Soccer Rules & Regulations: The 17 Laws of the Game
As a player, parent, coach or a fan, it’s important to understand the soccer rules and regulations. Not only will it help you follow the game better but you’ll also be able to pass on your soccer wisdom to the younger and older generations.
The rules of soccer are fairly straightforward. While much attention is directed to the controversial offside rule, what about the other rules that make up the world’s most popular sport?
Get the inside scoop from us so you instantly raise your soccer IQ in one 7-minute sitting.
How Many Rules Are There for Soccer?
To begin, there are no rules in soccer; they’re referred to as laws. In 1863, the original set of ‘Laws of the Game’ was written. A couple decades later in 1886, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) was established to help regulate their implementation across the globe.
Founded by England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland’s football associations, the IFAB claims to be “the international organization with full responsibility for establishing and protecting the Laws of the Game.”
FIFA, the worldwide soccer governing organization, has been a part of IFAB since 1913, and it now has four delegates.
The Laws, as they are simply referred to, are the only rules FIFA permits its members to use. On rare occasions, there are minor variations of The Laws but for the most part they are adhered to by national soccer associations.
Independently organized U.S. soccer associations such as the Major League Soccer (MLS), National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and National Federation of State High School (NFHS) all use their own set of rules but they are very comparable to The Laws established by IFAB.
“Football must have Laws which keep the game fair – this is a crucial foundation of the ‘beautiful game’ and a vital feature of the ‘spirit’ of the game. The best matches are those where the referee is rarely needed because the players play with respect for each other, the match officials and the Laws.” – IFAB
What Are the 17 Game Laws?
According to IFAB, there are 17 different parts to the soccer ruleset. The prerequisites are outlined in each segment for a particular area.
During a professional match, every rule must be followed without exception; however, some restrictions may be significantly modified in youth and recreational games.
1. The Playing Field
When it comes to the soccer field (also known as a soccer pitch), playing on grass or artificial turf is permitted. The color of the artificial turf must be green.
Two short goal lines and two longer touch lines must be clearly marked on the ground.
The field is split in half by a line drawn in the middle of the playing area, halfway between both touchlines.
There is a specified center point in the middle of the halfway line, encircled by a circle with a radius of 10 yards, all of which are defined by lines. When the team in possession kicks off, the other team is not permitted inside this circle. The touchline must be longer than the goal line.
In accordance with the laws,
- The length of the touchline can range from 100 to 130 yards (90 to 120 meters).
- Goals must be placed at the center of each goal line.
- The goal line length should be a minimum of 50 yards (45 meters) and a maximum of 100 yards (90 meters).
- Each end of the field has an eight-yard-wide goal along the goal line.
- Each goal box extends out onto the field perpendicular to the goal line for a distance of six yards.
- The penalty area is bounded by 18 yards along the goal line and 18 yards perpendicular to the goal line.
- Standing at least five feet tall, a corner flag is stationed at each of the field’s four corners.
2. The Ball
The standard for a soccer ball is a sphere constructed of leather or a similar suitable material.
The soccer ball needs to be 27-28-inches in circumference and must weigh 14-16 ounces at the start of the match.
Since younger youth leagues use a smaller ball, this restriction only applies to officially sanctioned matches.
3. The Number of Players
There must be at maximum 11 players on the field for each team, and the goalie is one of them. A forfeit occurs when one team does not have seven players available to play.
With the exception of friendly matches, a maximum of up to five substitutions per match are permitted in FIFA-sanctioned competitions.
The substitutes only enters if it is:
- A stoppage of play
- After the player being replaced has left the field
- After the referee gives their signal
Most youth leagues have no limit or looser rules on substitutions. As players get older, they will experience stricter substitution rules. For example, in some youth leagues, a player can’t go in again if they are subbed out at any point in time during a match.
4. Player’s Equipment
All players must wear cleats, socks, shorts, a shirt with sleeves, and shin guards. The entire shin guards must be hidden by the socks.
Players cannot wear anything that could be deemed dangerous. All items such as necklaces, rings, bracelets, watches are not permitted. Taping over the jewelry is also not allowed.
Each player is inspected prior to the match or before they enter the game as a substitute.
If the referee finds a player’s equipment to be inadequate, the player may be sent off until the problem is resolved.
5. The Referee
Each soccer match is dictated by the referee who has complete authority to enforce the Laws of the Game. To put simply, whatever the referee says goes on the pitch.
Decisions over the course of each match will be made to the best ability of the referee and in accordance with the Laws of the Game. In the spirit of the game, the referee will take appropriate action for any calls made.
The referee will:
- Enforce the Laws of the Game
- Control the match with the assistant referees (Law 6)
- Keep track of the match time
- Restart play on their whistle
6. The Assistant Referees
In each professional match, the ‘other officials’ include two assistant referees, two additional assistant referees, reserve assistant referee, video assistant referee (VAR) and one assistant VAR.
The assistant referee’s primary role is to aid the referee in carrying out his or her responsibilities, such as letting the players know when the ball has gone out of play, a player has been fouled, a player is offsides or if a player needs to be substituted .
7. The Match’s Duration
A soccer match is divided into two 45-minute halves, with extra time added at the referee’s discretion.
The interval between halves (halftime) is no more than 15 minutes.
Time lost due to substitutions and/or injuries are usually reflected in the referee’s decision to award extra time at the end of each half.
It is up to the officials to decide when a soccer game should end, even if there is a time restriction.
8. The Beginning and Restart of Play
The kick-off is decided by a coin toss, with the winner deciding who gets possession of the ball or which goal their side will try to score on. The losing side gets whichever option the winning side doesn’t go with.
Each half begins with a kickoff, and when every goal is scored, the ball is passed to the other team to start the next half. It is taken at the halfway point on the official’s whistle.
During a kickoff, all players, except the player kicking the ball, must be on their own half of the field of play.
9. The Ball in and Out of Play
When a ball completely goes over the goal line or touchline, it is no longer in play. This applies to balls on the ground and in the air.
If the referee stops the game for whatever reason, it also becomes out of play.
If the ball touches the goal frame or the referee and stays within the goal and touch lines, it is still in play.
10. Outcome of a Match
In order to count as a goal, the entire ball must cross the goal line while staying within the goal’s borders. The team that scores the most goals at the end of the regular or overtime is declared the winner.
A match is considered a draw if the teams score no goals or equal number of goals.
When the match needs a winning team (i.e.- playoffs or tournament) and there is a tie at the end of regulation then the match will continue to two periods of extra time and possibly a shootout.
When receiving the ball in the offensive half, the receiver must be either level with or behind the second-to-last defender (the last typically being the goalkeeper).
This can sometimes be very tricky to determine. We’ve written an article that goes into more detail about offsides.
12. Misconduct and Foul Play
Direct free kicks are given when a player:
- Attacks a person by kicking them or attempting to
- Attempts to trip or actually trips their opponent
- Unexpectedly leaps on an opponent
- Tries to hit an opponent or strikes at them
- Pushes an opponent
- Tackles an opponent
- Holds an opponent in place
- Spits at the opposition
- Handles the ball intentionally
When a player commits one of these infractions inside the other team’s penalty area, the other team is given the opportunity to shoot a penalty kick.
An indirect free kick is given if a player:
- Acts wildly when playing
- Holds back an opponent
- Uses offensive, insulting or abusive language
- Keeping the goalie from letting go of the ball
- Commits any other unspecified offense
- A player receives a yellow card as a warning for any of the following infractions:
- Dissent in speech or action
- Continuously breaking the rules of the game
- Holding off the game’s restart for a while
- Failure to maintain the proper distance while restarting play with a corner kick, free kick, or throw-in
- Not having the referee’s permission before entering or reentering the playing field
- Leaving the field of play on purpose without the referee’s approval
A player receives a red card and is taken off the field for any of the following infractions:
- A severe case of foul play
- Abusive conduct such as spitting in someone else’s face
- Handling the ball on purpose to prevent a goal or an easy chance for the other team to score
- Denying an opponent who is heading towards the player’s goal a clear-cut opportunity to score by committing a foul that is subject to a free kick or penalty kick
- Getting a second warning (yellow card) in one game
13. Free Kicks
In soccer, free kicks can be either direct or indirect.
A direct kick is a free kick that is taken and doesn’t have to touch another player before it goes in the goal.
When the referee raises his hand during a kick, it indicates an indirect free kick. An indirect kick can be scored only after another player has made contact with the ball.
In both kicking situations, the ball must remain stationary.
14. Penalty Kicks
When a defender commits a foul or a handball inside the attacking team’s penalty area, the other team will be awarded a penalty kick.
All players from both sides must stand outside the penalty area while the penalty kick is taken. After the shot has been taken, they are allowed to enter the box.
Goalkeepers are allowed to move laterally along the goal line before a shot is made but must remain on it until the ball is struck.
When a team in possession kicks the ball over the sidelines and out of play, the other team receives a throw-in.
When taking a throw-in, a player must have both feet firmly planted on the ground and simultaneously release the ball with both hands above their head.
If these requirements aren’t met, the other team will subsequently receive a throw-in.
It’s worth noting that it is not possible to score from a throw-in.
16. The Goal Kick
A goal kick is given when the attacking team plays the ball out of bounds past the defensive team’s goal line.
Once the ball is out of play, the defender or goalie can position it anywhere inside the goal box (six yards in diameter) and kick it back into action.
The ball must be stationary and all opponents need to be outside the penalty area until the ball is in play.
17. The Corner Kick
If the opposing defense kicks the ball out of bounds in the air or on the ground beyond their own goal line, the offense will receive a corner kick.
The ball is put in the corner area, and the offensive team kicks it back into play. A player can score straight from a corner kick.
Do the Rules for Soccer Ever Change?
The IFAB has historically resisted significant changes.
With that said, there are minor annual updates or clarifications to the Laws of the Game. For example, for the 2022/2023 season, IFAB stated that in competition rules teams “may now allow a maximum of fifteen substitutes to be named”.
One of the stated goals of the improvements is to “make the laws simpler, more accessible, and reflect the demands of the current game at all levels.” This has included allowing adjustments that don’t conform to the concept of the universal character of the laws, such as the introduction of “sin bins” in youth, veteran, and disabled soccer or the reduction in match time and pitch/goal size for young players.
The offside rule, for example, has been modified multiple times: in 1925, 1990, and 2005. Other notable changes to the Laws of the Game include the prohibition on goalkeepers handling back passes (1992), the implementation of an immediate red card for a tackle from behind (1998), and the use of goal-line electronics (2012).
It’s safe to say that 2018’s introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was the most ground-breaking reform to the game’s laws at the professional level in a very long time, if not ever. Referees on the field may now consult with their counterparts in the stands, who can see video replays of actions that the referees in the stadium may have missed or called incorrectly.
The game of soccer has a rich history and the Laws of the Game support it. The rules are straightforward and spelled out clearly so everyone on the field and sidelines can understand them.
At the youth soccer level, it is important to keep in mind that referees make their best judgment when officiating a game.
Reading over these laws can help you as a player, parent or coach understand the rules and regulations of soccer.
More may be learned about them, but this should provide the foundational understanding needed to follow and comprehend the play throughout a match.
Hopefully, you now have a solid grasp of the sport and can enjoy both watching and playing your favorite sport!