Rules of Soccer Explained
Soccer's rules and regulations are maintained and updated annually by an organization known as IFAB (International Football Association Board). The board consists of eight members, four of which come from the games governing body, FIFA, with the other four drawn from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the four countries associated with the original development of the game.
While variations may exist at the national and regional league levels, there are 17 basic laws that are standard for any professional match played.
Rule 1: The Field of Play
While football can be played on grass or an artificial surface like Astroturf, the pitch must be green in color, rectangular-shaped with two long touchlines and two shorter goal lines. A center-line divides the pitch into two equal haves, with a circumference circle around the center spot 10 yards in radius. Each goal area is marked by a rectangle 18 yards in length from each goal post along the goal line and 18 yards to the edge of the penalty box.
The goal itself should be 8 yards wide and 8 feet high, while the penalty spot is fixed at 12 yards perpendicular to the center of the goal. There are no fixed lengths to a football pitch in terms of length and width; instead, there are stipulated limits that a pitch must fall within.
Rule 2: The Ball
A soccer ball must be spherical with a circumference in the range of 27 to 28 inches. Originally it was stipulated that the ball should be made of vulcanized rubber and leather; however, now generally lighter materials are used, such as synthetic leather, using polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride, stitched around an inflated rubber-like bladder.
Rule 3: The Players
Matches are usually played between two teams consisting of 11 players aside, including a goalkeeper. If a team cannot field at least seven players before the start of a match, the game is ruled forfeit. Similarly, in the course of a game, if one team is reduced to less than seven players, then the match is ended. In FIFA-sanctioned games, teams may make up to three substitutions in a game (although some cup competitions have now allowed for the introduction of a fourth substitution where extra time is played). A substitute cannot enter the field without the prior approval of the Referee.
Rule 4: Players' Equipment
The necessary equipment which must be worn by all players consists of five items – a shirt, shorts, socks, shin pads, and footwear. Goalkeepers are permitted to wear tracksuit bottoms instead of shorts. If a referee deems that a player's equipment is inappropriate, they can be sent off until the discrepancy is rectified. Players also must not wear any material that the Referee deems dangerous to themselves or another player, such as chains or jewelry.
Where both teams have identical or similar colors, then the away team is required to change to different colored attire.
Rule 5: The Referee
The Referee is the authority on the field, and their decision is the law and, ultimately, final. Only they have the power to start and stop playing or decide when disciplinary action needs to be initiated against a player or official.
They may be assisted by other match officials or aids such as VAR (Video Assistant Referees), but, ultimately, decision-making and responsibility on the field rest with them.
Rule 6: Assistant Referees and other Match Officials
The other match officials include the two assistant referees – formerly called linesmen – who are responsible for assisting the Referee during the course of a game. Based on opposing touchlines, their job is to advise when the ball has gone out of play, signal when they believe a player is offside, and alert the Referee when they feel an infringement of the laws has occurred – for example, a foul, or a case of serious foul play.
The major professional leagues will also have a 4th official as well, positioned on the half-way line, responsible for overseeing the substitution process and signaling to the crowd the amount of additional time that is likely to be played at the end of each half.
In some competitions, such as the Champions League and the Europa League, there will be two further assistant referees, each of whom is positioned on one of the goal lines, who are responsible for observing incidents that occur near the goals.
The advent of technology has also seen the increasing introduction of Video Assistant Referees (VAR). These are officials based remotely who will watch replays of significant incidents on television, such as penalty appeals, and advise the Referee on the pitch whether they have made the correct decision. VAR is used where leagues and local teams have the technology and financial resources to support its use.
Rule 7: The Duration of the Match
A football match consists of two-45 minute halves with an interval between, which should not be longer than 15 minutes in length. Referees can, at their discretion, add additional time to each half for injuries, substitutions, and infringements such as time-wasting. In professional leagues, the amount of time added to each half is usually displayed by the 4th official. However, any time shown is indicative only; it is up to the Referee how much time is played.
In cup competitions - depending on the rules of the particular game – if there is no winner after regular time, then the two sides may play extra time, consisting of two halves of 15 minutes each. Often if there is still no winner, the outcome of the match will be determined by a penalty shoot-out.
Rule 8: Start and Restart of Play
Typically the kick-off is determined by a coin toss. The team that wins the toss has the choice of whether to kick-off or which end they wish to attack in the first half. The ball is kicked-off at the start of every half, and when a goal is scored, by the team that has conceded restarting the game from the half-way line.
A drop ball can also restart a game in instances where play has been stopped due to no fault of either side, such as a severe injury to a player, a defective ball, or intrusion on the pitch by spectators. There is also a new law that a drop ball is awarded in favor of the team in possession should the ball strike the Referee whilst in play. The Referee then drops the ball at the point when play was stopped and is in-game once the ball touches the ground. Drop balls, once fiercely contested, are now taken without the other side challenging for the ball.
Rule 9: The Ball In and Out of Play
The ball is deemed to be out of play when its circumference has wholly crossed the goal line or the touchline. Otherwise, the ball is considered to ball infield at all times, unless the Referee stops the play. A game can be restarted, depending on which one, of eight ways, it went out of play originally – kick-off; goal kick; throw-in; corner kick; direct free kick; indirect free-kick; penalty; and dropped the ball.
Rule 10: How the outcome of a match is decided
The outcome of a game of soccer is decided by which team scores the most goals during a match. A goal is ruled to have been scored when the circumference of the ball has completely crossed the goal line.
To assist referees make decisions in the case of close calls, they can be helped by their assistant referees and, at the elite level, technology; a signal is sent to their watches informing them if a goal should be awarded.
In cup competitions, in the events are level at the end of 90 minutes, 30 minutes of extra time can be played to try and find a winner. If the scores are still tied at the end of that period, a penalty shoot-out may be held to determine the outcome of the match.
Rule 11: Offside
Probably the most controversial of all the rules of soccer is that governing offside. The law states that a player is in an offside position if the ball is played forwards to them in the opposing team's half, and there is no other player between them and the opponent's goalkeeper. Being in an offside position does not mean any offense, necessarily; however, if the player tries to play the ball, then they are "actively involved in the play," and an attack occurs.
Rule 12: Fouls and Misconduct
Fouls and misconduct are acts committed by a player, which, in the opinion of the Referee, are contrary to the laws of the game. A player can be guilty of both carrying out a foul and committing misconduct. A foul is punishable by the award of a free-kick, either direct or indirect. In the event of a fault, a player will be issued a disciplinary sanction in the form of either a yellow or red card. In the event of a red card, a player must leave the field immediately, and cannot be replaced.
There is a prescribed list of offenses that merit a direct or an indirect free kick or dictate when a yellow or red card may be issued.
Rule 13: Free Kicks (direct and indirect)
There are two types of a free kick in soccer – a direct and indirect free kick. With a direct free kick, the player taking the kick can score directly from it, without the ball having touched another player; by contrast with an indirect free kick, the ball must move another player – from either side – before a goal can be scored.
A direct free kick awarded to the attacking side in the opposition's penalty area results in a penalty.
When a free kick is awarded, the opposing team must retreat at least 10 yards before the kick is taken.
Rule 14: The Penalty Kick
The Referee will award a penalty when an offense worthy of a free-kick, such as a foul or a deliberate handball, is committed by a player within their penalty area. The player taking the penalty must place the spot on the penalty kick and is allowed a single shot on goal to score. Players of both sides must remain outside the area and must not encroach until the shot has been taken. The goalkeeper must stay on his line and may move from side to side but cannot move forward until the ball has been struck. The Referee may, at their discretion, order a penalty to be re-taken if they deem there has been an infringement, such as encroachment in the area, or the goalkeeper has moved.
Rule 15: Throw-ins
A throw-in is given when the team that is in possession or has last touched the ball has caused it to clear the field of play over the touchline. When taking a throw-in, a player must keep both feet fixed to the floor, and must release the ball from over their head with both hands at the same time. If the Referee decides these conditions have not been met, they can award a free-kick.
Rule 16: Goal Kicks
A goal kick will be awarded when the team on the offense plays the ball out of play over the goal line. From the restart, the goalkeeper or defender must place the ball on the six-yard goal line and kick the ball back into the game. From this season, the law has been changed to allow players from the team taking the goal kick to play the football in the penalty area without the need to clear the box first.
Rule 17: Corner Kicks
A corner kick will be awarded to the attacking team when their opponents play or deflect the ball over their goal line. The ball should be placed within the quadrant by the corner flag and kicked back into play by a member of the attacking team. The defending team should not encroach closer than five yards to the corner kick taker. Players can score directly from a corner.