Soccer laws of the game

Extensive Guide To Understanding The 17 Official Soccer Laws Of The Game

Learn the17 rules of the game of soccer that lays out all the important rules you need to improve your understanding of the laws of the game.

In every society, job, organization, and so on, there are rules and regulations that everyone has to comply with to remain on good terms with the organization. Sports in general and soccer, in particular, is not any different. There are rules that we have to follow off and on the field as soccer players (soccer laws of the game). These 17 official laws of the game are set by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) on an annual basis and enforced by match officials in every game.

In this article, I have put together all the 17 rules of the game of soccer for you. It is an in-depth article that lays out all the important things you need to know as a soccer player or just a soccer fan to improve your understanding of the laws of the game. Are you ready? Awesome! Let’s get into it.

 1. The Field of Play 

Certainly, the field or pitch must be natural or artificial depending on the competition rules and must be green.

Before the 2020/2021 amendment of the soccer laws by the IFAB, the goalposts and crossbar had to be the same shape. With the new rule, the goalposts and crossbars can be square, round, elliptical, rectangular, or a combination of any of these shapes.  

According to the “field of play” laws, no form of advertising whatsoever is permitted on the ground or the pitch, including the areas inside the goals, the technical area, on the corner flag, or nets during any half or extra time of a game. So, all commercial advertising must be at least a yard away from the touchlines and the goal nets. Similarly, all emblems or logos are not permitted on the field and on any of its components.

For an in-depth understanding of the ins and outs of the soccer field, visit my article on the soccer field.

 2. The Ball 

 Similar to how the IFAB set the dimensions of soccer field dimensions using allowable reference ranges, the ball rules, and dimensions have to be within specific compliance ranges as below:

  • the ball has to be spherical and made of suitable material. Although the material type is not specified, most balls are made from leather.
  • circumference of the ball is between 27 and 28 ins
  • the weight of balls are between 410 g (14oz) and 450 g (16 oz)
  • the pressure of the ball at sea level should be between 0.6–1.1 atmosphere

How many pounds of air should a soccer ball #5 have?

The so-called “soccer ball #5” is the largest ball size. These are the balls used in club and international matches worldwide.

 However, smaller balls are used in the kid’s soccer matches. The size and weight of soccer balls are very important for skills development in kids growing up. A kid should be able to feel the ball to play. An oversized or overweight ball would not do much good to a kid if he cannot kick or dribble with the ball. That is why we have smaller balls ranging from size 1 to 5 that suit the needs of kids of various ages and soccer levels. What is a ball gets defective during a game?

Let me explain. By the IFAB laws of the game, the referee stops play to order a replacement of a defective ball and restarts play with a drop ball as below.

  • If the ball gets defective In a “dead ball” situation (ball out of play) like goal kicks, corners, the ball is replaced, and the kick is taken.
  • Any kick from the penalty mark is retaken if the ball becomes defective before it hits a player, goalpost, or crossbar.

 3. The Players 

In all FIFA, club and youth leagues where the players are at least 12 years old, the starting line up must contain eleven players on each of the two teams. 

Teams provide a list of 18 players in pro club leagues and 23 in FIFA competitions like the world cup eligible to play every game. In a similar fashion, the substitute list must be handed to the referee before the game start. The minimum number of players required before the start of any match is seven. 

In case a match starts with the minimum required 7 players on one team, and a player deliberately leaves the field during the game, the referee will not resume the game when the ball goes out of play. This is rarely the case in professional matches as teams always have the required number of players on the match form to start.

Regarding substitutions, the number of substitutes allowed in a game depends on the competition or organization rules. In pro club and FIFA competitions, only three subs are allowed in any single game even though the number has been temporarily increased to 5 subs in the UEFA Champions League for the 2020/2021 season. Also, the competition rules must clearly state the maximum number of allowable subs, including if an additional substitution can be made if the game goes into extra time. 

Also, there is no return substitution in professional soccer. It is only permitted in nonpro soccer games like the youth, veteran, and maybe the kids game.

During a player substitution, the substituted player (outgoing player) does not have to leave the field through the halfway line, but the substitute(incoming player) does. By the referee’s permission, he exits the field by the nearest boundary line and goes straight to the technical area. The referee signals the incoming player to enter the field (through the halfway line) when the outgoing player is out of the field.

 4. The Players’ Equipment 

For safety reasons, all players must be inspected to make sure they are not carrying any unsafe items onto the field.

In soccer, compulsory equipment includes a sleeved shirt, shorts, sock( external wears or tape worn on socks must match the color of the sock), footwear, and shinguards. Actually, all shinguards must be completely covered by the socks.

After all, all players of the same team have to wear the same attire colors. But goalkeeper colors have to defer from the players’ and the officials.

See also  Offside From A Goal Kick? Unpacking The Soccer Myth

 5. The Referee 

In fact, referees are the main decision-makers in a game. They have the sole responsibility to enforce the competition rules and use their best judgment to make calls in accordance with the rules. Therefore, it is very important that they get the calls right.

Furthermore, the referee’s decisions are final. So, after a referee decides on an incident and play restarts or at the start of a new half, the decision cannot be reversed.

In addition, referees exercise the following powers and duties :

  • They enforce the Laws of the Game.
  • Cooperate with the other match officials to control the game
  • They also act as timekeepers, keep a record of the match, and provides the appropriate authorities with all match reports, including information on disciplinary action and any other events that occurred before, during, or after every game.
  • Finally, they supervise the restart of play.

If a foul occurs in the course of a game:

  • the referee may allow play to continue (advantage) if the non-offending team has possession in a position that can possibly build up into a goal. He may come back and book the offending player if the offense warrants a card when the play comes to its natural conclusion.
  • also, he can stop the play if the advantage does not ensue within a few seconds.

Referees may be assisted by a video assistant referee (VAR) only in the event of a ‘clear and obvious error’ or ‘serious missed incident’ in relation to :

  • goal/no goal 
  • penalty/no penalty 
  • direct red card (not second caution) 
  • mistaken identity when the referee cautions or sends off the wrong player of the offending team

To sum it all, match officials are not held liable for player injuries, damage, or loss of property suffered by any team or person

6.The Other Match Officials

Other than the referee, other officials in a typical soccer game assist the referee in various ways that I will tell you in a minute. The other officials are the two assistant referees popularly known as the linesmen and the fourth official. There are two more assistant referees in professional matches, a reserve assistant referee and the VAR review team.

Now, let’s take a deeper look into the roles of these guys in a game.

The assistant referees:

Each linesman spans one half of the field to watch for the following situations in a game:

  • They indicate when the ball goes out of bounds and which team is entitled to restart the game through a corner kick, throw-in, or goal kick.
  • They indicate every offside position and also when a substitution is requested.
  • They check for goalkeeper encroachments( if the goalkeeper steps completely off the goal line before a penalty kick is taken). Also, they make sure that the ball crosses the goal line for the goal to stand from the penalty spot.

The fourth officials have the following roles:

They check player equipment, supervise player substitutions, supervise reentry of players into the field, indicate the additional time at the end of each half. Also, they monitor the technical areas for any irresponsible behaviors.


The VAR is now being used in professional games to help the officials correct clear and obvious errors or missed incidents. For a more comprehensive knowledge of the VAR, click here to learn more.

7. The Duration of the Match 

A soccer game lasts for 90 minutes of regular playing time. That’s two halves of 45 minutes each. Depending on the competition, the match time can be reduced upon agreement by the two competing teams before the kickoff.

Equally, some breaks are created to allow players to rest and/or rehydrate in cases or extremely hot weather conditions. For example, referees allowed water breaks during the 2018 world cup in Russia for players to freshen up.

After the first half, there is a 15 minutes half time break. And again, this duration is subject to change depending on the competition rules.

At the end of each half, the referee adds some time on the clock( additional time), which accounts for any times delayed to restart the game. For example, in substitutions, players receiving treatment in case of injuries, disciplinary action if the referee has to caution a player, VAR delays, and even intensional time-wasting by the players. We often see leading teams use delay tactics to see a few seconds off the game clock.

  8. The Start and Restart of Play 

Before starting a game, the referee tosses a coin to determine which team takes the kickoff and which side the teams will play from. The team that wins the toss chooses the goal to attack from in the first half while the opponent team takes the kickoff.

In the second half, the teams switch sides. To even that up, the team that wins the toss takes the kickoff to start the second half since their opponent takes the first half kickoff.

Now let’s talk about what happens before every kick off you have learned about from above.

To maintain some distance from the ball, all players except for the kickoff player have to be outside the center circle and in their half of the field. This is to allow a 10 yards distance from the ball. The ball must be stationary as well. When the referee is happy with the setup, he signals for the game to start. The ball is in play as soon as it is kicked.

When a goal is scored, the restart proceeds by the same setup and procedure, as you learned from above. 

Let’s explore drop balls a little bit. You know, there are situations during a game where the referee has to stop the game. For instance, when a player goes down injured without any contact, changing a defective ball, and so on. In case the game is stopped, the referee gets the game back rolling with a drop ball at the location where play was stopped. Also, possession goes to the team that was in possession of the ball before the game was stopped.

If the referee stops play in the penalty area, he will drop the ball to the defending team’s goalkeeper to restart while all other players stay at least 4.5 yards from the ball. The rest of the players can get involved when the ball hits the ground after being dropped. To put it another way, the ball is in play as soon as it hits the ground.

What if a drop ball goes into the goal? Let me explain. The referee will drop the ball again. So, in a nutshell, no matter where on the field the ball is dropped, a goal will not stand if it ends up in the back of the net without being touched by the player dropped to.

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 9. The Ball In and Out of Play 

The ball is out of play in the following situations:

  • when the whole of the ball goes over the whole of the line on the ground or in the air.
  • When the referee stops play and when the ball touches an official and stays in play.

 As a matter of fact, before the 2020/2021 amendment of the laws of the game, the referees allowed play to continue after being hit by the ball. How frustrating if you make a potential goal-scoring final pass, and it goes off the referee to the opponent? I know right! Sad! Players used to complain about that a lot.

Consequently, that rule was changed to favor the team in possession of the ball before it hit an official. So, the referee stops play and drops the ball to a player of that team to restart the game. Fair enough? I think so.

The ball is in play in every other situation, even when it comes off the goalposts, crossbar, and the corner flag.

 10. Determining the Outcome of a Match 

  As we all know, a match is decided by the total number of goals scored. Simply put, the team that wins the game has to score more goals than the opponent. Of course, there are only two outcomes for every game. That is a win or a tie(draw).

Depending on the competition, a tie may be the final outcome, as is the case with pro league matches worldwide. In the knockout phase of competitions like the world cup, a tie game at the end of regulation proceeds to extra time. There are two halves of 15 minutes each in extra time. 

If the game is still tied after extra time, guess what happens, penalties. That used to be my favorite moment watching the WorldCup. For a detailed look at the penalty rules now with the use of VAR, click here.

 How is a goal scored? For a goal to be scored, the whole of the ball has to cross the goal line between the two goalposts and also under the crossbar. With VAR now in use, all goals are checked to help the referee get rid of clear and obvious errors.

11. Offside 

Offside and no offside, I believe, is the most misunderstood aspect in soccer. Especially to fans who are just getting to like the game. What is offside in soccer?

Watch this video to get a head start on the offside rules.

Still have some doubts?, This summary will help clarify the offside rules for you.

A player is offside if any one or more of the following situations arise:

  • Any part of the head, body, or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent(last defender). He has to be in the opponent half of the field as well.
  • He is involved in active play either by receiving the pass, attempting to play the ball, or preventing an opponent player from playing the ball. 
  • He does not involve in active play. Still, he prevents an opponent player from playing the ball by directly obstructing their view while in an offside position. This is deemed as deceiving the opponent, and the officials watch for that as well.
  • He plays or attempts to play the ball rebounded from the defending goalkeeper, goalpost, or crossbar while in an offside position when the ball was played to him. For example, two teammates player A and player B are in advanced attacking positions, and the ball is played forward to them by a teammate player C. Player A is offside according to the offside rules, but player B isn’t. Player B controls the pass and harmers a shut goal words, which is saved by the opponent goalkeeper into the path of player A. Then, player A scores the rebound. Player A will be whistled for offside.

An attacking player is not offside if he is level with the second-last defender or the last defender when the ball is played. The IFAB rules favor the offensive player in this situation.

Note that in the above situations, a player’s position at the instant his teammate passes the ball is taken into consideration for offside and not his position when he receives the pass.

The non-offside situations are when a player receives the ball from a throw-in, corner kick, or a goal kick.

Visit my article on the VAR to get a detailed explanation and video analysis of all the different offside situations in soccer.

12. Fouls and Misconduct 

Law 12 is the most important law in soccer. Fouls and misconduct are bound to happen in soccer because it is a contact sport, just like basketball and rugby. So, the officials must properly enforce this law to make sure players’ safety is not endangered. We all want to go home safe after every game. Fouls deemed careless and reckless are penalized by the referee in different ways you will learn below.

Handling the ball either intentionally or unintentionally is considered serious according to the game’s laws. It’s a handball offense if a player handles the ball after making his body unnaturally bigger by extending his arm or hand away from his body. 

However, if a player slides for a tackle and one of his arms is between the ground and his body for support, it is not considered handball if the ball hits the supporting arm. This is according to the new handball rules.

For the purposes of determining handball offenses, the upper boundary of the arm is in line with the bottom of the armpit. Watch this video to find out about all the rules regarding the use of hands in soccer.

The referee award a direct free kick when a player:

  • Kicks or attempts to kick an opponent
  • Trips or attempts to trip an opponent
  • Jumps at an opponent
  • Charges an opponent
  • Strikes or attempts to strike an opponent
  • Pushes an opponent
  • Tackles an opponent
  • Holds an opponent
  • Spits at an opponent
  • Handles the ball deliberately

A player receives a yellow card as caution or warning if they commit the following offenses:

  • Unsporting behavior.
  • Dissent by word(insulting language) or action(improper gestures).
  • Persistent infringement of the Laws of the Game.
  • Delaying the restart of play.
  • Failure to respect the required distance when play is restarted with a corner kick, free kick, or throw-in.
  • Entering or reentering the field of play without the referee’s permission.
  • deliberately leaving the field of play without the referee’s permission.

When a player is guilty of one of the following offenses, he is shown a red card to send him off. The sending off offenses include:

  • Serious foul play without regard to the safety of an opponent.
  • Violent conduct.
  • Spitting at an opponent or any other person.
  • Denying the attacking team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball (the goalkeeper being an exception).
  • Denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offense punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick.
  • By dissent or using offensive or abusive language and/or gestures.
  • Receiving a second caution (yellow card) in the same match.
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This very interesting video breaks down the laws regarding fouls and misconduct and should help you immensely.

 13. Free Kicks  

There are two types of free-kicks in soccer. The direct and the indirect free kick.

Now, what is the difference between a direct and an indirect free kick? The difference is simple. A goal can be scored directly from a direct free kick. On the other hand, a goal cannot be scored directly from an indirect free kick. 

Let me expand on this a little further, so you understand better. 

In a direct free kick situation, which is usually a few yards away from the opponent penalty area, players are allowed to curl the ball directly into the goal. The player taking the free-kick can also pass the ball to a teammate he chooses to.

For an indirect free-kick, the player taking the kick has to pass it to a teammate to take the shot for the kick to be valid. In a nutshell, an indirect free kick is a subset of a direct free kick.

The referee awards a direct free kick to the attacking team if one of its players is fouled outside the penalty area.

Whereas, an indirect free kick may result in the following situations:

  • when a goalkeeper handles an intentional back pass from his own teammate.
  • A goalkeeper handles the ball, drops it, then picks it back up without any kind of touch from any other player.
  • The goalkeeper possesses the ball for more than 6 seconds after handling it.

Now that you can tell the difference between the two types of free-kicks, let’s now look at the procedure and rules, shall we?

  •  Any free-kick is played approximately from the spot where the offense occurred except for offenses in the goal area.
  • The ball has to be stationary before the kick is taken.
  • During a kick, all opponent players usually the wall set to defend the free-kick have to be at least 10 yards from the ball before the kick is taken.
  • If there are more than three players on the defending team’s wall, any attacking player must be at least a yard from the wall until the ball is in play.

14. The Penalty Kick  

A penalty kick arises when a defending player commits a direct free kick in their own penalty area. In other words, if an attacking player is fouled and the referee determines the foul occurred in the defensive player’s penalty area.

When the referee awards a penalty kick, the attacking team picks a player to kick from the penalty spot. For more on the location of the penalty spot, visit my article on the soccer field. Only the player taking the kick and the opponent’s goalie is allowed in the penalty area during the penalty kick.

Every other player has to be inside the field, out of the penalty area and the penalty arc, and maintain at least a 10 yards distance from the penalty mark.

Recently the officials check for any player or goalkeeper encroachment. Encroachment is a term used to describe when a player breaks the rules to cross a boundary line or step away from a reference line before a kick occurs. The goalkeeper with the new regulations must have one of his feet on the goal line before the penalty kick is taken. If he ends up saving the penalty or the ball is kicked wide, the keeper is penalized for encroachment, and the kick is retaken. If the player scores the penalty kick, goalkeeper encroachment is ignored.

The officials also check for player encroachment. This is when the other players other than the kicker step into the penalty area or penalty arc just before the kick is taken. If an encroachment offense is committed by an attacking player, and his teammate scores the penalty, the kick is retaken. Whereas, if a defensive player is an offender, the player encroachment is ignored if the kick leads to a goal and retaken if the kick is missed or saved.

15. The Throw-in  

Throw-ins are ways to restart play when the ball goes over the touchline. A player who touches the ball last before it goes out of play over the touchline turns over possession to the opponent team. A player must take a throw-in with both hands, and the closest opponent player to the thrower has to be 2 yards from the touchline.

It is important to note that a goal cannot result directly from a throw-in without being touched by any other player.

16. The Goal Kick 

A goal kick results when the ball completely crosses the goal line after having last touched by an attacking player and a goal is not scored. The ball must be stationary, and the goal kick can be taken from anywhere within the goal area. The ball is in play as soon as it is kicked and clearly moves. Usually, goalkeepers take the free kicks. His teams can receive a pass from within their penalty area. In contrast, the opponent team has to outside the penalty area until the ball is in play.

17. The Corner Kick

A corner kick results when the ball goes over the goal line after the last touch by a defending team player and a goal is not scored. The attacking team takes the corner kick from the corner area nearest to the point where the ball exited the field over the goal line.

During the kick, opponent players must be at least 10 yards away from the corner arc until the ball is played and clearly moves.


To have a chance to be a great soccer player, it is absolutely imperative that you know the laws of the game. This detailed guide I believe has nailed that for you. I can not stress enough how important it is to know what to expect after each and every play in soccer. Rules 11 and 12 are the two most important rules in the game of soccer in my opinion that you have to understanding completely. So, use this article as your ultimate guide to know the soccer laws of the game to stay ahead of the crowd.

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