Football (or soccer in the US, Canada, and a few other countries) is the most popular sport in the world. Besides the fact that billions of fans love watching this amazing game, there are people of all ages and genders playing at different levels in every corner of the planet. However, it doesn’t matter if you watch or play regularly, you need to know all association football rules to understand the game.
There are countless leagues around the world, but the vast majority of them follow the same principles. In addition to the ball, the pitch, and gameplay laws, there are many other variables that footballers need to know in order to guarantee a fun, safe experience for everyone.
Below, we’ll go over the laws of the game of football (soccer), including the general goal and specific rules that players must abide by. We’ll also tell you which entities decide on the rules and regulations of football. And, finally, we’ll go over notable changes that occurred since the first laws were introduced.
What’s the Aim of a Football Game & What Are the Rules of Football?
The objective of a football (soccer) game is to score more goals than your opponent’s team in the allotted time period. In other words, the team that has scored the most after the end of the second half or in extra time is the winner.
A match is split into two halves (more on this later!), which are divided by a small break. This small break is called half time. Half time can last up to 15 minutes, depending on the style of football you are playing.
It’s easy to think about each soccer game separately, but remember that a team and its strategy will not always be the same when playing in an organized league. Rivalries, table standings, and player recoveries all influence the way a team plays. This means that you need to think about all variables that will affect the outcome when deciding on a strategy to win your next game!
FIFA and The IFAB
FIFA, which stands for the French name Fédération Internationale de Football Association, is recognized as being the international governing body of football (including beach and indoor formats). Founded back in 1904, FIFA oversaw international gameplay but it now seeks to grow and promote the expansion of association (or organised) football (soccer).
But, even though many see FIFA as the governing body, they are not responsible for establishing the rules of football (soccer). The International Football Association Board (IFAB), founded in 1886, is the organization that analyzes, reviews, and amends football rules. Since its creation, FIFA recognizes the IFAB’s jurisdiction. That said, FIFA still has 50% voting power because it’s permanently represented on the IFAB.
Football Rules: The Laws of the Game in the UK
One of the reasons why the sport of football (soccer) is so popular is because it’s a simple game. All you need is a ball, your feet, a solid understanding of the rules for football, and you’re ready to go!
At present, FIFA observes 17 rules of football (soccer). These are:
Law #1 – The Field
All football (soccer) games must be played on standard fields. The field or pitch must be made from the same materials all around and it can either be made of natural, synthetic, or hybrid components. If to be used for an official match, the pitch has to be green and must meet the criteria of the FIFA Quality Programme for Football Turf or the IFBA International Match Standard, unless a special permit is issued.
The length of the pitch has to fall within certain ranges, which are:
- Length from goal line to goal line: minimum of 90 metres and maximum of 120 metres
- Length from touchline to touchline: minimum of 45 metres and maximum of 90 metres
Specific tournaments may decide on specific field measurements that fall within these ranges. Moreover, pitches must have the right markers, which include:
- The goal area
- The penalty area
- The goal posts
- The corner flags
- The corner area
- The halfway line
Law #2 – The Ball
The ball that’s used to play fulfils an essential role for obvious reasons, so it must also fall under IFAB laws and regulations in football.
A football should be spherical in shape, made of suitable materials, and measure between 60 centimetres and 70 centimetres in circumference. It should also weigh no less than 410 grams and no more than 450 grams. Lastly, it must have an air pressure between 8.5 and 15.6 PSI (pounds per square inch).
If a ball becomes defective in the middle of a game, the play is stopped, a new football is introduced, and gameplay resumes with a bounce. Balls that also meet the requirements set forth in this rule can be placed around the field and used at the referee’s discretion during games.
Law #3 -The Players
A match is played between two teams with the same number of players. The maximum allowed number of players on each side is 11, although there are other popular football formats that include 5 a side. The number of substitutes, bench players, and special extra time exceptions are determined by the type of football being played.
The number of substitutes may vary, but the process of substituting a player on the field is the same in all football (soccer) styles. First, the referee must be informed before the substitution is allowed. If not already off the field, the player needs to exit the field and enter the technical area or the locker rooms. The player is not allowed to return to the field for play unless the rules of the tournament allow it.
A substitute should only enter during stoppage of play, through the halfway line, after the substituted player has left, and once signalled by the referee.
Law #4 – The Players Equipment
It’s forbidden for soccer players to wear personal accessories, unauthorized players equipment, and other items that may be dangerous. Jewellery is strictly prohibited and should be completely removed rather than covered. Players must be inspected before they start the match or enter as substitutes to ensure that they are not wearing unauthorized items.
All players must wear shirts with sleeves, shorts, socks, shinguards made of suitable materials, and appropriate footwear. Shinguards must be worn under the socks. Moreover, the use of tape on the socks is allowed, but this should be of the same colour as the area it’s covering. Goalkeepers can wear protective gloves as well as tracksuit bottoms, soft head caps, and other non-dangerous accessories.
Law #5 – The Referee
Referees control the match and have the complete authority to enforce the laws of the game that pertain to the match. According to the laws of the game, referees have to make calls and ensure the match is fair to the best of their abilities. The decisions that referees take on the pitch are final and cannot be disputed.
In addition to the above, referees rely on other match officials to ensure that calls are accurate, act as timekeepers, and indicate when play is stopped and when it is resumed. Refereeing officials are also in charge of taking disciplinary measures, ensuring that injured players get medical attention, and verifying that no outside influence interferes with the result of the match.
Law #6 – The Other Match Officials
The referee has the most authority on the pitch. But, there are several officials that contribute to the arbitrating of the match. This may vary, but in addition to the referee, a football match can have:
- Two assistant referees
- A fourth official
- Two additional assistant referees
- A reserve assistance referee
- A video assistant referee
- An assistant video assistant referee
All of these officials have slightly different responsibilities. However, they all contribute to controlling the game and making sure that it’s fair for all players. For example, assistant referees are in charge of indicating when the football leaves. They’re also in charge of indicating when a substitution is requested and whether the goalkeeper moves forward illegally during a penalty kick.
Law #7 – The Duration of the Match
Football games are divided into two equal halves, which are usually 45 minutes each. The duration of each half may be reduced by the same amount if agreed upon by both teams and the referee. This is assuming that this aligns with the competition rules. Note that the length of the halves can also vary depending on the type of football being played, but they are always exactly the same amount of time.
Referees are allowed to add time at the end of each half to make up for the lost playing time. This extra time is often due to substitution, injuries, and other incidents. When there is a penalty kick that needs to be taken at the end of either half, it is extended until the kick is taken.
Law #8 – The Start & Restart of Play After Half Time
Kick-offs are used to start the game or to resume play after the first half or after someone scores a goal. There are other ways to restart play, including free kicks, penalties, throw-ins, goal kicks, and corner kicks. Additionally, remember that referees can use a dropped ball to resume play as well.
Before the initial kick-off, team captains flip a coin. The winner chooses to start off by attacking or defending the first half and start the second half with the ball. After half time, teams switch goals and attack in opposite directions. Note that if an offence occurs while the ball is not in play, this does not change the way the game is restarted.
That said, if the ball is played and an offence occurs after, then the defender should receive a new punishment.
Law #9 – The Ball In & Out of Play
Now that we’ve covered how to resume play, let’s take a moment to analyze what happens when the ball goes out of play.
Simply put, the football is considered out of play when it has surpassed the goal or touchline entirely. Note that the ball can either be on the ground or in the air when this happens. If the ball is airborne, referees shall draw an imaginary boundary starting from the closest line to determine whether it has wholly left play.
Not only this, a football is also out of play when the referee stops the game. And, if the football makes contact with an official and immediately leads to a promising attack, the ball is also out of play. The same applies to the game when a ball goes directly into the back of the net or if the possession changes after the ball makes contact with an official. If any of these events occur, gameplay is resumed through a dropped ball rather than a throw-in.
Law #10 – Determining the Match (After the Game is Played)
The main goal of a football match is scoring more goals than the opponent’s team (pun intended).
A goal occurs when the entirety of the ball goes over the goal line, between the two goal posts, and under the crossbar. If a goalkeeper throws the ball directly into the opponent’s goal, a goal kick is awarded to the opponent’s team. Additionally, goals are only valid if there are no offences committed by the scoring team during the gameplay leading up to the goal. If the ball does not pass entirely over the goal line, then this is not considered a goal.
The team that has scored the most at the end of the game is declared the winner. If the teams have the same number of goals, the match is considered a draw. That said, there are some exceptions to this scenario, where the winning team is determined by who had the most away goals or by playing an extra time period.
Law #11 – Offside
The offside rule has been a part of football since its earliest versions, but the concept has changed over time. First off, it’s worth mentioning that it’s not against the laws of the game to be in an offside position. The offence starts when a player in an offside position becomes involved in the active play.
A player can only be called for an offside when this individual is on the opponent’s field and any part of the body, including head and feet, is closer to the opponent’s goal line than both the football and the second to last opponent. The hands and arms of all players involved are not counted. The only upper body area that is counted for the purpose of the offside rule is the torso.
Players are only considered offside at the moment that the football is touched by their teammates and are only penalised if they:
- Pursue play
- Become actively involved
- Touch the ball
- Interfere with an opponent
Law #12 – Fouls and Misconduct
Penalties, direct free kicks, and indirect free kicks can only be awarded when a player commits an offence during gameplay. For example, players that handle the ball or recklessly tackle opponents should be called for fouls.
Direct Free Kicks
Direct free kicks are awarded under a number of circumstances. For example, if a player charges, pushes, jumps at, strikes, kicks, attempts to kick, trips, tackles, or otherwise endangers an opponent, then the referee may award a direct free kick in favour of the player being endangered. At the same time, free kicks are also awarded for handball, holding, biting, and offences that involve throwing objects.
According to the laws of the game, a handball offence occurs when a player touches the ball with the hand or arm deliberately. For the purpose of this call, the boundary of the upper arm begins at the bottom of the shoulder. Anything above the bottom of the armpit is considered part of the shoulder and can thus be used.
When players touch the football involuntarily, but as a result of making their body unnaturally bigger (for example, by extending the arms), then the referee may call a handball offence.
Indirect Free Kicks
Indirect free kicks are awarded when an opponent plays in a way that endangers a player, impedes progress without making contact, or uses offensive language. The laws also state that if a goalkeeper holds the ball for more than six seconds before releasing it or handles the football after releasing it but before any other player touches it, then the opponent gets an indirect free kick. At the same time, if the goalkeepers handle the ball in their penalty areas after it was deliberately passed by a teammate, the opponents get an indirect free kick from the same place where the offence occurred.
The laws and rules also say that teams get penalties when a player commits an offence that merits a direct kick inside of the defending team’s penalty area.
When it comes to disciplinary action, players must know that the authority of the referee begins from the prematch inspection and stops until leaving the pitch after the game. If a player or team official commits punishable offences, the laws of the game allow the referee to prevent this individual from participating in the game.
Moreover, referees can show yellow and red cards to players, substitutes, substituted players, and team officials. Yellow cards communicate that the individual is receiving a caution. A red card means that the individual must leave the pitch and cease play.
Law #13 – Free Kicks
As we covered previously, there are three different types of free kicks in football. When a defending team commits a foul in their penalty area, the opponents are allowed to kick the ball from the penalty mark. The mark is located 11 metres from the goal line, and when a player takes a kick, only the goalkeeper is allowed to protect the team from the opponent’s goal.
When it comes to indirect free kicks, referees must indicate that it’s indirect by raising one arm above the head. This signal needs to be maintained until the indirect free kick is taken and the football hits another player, goes out of play, or is clearly not going as a direct result of the kick.
If the ball enters the goal from an indirect free kick without making contact with another player, a goal kick is awarded. On the other hand, if the football ends the goal from a direct free kick without being touched, a goal is awarded.
Direct and indirect free kicks should be taken from the place where the offence occurred, except for a few scenarios. This includes free kicks to defending teams that are fouled in their own penalty areas by offensive players.
Law #14 – The Penalty Kick
Players can score goals directly from penalties. The adequate procedure must follow these steps:
- The ball must not be moving
- The football position should be on the mark inside the box
- The crossbar, goal net, or posts must not be moving
- It should be easy to identify the player kicking the shot
- The goalkeeper must be facing the penalty kicker, standing between the goalposts without making contact with anything but the pitch until the football is kicked
Any other player who is not the penalty kicker and goalkeeper has to be at least 9.15 metres from the penalty line, behind the mark, outside of the area, but inside of the pitch. If the teams don’t abide by this, the penalty has to be retaken even if the player scores a goal.
Once the referee gives the signal, the player can kick the penalty. The football must move forward.
When the ball comes in contact with the kicker, at least one of the goalkeeper’s feet needs to be on the line at the goal. The penalty kicker is not allowed to touch the ball again until it comes in contact with another player or the game is stopped by the referee.
Law #15 – The Throw-In
Throw-ins are ways to resume play after the ball has left the pitch. A player gets a throw-in when the ball completely leaves the pitch and the last one to touch it was an opponent.
In order for a throw-in to be valid, the player must use proper technique. A player that’s throwing in the football should stand facing the field of play. They must have part of each foot on the touchline or surrounding area. And, they must hurl the ball using both hands, from behind and over the head in a forward motion. This action should be performed from the same place that the football left gameplay.
Law #16 – The Goal Kick
A team receives a goal kick when the ball exits through their goal line after being touched last by an opponent. Goal kicks cannot be taken after a player scores a goal.
Before the kick takes place, the ball should be stationary and resting within any point of the goal area. Any player from the defending team can play the ball from a goal kick. Opponents must stay outside of the penalty area until the kicker comes in contact with the football.
Goals scored through direct goal kicks are valid. That said, if a player performing a goal-kick comes into contact with the ball before it has touched another player, this individual will receive a sanction in the form of an indirect free kick.
Law #17 – The Corner Kick
And finally, the corner kick!
When a defending team is the last to touch the ball as it exits through their goal line, the attacking team received a corner kick. This leaves them in a great position to score. To take a proper corner kick, the player must place the ball in the corner closest to where the football exited, within the semicircle.
There are dozens of different ways to play the ball from a corner. That said, an attacking player should play the ball from behind while facing the opponents’ goal area. For the kick to be valid, the kicker needs to make clear contact and move the football. But, the football does not have to leave the corner area. The corner flags should not be moved and opposing players should remain at least 9.15 meters away from the football until the kick is taken.
Football & Its (Lack of) Rules Before 1863
Everyone that has ever played or watched knows that modern association football is a thing of beauty. But, it took several centuries for the game to evolve to this point.
In the 19th century, the word “football” could refer to a large number of sports depending on the context. Back then, “football” could refer to rugby, modern football, or the sport that would eventually become Australian rules football. Between 1830 and 1859, many schools, clubs, and universities released their own versions of modern football rules, but none of these were widely adopted at the time. If you want more on the history of football, go here.
The Introduction of the FA’s First Football Rules
The Football Association (FA) was formed in 1863 in order to create standard rules for football. But, by the time the FA held its first meeting, there had been many different sets of rules published by schools, universities, clubs, and other institutions.
Records show that the FA met on three separate occasions before agreeing on the initial laws of the game. They published the first version of the rules of football in December 1863 and have since amended them several times.
Notable Amends to the Rules of Football Since 1863
Let’s take a look at some of the most notable amends to the rules of football since they were first introduced. Note that all of the laws on this list remain today, but not all amendments to these rules have been kept.
1866 – The Relaxation of the Offside Rule and Regulation of Goal Heights
The first laws of football had a strict offside rule similar to that of rugby. In 1866, these rules were relaxed, allowing an attacker to be onside as long as there were at least three opponents between this player and the goal. Offside rules have changed since, but more on this in a bit!
In this same year, the IFAB also added a tape that became the predecessor for the modern crossbar. This also represented the addition of a height limit that attackers had to observe when scoring a goal.
1870 – Player’s Cannot Handle the Football
Since the introduction of the first laws, football players were allowed to catch the football with their hands. However, in 1870 the rules were changed and players were not allowed to handle the ball anymore under any circumstances.
1871 – The Addition of the Goalkeeper Position for Each Team
The goalkeeper position was first introduced in 1871 and the idea was to have a player that could handle the ball to protect the team. In other words, goalkeepers were only allowed to use their hands in actions that involved stopping the other team from scoring.
1872 – The Introduction of the Corner Kick and Free Kick
Corner kicks and free kicks became an official part of the laws of the game in 1872. Free kicks became the first type of punishment for breaking the rules.
1874 – Indirect Kicks Are Awarded for Foul and Offside Violations
Indirect kicks were only awarded after an opponent’s handball offence until 1874 when they also became a form of punishment for foul and offside violations. This is also the first time that the rules in football mention an officiant, which was called the umpire back then.
1881 – The Introduction of Referees
In 1881, the concept of a referee was introduced. This individual was responsible for settling disputes between umpires. This is also the first year where the concept of cautions (yellow cards) and send-offs (red cards) were mentioned.
1891 – Introduction of Penalties
1891 saw the birth of the penalty kick, a type of free kick designed to punish teams who committed a foul within 12 yards of the goal. At the same time, field of play markings were added, including goal area, penalty area, centre mark, and centre circle lines. Penalties are to be taken with only one defender (the goalkeeper) at the goal line.
1958 – The Allowance of Substitutions for Injured Players
Substitutions of injured players in a competitive match were not allowed until 1958. This ability would subsequently receive international approval and be incorporated into the laws of the game.
1970 – Introduction of the Yellow and Red Cards
The official yellow and red cards as we know them were introduced in the 1970 World Cup. Since then, additional forms of punishment have been introduced (like temporary dismissals), but these have not been implemented at the professional level.
2018 – The Allowance of Video Assistant Referees
One of the most debated amendments in the history of the game, the first video assistant referee was allowed to partake in an official match in 2018. During the same set of amendments, the IFAB allowed teams to make a fourth substitution in extra time.
Ready to Put These Football Rules Into Practice? Find a 5-a-Side League Near You
Learning about the rules of football is entertaining, but there is nothing like getting together with your mates and playing the game. To find a 5 a side league or pitch near you, check out some great venues here.