but a simple mistake from the referee can often cause a team to lose important objectives.
In numerous occasions, a team lost an important match because of a bad ref call, which further caused them to be knocked out of a competition, loses a cup or a league. Obviously, with such a stake at hand, the pressure on the referee is always extremely high.
6. The Assistant Referees – As I explained above, the assistant referees are placed on the sides of the pitch (one each) and their main role is to help the main referee with some decisions. Actually, the assistant referee has no decision power, he can only signal a game issue (an offside, a foul, handball and so forth) but it’s up to the central ref if he’s or she is going to take up the assistant’s advice.
7. The Duration of the Match – Standard adult games are limited by the official soccer rules to two halves of 45 minutes each, separated by a 15 minutes break. This is not the actual time of play, since this 90 minute clock ticks even when the ball is out of play, during substitutions and so forth. In order to try to balance this timing a bit, the end of each half also brings a few minutes of “injury time” on the table.
In some cases, when the match must have a winner (a knockout match for example), two extra mini-periods of 15 minutes each, with no break between them are added. If the match is tied at the end of extra time as well, the players go on for a penalty-shootout that will eventually decide the winner.
8. The Start and Restart of Play – There are 8 reasons for which the game can be stopped and similarly, 8 ways to restart it. Each period of time starts with a kick-off (1) and the game is also restarted with a kick-off if a team scores a goal. If the ball goes out on the side lines, the player who last touched the ball conceded a throw-in (2). The game is restarted with the other team throwing the ball back into play.
The goal kick (3) is awarded to the defending team, if the attacking team took the ball out of play on the defending team’s goal line. The game is restarted with the goalkeeper kicking it from within the safety box. If the defending team touches the ball last and it goes over their own goal line, outside of the goal itself, then the opposing team earns a corner kick (4) and they will be required to restart the game from the corner nearest to where the ball went out.
An indirect free kick (5) is awarded when a team produces a non-penal foul (dangerous play or offside for example) and the game is restarted with a ground kick that cannot be taken towards goal (if a player scores directly from an indirect free kick, without another player touching the ball, the goal won’t stand). A direct free kick (6) is caused by a foul or handball and unlike the indirect free kick it can be struck directly towards the goal.
A penalty kick (7) is similar to a direct free kick in that it is caused by a foul or handball, but the offence occurs inside the defending team’s penalty area. The game is restarted with one of the attacking team’s players shooting for goal from the penalty spot (11 meters, perpendicularly on goal), with nothing but a goalkeeper to beat.
The last of these eight soccer rules is rarer and it’s called the dropped ball (8). The dropped ball occurs when the referee stops the game for a special reason (an injured player, ball becoming defective or the interference of an external factor) and the game is restarted with him dropping the ball from shoulder height in front of two players who will battle for possession (sort of how basketball matches decide initial possession).
9. Ball In and Out of Play – According to the official soccer rules, the ball is in play all throughout the match duration, except when it passes a bounding line (goal lines and touch lines), when an offence occurs or when play is stopped by the referee. In these particular cases, the ball is out of play and the soccer players cannot score goals or interact with the ball. In addition, substitutions can only occur when the ball is out of play according to the rules for the game of soccer.
10. The Methods of Scoring – As long as the ball is in play and no infringements of any soccer rules are being made, the players can score goals. A goal is considered when the ball crosses one of the goal areas with its entire circumference. Goals can be scored from action, from penalty spots and direct free kicks.
11. The Offside – Since this is one of the trickiest rules of soccer today, I’ve decided to explain it in detail in a separate article on offside soccer rules.
What the Soccer offside rules are all about?
If you’re up for an experiment, grab one of your friends that have absolutely no knowledge about soccer laws and invite them over to watch a match together.
He will undoubtedly have an easy time grasping the basic rules, but at the point of the game when the refs will stop an attacker for offside for the first time, he’ll start having problems. He’ll ask you about the soccer offside rules and you’ll probably have to explain him over and over again for a few times before he’ll be able to judge an offside by himself.
I must admit, when my friend asked me “why was that guy called offside?” it took me over 20 minutes and 5-6 in-match offside situations to explain things to him but in the end he finally grasped the idea.
Here’s what I told him and here are the answers you should give to your friends when they’ll ask you about the soccer offside rule:
When is a player called offside?
A player, usually a striker, is called offside when he is nearer to the other team’s goal than both the ball and the second last opponent. The second last opponent usually being the last defender from the opponent team, an offside occurs when the striker is closer to the opposing team’s goal than that team’s last defender.
To put it simply, try to picture an imaginary line on Team A’s last defender, a line parallel to the goal line. If Team B’s striker is over this line when his teammate passes the ball, then he is offside. If Team B’s striker is on the same line as Team A’s last defender (or under the line) then he is in a correct position.
One more thing to look after in an offside: it doesn’t matter if Team B’s striker is over this line when he receives the ball. The moment to look after is the moment the midfielder passes the ball, which will trigger an offside if the striker is over the last defender line.
The striker was on the same line as the defender, why hasn’t he been called offside?
It’s not an offside if they are both “on the same line”, however there’s a slight twist to this soccer offside rule. Even if the players are on the line with their feet, but the striker is leaned forward, a keen referee will call an offside. It’s an offside by the slightest of margins, but still an offside. Subsequently, if the defender is leaned forward, he leaves the striker in offside.
What’s a “passive offside”?
The passive offside is one of the most debated FIFA soccer rules over the last few years and it seems they finally found a good way to handle it. A player is in “passive offside” if he’s in an offside position but doesn’t play the ball, in which case the ref doesn’t call the offside.
A tricky striker can confuse the defense into laying low thinking an offside will be called, only to avoid playing the ball, allowing another teammate to pick up the ball, and potentially score.
Obviously, what “playing the ball” means is slightly interpretational. Even if the striker in the offside position doesn’t touch the ball, but influences the play otherwise (runs towards the ball, covers the goalkeeper’s viewpoint and so forth) he comes out of passive offside and the referee blows the call.
12. Fouls and Misconduct – There’s a difference between fouls and misconduct that many people fail to understand. A foul can occur when a player tries to get the ball from his opponent and kicks him or pushes him away accidentally, whereas misconduct means that a player willfully targets his opponent and punches, kicks or pushes him away.
Fouls can only occur when the ball is in play, but misconduct can occur when it’s out of play as well. Depending on the seriousness of the foul or misconduct, the referee can penalize it with a yellow or red card in addition to a free kick or penalty kick.
You would think the rules regarding soccer fouls are straightforward and easy to grasp, however there are several nuances that makes it one of the most interpretable rules of the game.
In other sports, a foul would be characterized as “it’s a foul if you hit the other guy” and although that’s partially true for soccer fouls too, sometimes you don’t even have to hit someone on the pitch for the ref to call a foul, whereas sometimes you can freely hit opposing players without triggering a call (I see you grinning already!).
Confused yet? I’ll explain in a bit. But first let’s take a quick view on the main rules surrounding a soccer foul.
In FIFA’s “Constitution”, Laws of the Game, a foul is the act of kicking, tripping, jumping in/at, charging, striking or pushing an opponent.
Fouls in soccer are penalized by handing over the ball to the team that suffered the foul if the foul has been committed outside a penalty area. In this case, a direct or indirect free kick is given, depending on the nature of the soccer foul, with the kick being taken from the spot where the foul occurred.
In case the offence occurs in the defending team’s penalty area, the ref will give the attacking team a penalty kick, which is a great scoring opportunity, allowing a player to take a shot from 12 yards (11 meters) with just the opposing goalkeeper to beat and no defenders around him. The player that caused the foul is also in danger of being cautioned with a yellow card, or being sent off from the pitch with a red card, if the offence was way over the limits.
Examples of red card fouls include extremely hard tackles that injure or are aimed at injuring an opposing player, intentionally hitting or stepping on a fallen opponent. However, a player is also shown a red card if he collects two cautionary yellows.
The above mentioned fouls are all direct contact and thus are all penalized with at least a direct free kick. Like I said earlier however, there are at least three soccer foul types that don’t necessarily require direct contact to be penalized.
One would be preventing the goalkeeper from releasing the ball from his hand. Even if you don’t touch the keeper, simply standing in front of him, not allowing him to throw or kick the ball forward is considered a foul and penalized with an indirect free kick (not that anyone would attempt a shot on goal from their own keeper’s grounds, but rules are rules…).
Another similar type of soccer foul, also known as obstruction, occurs when the defender cuts the running direction of the opposing player, regardless if he has the ball or not (although the “victim” of this type of soccer foul is the player controlling the ball, 9 out of 10 times).
Last but not least, dangerous play occurs when a player has a potentially dangerous kick close to an opposing player.
History actually recorded some famous soccer fouls that sparked controversy all around the world. The first professional foul (a foul where the defender intentionally fouls an attacker that has a good chance) was “patented” by Willie Young of Arsenal, who committed a deliberate foul on Paul Allen of West Ham, in the 1980 FA Cup Final the two teams played.
The incident sparked some intense controversy both on and off pitch, as the gesture countered all fair-play rules that the game was played around. Since then however, the professional foul became a common and an accepted method of stopping a team from having a good opportunity on goal.
Another negatively famous foul was the one made by Olympique Lyonnais’ Serge Blanc on then Celtic’s striker Henrik Larsson. TV Cameras caught the exact moment of the foul and showed how Blanc’s leg catches Larsson’s leg on the ground and breaks it. The images horrified many viewers as they seemed like taken from a war movie.
It seemed that Larsson’s leg was dangling down from the spot it broke, but eventually doctors claimed that it was an illusion caused by his shinpad going down the side of his leg and that the fracture isn’t as bad as it looked on cameras. Still, Larsson had to recover for 1.5 years before returning to the big stage of European soccer.
Last on the list of famous soccer fouls just came in on the last World Cup from Germany. In the final played by France against Italy, France’s captain, Zinedine Zidane was going to play his last official soccer game ever, as he announced his retirement from both his club and the national team after the final.
Being considered the best player of the tournament so far and knowing that this would be the magnificent France captain’s last match, the camera was pointed at him almost as much as it was pointed to the game itself.
Unfortunately for Zidane, this meant that his 114th minute headbutt of Italy’s Marco Matterazzi was clearly caught on tape, sparking worldwide feelings of anger, disappointment, frustration but also empathy from Zizou’s fans.
13. Free Kicks – I’ve explained most of the soccer rules regarding free kicks in “Soccer Rule Number 8 – The Start and Restart of Play”. One additional soccer rule worth mentioning is that players from the opposing team must be at least 9.15 meters away from the position where the free kick will be struck. Also, the player that kicks the ball initially on a free kick cannot touch it again until a teammate or opposing player touches it.
14. Penalty Kicks – Penalty kicks are conceded when a defended player fouls or commits handball inside the 18 yard box (commonly known as the penalty box). It’s important to know that not all offences inside the penalty box are punished with a penalty kick. For example, if a player commits dangerous play inside his own penalty box, the referee will award an indirect free kick from the place that the offence occurred.
When the penalty kick is taken, the only two players in the 18 yard box are the penalty taker and the defending team’s goalkeeper. Everyone else must sit outside the box and can only move towards the ball once it is kicked. So if the penalty is saved by the goalkeeper or strikes the bar, a player could run from the edge of the box and gain possession.
15. The Throw In – When the ball goes out of play on the side lines, the opponent of the player who last touched the ball will take a throw in. The throwing method has to follow some rather strict rules; otherwise the referee might dictate a throw in for the other team. The player taking the throw must keep his feet outside the side line, with the sole on the ground and the actual throw must be executed with the ball over the thrower’s head.
16. The Goal Kick – The goal kick is a means of restarting play after the attacking team took the ball over the defending team’s byline. The goal kick acts as a direct free kick, so if a player would kick the ball so hard that it would reach the opposing team’s goal and score, the goal would count.
One extra soccer rule regarding the goal kick states that the kick must be powerful enough to pass the penalty area. So in case the goalkeeper executes the goal kick and passes the ball to a teammate in his own penalty box, the goal kick is re-taken.
17. The Corner Kick – The last of the 17 rules of soccer refers to the corner kick, which occurs when the ball passes over the defending player’s goal line, with a defender having touched the ball last. The corner kick acts as a direct free kick taken from the corner of the pitch (if the ball passes the line on the left of the goal, the corner is taken from the left corner and if it passes on the right, the corner is taken from the right corner).
The same rules as for a direct free kick apply, in that opposing players must be at least 9.15 meters away from the corner, the corner taker may score directly from the corner kick and the kicker can’t play the ball a second time until it’s touched by another player. The only additional rule is that the ball be placed in the corner arc.
Well that’s pretty much all you need to know about soccer and soccer rules. Most of these rules seem harder than they actually are on paper and if you watch a couple of matches you’ll soon get the hang of them naturally. The only one that requires some special attention is the offside soccer rule, which indeed can be harder to understand without the proper explanation, so check out the offside article on the site for a more detailed clarification on that.