The Basic Rules of Soccer (Football): FIFA's 17 "Laws of the Game"
FIFA's 17 "Laws of the Game" Explained
Every football fanatic knows of FIFA. FIFA is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. When it comes to picking up the game or teaching aspiring soccer players, knowing these established rules is an essential part of learning the game.
The official FIFA "Laws of the Game" gets translated into English, French, German, and Spanish and is an excellent resource for coaches, referees, and fans. I've also included some strategy tips below. So, let's get to it and discuss these 17 essential points:
- The Field
- Designated Ball
- Player Numbers
- Jerseys and Gear
- Role of the Referee
- Assistant Referees
- Match Length
- Starting/Stopping Play
- Ball In-Play or Out-of-Play
- Determining a Goal
- Free Kicks
- Penalty Kicks
- Goal Kicks
- Corner Kicks
Bonus: Penalty Kicks to Determine a Win
Please refer to FIFA's official handbook. A review of these laws is based on research and reading.
1. The Quality and Material of the Field
Natural and artificial surfaces are totally acceptable for a match. That means that you can play on turf or natural grass, but whatever surface you play on, it has to be green. In other words, no matter how high quality, blue turf isn't accepted. In addition, the field must meet the International Artificial Turf Standard regulations.
Note: Keep in mind that turf is extremely difficult to play on in the rain (it gets saturated and has poor drainage), and that a field must also have the correct field markings (length, width, goal box, etc.).
Markings on the Field
All official soccer field are always rectungular and marked with 5-inch boundaries called goal lines, touch lines, halfway lines, a center mark (circle), a corner mark.
- Touch lines: the longer boundaries (length-wise) or "sides" of the field
- Goal lines: the shorter boundaries along the goal-line or "end" of the field
- Halfway lines: divides the middle of the field in half
- Center mark: a circle that intersects the halfway line in the middle of the field and has a 30-foot radius (9.15 meters).
- Corner arc: arcs in the right angle formed from the intersecting touch lines and goal lines. This arc keeps defenders from interfering with the opposing teams' play during a corner kick. These areas are marked with flag posts.
- The goal area and penalty area: lines extend from the goal posts to form a rectangular goal area, and a larger penalty area is created around the goal box. This is where goal kicks are taken and it is the area in which the goalkeeper can use their hands (outside of this is considered a "hand-ball," which we will cover later).
- The goal: Goals are made of a crossbar and goal posts and they are 7.32 meters in width by 2.44 meters in height. Goal posts must sit on the 5-inch white lines.
What is the length of a soccer (football) field?
There is actually a range of dimensions. The length of a soccer field can range from 90 meters to 120 meters and have a width of 45 to 90 meters, but for international matches, this range is much higher. For international matches, a field will have a length of between 100 and 110 meters and a width of 64 to 75 meters.
Note: Official dimensions can be found in the official FIFA pdf.
2. What Is an Official FIFA Ball?
For a football (soccer ball) to be consider official, it must meet the following standards. It must be:
- 27–28 inches in circumference (68–70 cm)
- 410–450 grams in weight (14–16 oz)
- and be pressurized at 8.5–15.6 lbs/square inch (600–1,100 grams/cm2)
Some balls have official indicators that they have been FIFA-inspected.
Tip for Indoor/Apartment Training
I used this trainer when in an enclosed space like a small patio/backyard (even indoors!) when I was training. Practice your ball-handling skills/juggling without destroying the house or backyard. A nice compromise for enthusiastic players that have to practice in a smaller space (no retrieving balls over the fence or from the street!)
3. How Many Players Are Allowed on the Field?
An official match consists of 2 teams of 11 players (this includes the goalkeepers). If a team is short of players, they can technically play with 7, but this may not make for a good match.
How many substitutions can be made in a football game?
These rules will vary depending on the designations of the game. In official competitions it's only 3 and these names must be given to the referee before the match starts (according to FIFA), but proposals of up to 12 can be made.
In beginner-level soccer, more substitutions may be made so long as both teams and the referee agree. When substituting a player, you have to alert the referee. The player that is being "subbed" out needs to completely leave the field before the new player comes on. Not following this order of events may cause the referee to penalize the team making the substitution.
4. Gear, Equipment, and Uniforms
There are many regulations around equipment, and this is primarily to keep the other players safe. When I was playing youth soccer, earrings were not allowed, and nails were to be kept short—so essentially any kind of jewelry could not be worn. The referees would check this during team "check-in" during which our shinguards were inspected, our jerseys tucked in, and the referees would call us by our name and confirm our jersey number.
- jerseys and undergarments: slide shorts or sleeves need to be the same color as the jersey; jerseys need to have sleeves (goalkeepers need to wear colors that help the referee to distinguish them from all remaining players on both teams).
- shinguards: need to be covered by socks entirely and need to cover a large portion of the shinbone. Sometimes, if they are too small, they will be rejected, so avoid purchasing youth-size shinguards if you are an adult (some players like these because they lead to better ball-handling)
- socks: if you use electrical tape to secure shinguards, it has to be the same color as the sock.
- cleats/boots: cannot be metal or made for turf/indoor.
5. & 6. Duties of the Referee and Assistant Referees
The referee is in charge, and they are assisted by two assistant referees who run along the touch line; the assistant referees help to call fouls and offsides where the main referee might not have an ideal view. The referee is supposed to check the players in, ensure that the field is safe, inspect the ball and goals prior to the game's start, keep track of time, keep track of substitutions, fouls, goals, scorers, etc. Referees also stop the play when there is a foul and assist in the management of injured players.
Referees are able to give out yellow cards and red cards and all of their decisions are final; they can change their decision (like calling a goal when indeed they realize it is offside), but only if they game has not been restarted.
Note: I've seen many parents and coaches get timeouts for talking back to the referee, so don't do it. It is possible to be vocal and question a call, that's part of the game, but don't ever let it escalate.
7. Playtime and the Length of a Game
How long do soccer games last?
Football games or matches run typically run 90 minutes with two 45-minute halfs; this does not include injury or stoppage time or overtime. Sometimes games will be shorten to 40 minutes (or below for youth games) if there is a natural event like low low, high heat or humidity (risk of heat stroke), etc. (For league or tournament games that are played in dangerous heat, a game may be broken up into quarters.)
How long is half-time?
Half time generally runs a maximum of 15 minutes.
What counts as stoppage time?
Substitutions, injuries, penalty kicks, and major interruptions (like a dog running onto the field) will count towards stoppage time and will be added on in the second half of the game.
8. & 9. Kick-Offs, Dropped Balls, and In-Play
The kick-off occurs at the start of the match, after half-time, and after a goal has been scored. The team that leads the kick-off is determined from the coin toss. They get to choose either which half of the field they want to take or if they want to start with the ball. The teams change sides in the second half of the game.
A Note About Strategy: Sometimes teams choose to take their preferred field half/side based on wind or sun and instead give the kick-off to the other team. This is a smart strategy, especially if the sun will rise higher in the sky and be in the goalkeepers' eyes.
Can you score from a kick-off?
Yes, you can score from a kick-off, but this possibility is rare. Also, when the kick-off starts, the ball and all players must start off stationary. The team leading the kick-off can have two players on the line in the center circle of the field. The ball must go forward and must be touched by someone other than the original person to kick the ball.
Many different plays can be made here. For instance, a player may do a step-on-turn and kick the ball back to the midfielders for a play. Or, the two starting players my move forward in the attack. Both strategies are acceptable.
When is a dropped ball used?
A dropped ball is used when the play is interrupted but it is unclear which team had posession. One member from each team will go head-to-head and wait for the referee to drop the ball between them.
The ball is still considered in-play if it ricochets off something like the crossbar, goalpost, or even the referee. For a ball to be out-of-play, it must fully cross over the 5-inch white lines making the boundary of the field.
Goal Directly Scored Off a Kick-Off
10. What Is Considered a Goal?
The ball must fully cross over the goal line between the goal posts/under the crossbar. It is possible for a team to score on themselves—this will count as the other team's goal and this is typically done from a ricochet or some kind of accidental deflection.
Oftentimes, games go into overtime or penalty kicks (PKs) if there is a tie.
11. What Is Offsides in Soccer?
Offsides is a rule that starts applying in serious soccer (e.g.outside of AYSO) and is learned early on. Anytime the ball reaches an offensive player and both the ball and offensive player are behind (closest to the goal) the last defensive player of the opposing team, they are considered offsides.
This is different from a break-away when an offensive player may fairly beat the defender while dribbling the ball. Rather, if an offensive player kicks a ball to another offensive player, and the receiving player is behind the last defensive player at the time of receiving the ball, this is offsides.
If a defender and offender are running side-by-side towards a kicked ball, this is not considered offsides. That is, if the offensive player beats the defender, the offensive player is in the right.
What is an "offsides trap"?
An offsides trap is a great strategy for a defensive team. Basically, the defenders will sit way back into their half of the field and draw offensive players towards them. As soon as a play is anticipated (like a long ball kicked from the offensive team), the defenders "step up" and charge to the center of the field, thus pulling all offensive players "offsides." When offsides is called, the other team gets an indirect free kick, essentially stopping play.
An offsides trap must be executed properly or the defending team will simply allow the offensive team to have a clean breakaway if the timing is not right.
12.,13., & 14. Fouls, Free Kicks, and Penalty Kicks
What is a foul in soccer?
Direct kicks, which are referred to further down, are generally awarded for more serious fouls or offenses. Serious offenses may result in a red card and includes:
Indirect kicks often result from less serious offenses and may result in a yellow card:
- risky play
- blocking the goalie's play
- talk back
When is a red card given? When is a yellow card given?
A yellow card is a cautionary punishment and lets a player know that they are verging on misconduct. The red card results in a player being subbed out/leaving the game and is usually given for dangerous and unsportsmanlike conduct. Players can get sent out of the game for harassing or threatening or intentionally hurting anyone—be it the other team, a coach, etc.
According to FIFA, yellow cards are given for the following and may result in a substitution:
- unsportsmanlike conduct
- verbal negativity
- interrupting play
- disregarding the established game rules
- disobeying the referee's permission
According to FIFA, red cards are given for the following and may result in a substitution:
- mean play
- intentional injury
- intentionally using the hands for sabotage
- interrupting a scoring opportunity intentionally
- verbal assault
- two yellow cards
What's the Difference Between a Direct and Indirect Free Kick?
There are both direct and indirect free kicks in soccer. During an indirect free kick, the defending team must stay 10 yards away from the ball before it is kicked.
- An indirect free kick must be passed to another team member and can't be scored off of. The referee will raise their hand over their head to indicate an indirect free kick. You can score off an indirect kick if the initial player who introduce the ball back into play is not the scorer (or it has been touched by another player before they score).
- A direct kick can be scored off of and is usually awarded for a more serious offense. A direct free kick is established in the penalty box.
- A penalty kick occurs when a major offense is committed. For a PK to be setup, all players must be outside of the goal box. The player who endured the foul must take the PK. The ball will be counted/walked from the goal-line and placed in the goal box. Just the goalie and the player engage in the PK, but once the ball is kicked (if it richochetes), all players can charge/rush from the goal box line.
What is a wall in soccer?
With a free kick, the defenders can either form a wall or charge once the ball is touched. A wall is formed to defend the goal or block a potential setup off of an indirect free-kick. Players in a wall use their body to block any shots on goal.
15. & 16. Throw-Ins and Goal Kicks for Starting Play
Throw-ins and goal kicks are used to restart play. For throw-ins, the team that was in possession of the ball last when it crossed the 5-inch white line does not get the throw-in—it goes to the opposing team. When doing a throw-in, the player must:
- stand behind the line or on the line
- throw the ball over the head with two hands
- have both feet on the ground
- all opponents have to stand 2 yards away
- a player cannot throw the ball to themselves
Goal kicks take place when a ball crosses the goal line but did not result in a goal, that is, the ball simply went out of bounds. The ball is placed in the goal area and kicked—all other players must be outside of the penalty area.
17. Corner Kicks
A corner kick takes place if the ball went out of bounds but it was the fault of the defending team. The opposing team will set up in the corner of the field and play the ball in the small arc that sits in the right angle of the field—this is generally marked by a flag.
The ball has to make contact with another player—this means an offensive player can stand near to the individual taking the corner kick and the two can run a play.
How Do Penalty Kicks Work?
When a game is tied and the game has gone into overtime—and still the game is tied—the teams will resort to PKs.
For PKs to take place, there will be a coin toss (called by the captains of each team) to determine which team kicks first. The individual teams will select their first set of kickers (5 players per\ team). Each team will alternate, so there will be one team member against the opposing goalkeeper at a time; this will repeat with the alternate team.
Based on the scorings, if the teams are tied at 5 kicks, the kicking order will repeat. Eligible kickers are only those that remain on the field when the game is called.
- "Laws of the Game." Fédération Internationale de Football Association. FIFA.com. 2015-2016. Accessed August 16, 2019.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Layne Holmes