If you play or watch soccer you will be aware that it has a set of rules, just like any other sport. But how much do you know about those rules?
The rules of soccer are known as the ‘Laws of the Game’ but don’t worry as you don’t need to be an attorney or a judge to understand them. In truth, they are very easy to understand with many of them matters of fact such as pitch dimensions and the size of the ball. Other laws require human judgement and in those scenarios, the match referee has to make decisions.
There are actually only 17 laws of the game, which cover everything from player’s equipment to foul play. In this article, we’ll take you through each one and explain as them as simply as we can. We’ll also give you some background to the laws, their history and who it is that makes the laws and updates them.
Who Makes the Soccer Rules?
Although FIFA is the governing body for soccer across the world they are not the organization who have sole responsibility for creating the laws of the game. That task is undertaken by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). The IFAB consists of representatives from FIFA and the soccer associations of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. These four UK nations were the first to agree on a standard set of rules for playing soccer in 1886 and to this day they are seen as the ‘guardians’ of the game.
The IFAB meets twice a year to discuss possible changes and when deciding on changes, each of the four nations have one vote and FIFA has four. In effect, this means neither FIFA nor the UK associations can make law changes without the agreement of the others.
Each year the IFAB publish a manual which outlines all of the current laws of the game and also produces booklets that explain any changes to the laws which have taken place.
History of the Laws
The earliest rules relating to soccer originated in England with different versions emanating from cities such as Sheffield and Cambridge. At this time the sport still had many elements of rugby union in its rules.
The first ever formal laws for soccer were created on December 8th, 1863 by Ebenezer Cobb Morley. Morley, who played in the first ever official soccer match, is often referred to as the father of modern soccer. Since the initial laws were first created in 1863 there have been several significant changes to the rules. Here are some of the most important:
1871: The position of ‘goalkeeper’ is introduced
1872: Introduction of corner kicks
1891: Penalty kicks are first used
1925: Offside rule reduced from three to two defenders between player and goal
1958: First ever substitutes used
1970: Introduction of yellow and red cards
1992; Back pass to goalkeeper rule introduced
2012: Goal line technology is used for the first time
2016: Trials of video technology
The 17 Laws of the Game
Below we have outlined the current laws of the game based on the IFAB’s latest publication. For those that will only be relevant to professional and televised competitions, we’ll give you an overview of them rather than the specifics. This is because you are unlikely to encounter them unless you have the good fortune to be a professional soccer player.
Law 01: The Field of Play
This law relates to the playing surface, pitch dimensions, field markings, the goals, technical area and corner flags.
Playing surfaces must be wholly natural or artificial. Hybrid surfaces are only allowed in competitions where the rules allow for them. All artificial surfaces must meet FIFA requirements and standards.
The color of artificial playing surfaces must be green.
The soccer pitch must be rectangular and marked as per the guidelines.
Lengthwise the lines are called touchlines and at either end, the lines are called goal lines.
At the midpoint of the touchlines, the halfway line divides the pitch into two halves.
The center spot is marked at the midpoint of the halfway line and a center circle with a radius of 10 yards is drawn around this.
Lines must be continuous and no more than 5 inches wide.
On artificial surfaces, the lines must be distinguishable from the pitch color.
Any player who makes any unauthorized marks on the playing surfaces will be cautioned. An example of this is a player using their studs to make markings around the penalty spot to put off an opponent before they take a penalty kick.
Touchline: Minimum 100 yards. Maximum 130 yards.
Goal Line: Minimum 50 yards. Maximum 100 yards.
Dimensions for International Matches
Touchline: Minimum 100 yards. Maximum 120 yards.
Goal Line: Minimum 70 yards. Maximum 80 yards.
In effect, this means the area of the playing surface can range from 5,000 square yards to 13,000 square yards which is more than 2 ½ times the size.
This is marked in a rectangular shape with two lines drawn at 90 degrees to the goal line, at a distance from the inside of the goalpost of 6 yards, and a line joining these, 6 yards out from the goal line.
This is marked in a rectangular shape with two lines drawn at 90 degrees to the goal line, 18 yards from the inside of each goalpost, and a line 18 yards from the goal line, joining them.
A penalty spot is marked 12 yards out from the midway point between the goalposts.
An arc is drawn on the outside edge of the penalty area with a radius of 10 yards from the penalty spot.
This is marked with a 1-yard radius arc in each corner of the field.
A non-pointed flag post at least 5 feet high, with a flag, must be placed in each corner of the pitch.
A flag post may also be placed outside the touchline at the halfway line. This is optional.
These rules relating to size, use and occupants only apply to larger stadia with designated seating areas for coaching staff and substitutes and are more likely to be used by professional leagues and competitions.
The goalposts and crossbar should be round, rectangular or elliptical in shape and white in color.
The width of goalposts and crossbar should not exceed 5 inches.
Height of the crossbar should be 8 feet and the width between the posts 8 yards.
There are further rules relating to goal line technology, commercial advertising, logos and emblems which will apply to professional competitions and are especially valid if they are being televised.
Law 02: The Ball
All soccer balls should be:
Made of suitable material although there are no specific materials recommended or required.
Spherical in shape.
Circumference between 27 and 28 inches.
Weigh between 14 ounces and 16 ounces.
Pressure between 8.5 and 15.6 lbs./sq. inch.
For professional competitions, there are additional rules which relate to markings, commercial advertising replacements and balls which have integrated goal line technology.
Law 03: The Players
Each team should have no more than 11 players, one of which is designated the goalkeeper.
A team must have a minimum of 7 players for the game to start and, if because of injury or sendings off, they are reduced to less than 7 players, the game cannot proceed.
In official competitions, the maximum number of substitutes that can be used is 3 from a named pool of between 3 and 12 depending on the competition rules.
Other matches can use more substitutes providing the number is agreed beforehand. Normally, once a player has been substituted they cannot return, however, this is not enforced in lower and recreational levels of soccer.
Law 04: Player’s Equipment
Players cannot wear anything that could be dangerous and there is a list of items which they must remove before play. These include:
Players are not allowed to tape over jewelry either.
Equipment which is compulsory:
- Shirt with sleeves
- Shin guards
Goalkeepers are permitted to wear tracksuit bottoms.
Each team’s kit color must not be similar to the other team nor the referee. Each goalkeeper must wear colors that distinguish them from other players and the referee.
Other equipment that players are allowed to wear include headbands and protective face masks provided they are made from lightweight padded material. Goalkeepers can wear caps and gloves and for players with poor eyesight, sports spectacles can be worn.
Players are not allowed to wear anything that carries promotional, political or religious messages or slogans, and the only advertising allowed on their kit are the manufacturer and sponsor logos.
Law 05: The Referee
Of all the people associated with soccer, referees seem to have a thankless task. Their decisions, whether right or wrong, can change the result of a match and whenever a decision is made 50% of those playing or watching are likely to disagree with it.
The laws of the game are quite explicit in outlining the role and status of the referee.
He has full authority to enforce the rules and to control the match being played. He acts as timekeeper and is also responsible for filing a report on any match he has officiated to the appropriate organization.
Within Law 05 there is also a lengthy paragraph which removes any liability from the referee for injuries to players, and losses, including financial, to individuals, clubs and organizations as a result of any decision they make. An example of this could be a team being relegated or knocked out of a tournament due to having lost a match where the referee awarded a penalty against them, and it later proved that his decision was in error.
Law 06: Other Match Officials
This law covers the other match officials who operate on match days. The officials include:
- Assistant referees (once called linesmen)
- Fourth officials
- Additional assistant referees (who stand behind the goal line)
- Reserve assistant referees
The law states that these officials must help the referee control the game including highlighting incidents that have occurred out of the view of the referee.
Law 07: Duration of the Match
Normal matches should consist of two halves of 45 minutes each except where the competition allows for this to be reduced, for example, youth soccer.
The half-time interval is 15 minutes.
The referee may add additional time at the end of each half to allow for time lost due to:
- Treatment of players who have been injured
- Time wasting
- Disciplinary actions
- Drink or refreshment breaks that have been agreed beforehand
- Any other cause such as pitch intruders or excessive goal celebrations
If a penalty kick has been awarded at the end of either half, time is allowed for the taking of the kick.
Law 08: Start and Restart of Play
Each half kicks off from the center spot following a coin toss. The team winning the toss chooses which half of the field they wish to play from and the other team kicks off the match. To start the second half, the team that won the toss kicks off.
This is a law which changed in 2016 whereby the ball no longer had to be played forward from the kickoff. This meant two players standing over the ball at the start of the game. The new rule says the ball can go in any direction so the tendency now is for one player to play the ball backwards to a teammate.
A dropped ball is how the game is restarted following a stop in play for injuries, fans encroaching or a second ball on the pitch. The procedure is the referee drops the ball between two opposing players who then challenge for the ball once it has hit the ground.
Law 09: Ball In and Out of Play
This, without a doubt, is the shortest and most obvious law of them all.
The ball is out of play when it crosses a touchline or goal line, or if the referee stops play for any reason
The ball is in play at all other times.
(We did say you didn’t need legal training to understand these laws!)
Law 10: Determining the Outcome of a Match
You would be forgiven for thinking “Isn’t it the scoreline?”, and to an extent this is right but the laws do have definitions of goals and some additional rules regarding penalty kicks.
The precise definition of a goal is “When the whole of the ball passes over the goal line, between the posts and under the crossbar”. The exception is if this occurs when the goal is ‘scored’ following an infringement by the attacking team in which case it is disallowed.
The winning team is defined as the one who scores the most goals, with a match where both teams score the same amount of goals called a draw. In some competitions factors such as away goals rule, extra time and penalties are the means by which the outcome is decided.
Penalty kicks to decide a match are used in competitions such as the Champions League and the biggest tournament of them all, the FIFA World Cup. The rules state that each team will take 5 penalties with the winner being the team who score the most. If after 5 penalties the score is equal, then penalties are taken alternatively until one team scores and the other misses or vice versa.
Law 11: Offside
Of all the laws in soccer, this has to be the one that has caused the most disagreements, argument, heartache and despair.
In terms of the actual law, being in an offside position means a player, or any part of their body, is closer to the goal line than 2 players from the other team and the ball.
Offside occurs when a player is in an offside position at the exact moment the ball is played to them by a teammate and they are either ‘active’ or ‘seeking to gain an advantage’.
The definition of being active or seeking to gain an advantage covers several scenarios but in practical terms, it means making an obvious movement or action that may or may not involve actually touching the ball.
The reason this law causes so much discussion is it relies on the assistant referee making a split second decision on whether a player is in an offside position or not. Often the speed of play and that of a player is such, that it appears they are in an offside position to the naked eye, but a TV replay will show they ran from an onside position. On the reverse side, a player can be deemed onside and allowed to continue when they were actually offside.
Given that many goals are scored or disallowed based on offside decisions it is a law that will continue to create controversy for years to come.
Law 12: Fouls and Misconduct
Now we are getting to meat and potatoes of soccer and the rules regarding foul play. Whilst the laws are clearly laid out by the IBFA, it is the implementation of them by the referee which raises debate and argument amongst players and fans. What one referee may deem a bad challenge another might just see as a hard, but fair tackle. It is this human element which no rule book could ever legislate for, that makes soccer such a talked about and exciting sport.
The basics in terms of fouls and misconduct are:
1) Direct Free Kick: These are awarded if the referee believes a player has been careless, reckless, or used excessive force in any of the following offences:
- Jumping at
- Striking or attempts to strike
- Tripping or attempted trip
- Kicking or attempt to kick
The IBFA define what is meant by reckless, careless or using excessive force:
Reckless, effectively means the offending player lacked attention or consideration. Although a direct free kick is awarded, being careless is not deemed too serious and a caution is normally not issued.
Being reckless means the player has acted without any regard to the danger to their opponent and this would normally merit a caution.
Excessive force is defined as endangering the safety of an opponent and the offender is normally sent off.
Other offences which result in a direct free kick are
- Handling the ball, deliberately (except the goalkeeper)
- Holding an opponent
- Impeding an opponent
- Spitting at an opponent
Direct free kicks mean a goal can be scored without it being touched by another player
2) An indirect free kick is awarded for the following offences:
- Dangerous play – An example of this is raising a foot towards an opponent’s head
- Impeding a player without contact – sometimes called obstruction
- Preventing a goalkeeper from releasing the ball
Goalkeepers can also commit offences which result in an indirect free kick.
- Holding the ball in their hands for more than 6 seconds.
- Handling the ball twice within the area.
- Handling after a passback, or throw-in.
3) Disciplinary Action
There basically two levels of disciplinary action a referee can take against a player – 1) a caution or 2) sending off. There are numerous cautionable offences:
- Dissent, either verbal or by action
- Delaying restart of play
- Unsporting behavior
- Entering or leaving field of play deliberately without permission
- Failing to move back the required distance for free kicks, corners or throw-ins
- Persistent infringements
Within each of these offences, there are specific infringements which can result in a caution. The most common of those under unsporting behavior include attempting to deceive the referee (simulation), committing a ‘reckless’ foul and deliberate handball to either stop an opponent’s attack or to score a goal.
The referee indicates a caution with a yellow card.
A sending off means the player is sent from the field of play and cannot return. The offences for which a player may be sent off include:
- Serious foul play
- Spitting at an opponent
- Violent conduct
- Using offensive or abusive language or gestures
- Denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity by the use foul play or deliberate handball
A player is also sent off if, having been cautioned, they commit a second cautionable offence.
Law 13: Free Kicks
Whenever an infringement takes places the referee will award a free kick. This will either be a direct free kick or an indirect free kick. A direct free kick means a goal can be scored without any other player from the attacking team, other than the kicker touching the ball. In other words, the free kick taker can score by shooting directly into the goal.
An indirect free kick means the ball has to touch another player before it crosses the line for a goal. The player that touches the ball can be from either team, including the goalkeeper of the team defending the free kick.
If an indirect free kick is taken and the ball goes directly into the goal, a goal kick is awarded to the defending team.
The procedures for taking direct or indirect free kicks are
- Defending team’s players all must be at least 10 yards away from where the ball is placed.
- Ball must be stationary when the free kick is taken.
- The player taking the kick cannot touch the ball a second time before another player has touched it.
- If a free kick is taken in the defending team’s penalty area, the ball must leave the penalty area before another player can touch it.
Law 14: Penalty Kicks
Penalty kicks are another aspect of soccer that has thrown up countless controversies over the years. Given that 85% of penalty kicks are successful, thus resulting in a goal for the attacking team, referees are under intense scrutiny from both sides whenever they award or fail to award a penalty kick, so what are the rules?
If an offence occurs in the defending team’s penalty area that would normally result in a direct free kick outside, then the referee awards a penalty kick to the attacking team.
A penalty kick is taken from the penalty spot and a goal is scored if the attacking player kicks the ball into the goal.
There are a number of procedures that both the defending team and the attacking team must adhere to;
- Goalkeeper must remain on the goal line until the ball is kicked
- All players must at least 10 yards from the ball and remain outside the penalty area
- The ball must move forward when the kick is taken – this prevents the taker passing it back to a teammate
- The kicker cannot touch the ball a second time until it has been touched by another player.
- The kicker cannot feign kicking the ball after their run up but can feign movement whilst running up
If any of these infringements take place by the attacking team the referee will award an indirect free kick to the defending team.
If any of these infringements take place by the defending team the referee will either award a goal if a goal was scored anyway or order a retake if a goal was not scored.
Law 15: Throw-Ins
This is one of the simpler laws of soccer, in that a throw-in is awarded whenever the ball goes out of play by passing over the touchline on either side of the pitch.
The throw-in is taken by the opposing team to that of the player the ball touched last.
A goal cannot be scored directly from a throw-in, and it must be taken from the same place where the ball crossed the touchline when going out of play.
Players from the defending team must stand at least 2 yards away from the thrower when the throw-in is being taken. If they fail to do so, the referee can issue a caution for unsporting behavior.
The thrower must keep both feet on the ground when throwing, must have both feet outside the touchline and must not touch the ball again until it has been touched by another player. When throwing the ball, the player must bring the ball from behind and over their head before releasing it.
If the referee or their assistants see any infringement of these rules, the throw-in is awarded to the opposing team who can take the throw-in from the same place.
Law 16: Goal Kick
Another short and simple law which covers the procedure whenever the attacking team play the ball out of play by kicking it over the goal line, but not into the goal.
The defending team are awarded a goal kick which can be taken anywhere with their goal area.
Attacking players must be outside the penalty area as the kick is taken and the ball is not deemed to be in play until it leaves the penalty area.
The player taking the kick cannot touch it twice, and if they do so, an indirect free kick is awarded to the other team.
If the ball does not leave the penalty area for whatever reason, the goal kick is retaken.
Law 17: Corner Kick
Staying with the short and simple theme we come to corner kicks which are awarded to the attacking team if the defending team plays the ball out of play, by kicking it over their own goal line, but not into the goal.
The kick is taken from anywhere with the corner arc and defending players must stand at least 10 yards away from the ball.
A goal can be scored directly from a corner, meaning the ball does not have to touch anyone once the kicker has played the ball for a goal to be awarded.
Once the player taking the corner kick has taken it, they cannot touch the ball until it has been touched by another player. If they do touch it a second time, an indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team.
There you have it… the 17 laws of the game which soccer players, officials, coaches, referees and fans should all know and follow.
There are some straightforward specification type laws in terms of pitch dimensions and player’s equipment, and other basic laws such as what constitutes a goal kick.
Where the fun and all the debate begins is a law that requires the referee to make a judgement call on whether a player used excessive force, or if there was a handball by the defender in the penalty area, for example. In these situations, the laws of the game tell us the rules but it is entirely at the discretion of the referee whether a law has actually been broken and if so, what consequences might follow.
A similar scenario exists with offside. The laws state clearly what constitutes offside, but it is the assistant referee who decides whether a player is offside or not. This is often a split second call and so tight that sometimes even video replays can’t give us a definitive answer.
All of this gives us some of the reasons we love soccer so much. It induces debate, argument and passion with every decision either cheered or booed, depending on whether your team is the sinner or the sinned against.
With the ongoing trials of video technology and possible video referees, soccer is moving towards wanting to get as many decisions right as it can. As it does so the laws of the game will evolve further but the core rules under which the game of soccer is played will remain…all 17 of them.