© 1998 jointly in the following individuals: Jim Geissman, David Graham, Jim MacQueen, Connie Matthies, Jim Meinhold, Chris Mohr, Gary Rue, Ken Smith, Dave Teetz, Ron Tremper, who are together known pseudonymously as the SOCCER-COACH-L LOTG COLLECTIVE

Law 3 - The Number of Players

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Law 3 is a very important one from the coach's point of view, because it deals not only with the actual number of players permitted but with substitution procedure. You should look here to find answers to questions about how many players you should have on the field, how to get them on and off during play, and how to change goalkeepers if necessary. Coaches should note that many of the provisions of law 3 may be altered by local authorities.

The main provisions of law 3 are as follows:

  1. teams consist of 11 players plus a certain number of substitutes who are named in advance;
  2. each team must designate one player as goalkeeper;
  3. substitutions may be made only during a stoppage in play and with the permission of the referee.


  1. Number of players. The primary purpose of law 3 is to ensure that teams do not gain an unfair advantage by using more players than the allowable maximum. It goes much farther than that, however: for example, one of the appendices suggests that for 11-a-side soccer, teams should never have fewer than 7 players on the pitch, and that if the number of players for one team falls below 7, the match should be terminated by the referee.

  2. Substitutions. Law 3 also deals with the number of permitted substitutions (something which varies enormously, however, depending on local rules) and how these substitutions can be made. While substitution is often handled very casually in recreational soccer, it is still a good idea for players and coaches to know how substitutions should be properly made: the exact procedure can vary substantially, but in all cases substitutes should go to the halfway line, wait until the referee's attention has been secured and the player they are replacing has left the field, then enter the field themselves and take up their position.

    One intention of the rules limiting the number of substitutions is to emphasize the importance of conditioning in soccer, as most players on the pitch at the start of the match should expect to play the full 90 minutes. Another is to ensure that teams do not needlessly waste time by making excessive numbers of substitutions, and referees' decisions may take this into account.

  3. Local variations. Because the provisions of Law 3 are so commonly altered from one league and from one tournament to another, it is critical for coaches to ensure that they have acquainted themselves fully with the provisions as they actually apply. For example, some tournaments permit teams to enter a roster of 18 players, while others may permit only 16 to be listed -- if you have arrived with 18, two of them may be bitterly disappointed at having to sit out for the whole tournament. Some youth leagues apply Law 3 strictly and allow only 3 substitutions, with no return to the field for players who have come off; if you substitute 3 players after five minutes and then try to put them back on ten minutes later, you'll look rather foolish!

Questions on Law 3

3.01 I wanted to send on a substitute while my players were preparing to take a corner-kick, but the referee said no. What's going on?

Check your local rules: in all likelihood they do not permit substitution on corner kicks. Law 3 requires only that substitutions be made "during a stoppage in the match", but some local jurisdictions (including USSF amateur rules, but not US National Federation -- high-school -- rules) exclude corner kicks. You should always make sure that you know the details of the rules governing the competition in which your team is participating, paying special attention to places where they differ from the LOTG.

3.02 I just counted my players and realized we have one too few on the field. Play has already started -- what should I do?

Tell the player you want to send on to go and wait at the halfway line. Get the attention of the assistant referee on your side of the field, and tell him or her that you want to send on a player to bring your numbers up to full strength. The assistant referee may want to count your players to make sure that you are not sending on one too many, but should then treat your player like a normal substitution, except that s/he will not have to wait for a player to come off before entering the field of play. This is also the procedure to use when an injured player has left the field for treatment and wishes to re-enter the match, although in some cases it may be easier to attract the referee's attention directly (for example, if the player has been taken off near a corner of the field at the end where the assistant referee is on the other side).

3.03 I just counted my players and realized we have one too many on the field. Play has already started -- what should I do?

First of all, you should realize that the player who is going to come off will be cautioned (shown a yellow card). This may have some bearing on your choice of who should come off. Once you've made your decision, get the player's attention and have him come over and stand just inside the touch line (i.e. just on the playing surface) at the half-line. This will make it clear to all concerned (including the other coach) that you were not attempting to gain an advantage by having an extra player on the field. Get the assistant referee's attention and explain the problem; it will be up to him or her to notify the referee that your player is coming off, whereupon the referee will come over, find out what the problem is, and caution your player as required by this law. You should not unilaterally tell your player to come off the field, because s/he could conceivably then be given two yellow cards (one for being the extra player, one for leaving the field without permission), with more serious consequences.

3.04 My goalkeeper has been injured and has had to come out of the game (or has been sent off) -- how do I replace her?

One player must always be the designated goalkeeper, so the referee will expect you to replace your keeper during the stoppage in question, and will not restart the match until you have a goalkeeper in place. If there is a chance that your regular keeper may come back on (for example, after treatment of an injury), or if you have used all your allowable substitutions (some jurisdictions may allow one extra 'goalkeeper substitution'), one of the players on the pitch may have to become the new keeper. In that case, s/he will have to put on a different jersey. Note: the player who is to become keeper must obtain the referee's permission first, or s/he will be shown a yellow card.

3.05 Can my goalkeeper switch places during the game with one of the other players?

Yes, this is permitted under the laws, with two provisos: the referee has to be informed before the change is made (otherwise, both players will be shown the yellow card), and the change can be made only during a stoppage in play. As both players will have to change jerseys in any case, this makes a certain amount of sense!

3.06 How do I get the referee's permission to send on a substitute?

Tell your substitute to go and wait at the half-line. Attract the attention of the assistant referee on your side (or the fourth official, in matches where there is one) and make it clear that you want to make a substitution (a good way to do this is simply to say or call out "Substitution, please."). It will then be up to the official, during a stoppage in play, to signal the referee, who will then give permission for your substitution to be made. You or the assistant referee (or the fourth official) will then first notify the player who is to come off; the substitute must wait until that player has left the field before entering it himself.

3.07 We allow unlimited substitutions, and the other coach is making so many subs that I think he's trying to 'run out the clock' because it's late in the game and they're ahead by a goal. What can I do?

Relay instructions to your captain to make sure (by pointing it out politely) that the referee is aware of this delaying tactic. The referee should include time taken for substitutions in time added on at the end of the match.

3.08 We're ahead by a goal, and the other team must want to lose, because it looks as though they're deliberately trying to get players sent off so as to have the match terminated once they have fewer than 7 players on the field -- can I do anything? We have to win by at least two goals to have any hope of advancing.

There's nothing you can do immediately beyond advising the assistant referee that you believe the other team is engaging in this tactic. Unfortunately, because of upsets, situations sometimes arise in tournaments where teams can guarantee themselves an "easier" second-round or final-round opponent by arranging to lose their last round-robin game. You may be able to protest the result, and it will be up to the referee to file a report if s/he thinks the other coach has been guilty of unsporting conduct (for example, by instructing his players to score on their own net, or to feign injury so as to be taken off). You may then be asked to appear before a disciplinary committee to testify, so you should keep careful note of anything which suggests that this behaviour is deliberate. Most associations take a very dim view of this sort of behaviour, and will punish it severely if it can be demonstrated to have occurred (one case which occurred in Canada in 1995, involving a U19 provincial championship tournament, resulted in lifetime suspensions to the coach and assistant coach for "bringing the game into disrepute").

3.09 I was yelling some instructions to my team during a match and the assistant referee told me I could only give them "tactical instructions" and that I had to stay by the bench. Just how much coaching can I do during a game, anyway?

It used to be that coaches were not allowed to issue any instructions at all to their players except at half-time. In recent years this has been considerably relaxed, but you should still stay near your own bench and refrain from shouting things like "Man on!" and "Pass the ball to Jimmy, then overlap!" You should also note that you are obliged to "behave in a responsible manner". If your behaviour is deemed sufficiently unsatisfactory, you may be required by the referee to leave the match (in some jurisdictions, coaches, like players, can be shown a yellow or red card by the referee, but this is not part of the LOTG) -- this is the equivalent of a red card, and you should expect to be called before a disciplinary hearing if this happens to you.

3.10 I heard that a substitute can be sent off without ever getting on the field -- is that possible?

Yes. Law 3 clearly states that substitutes, like players on the pitch, are subject to the referee's authority. You should make it clear to your substitutes that they must be careful to refrain from offences such as dissent (this can be a problem if they are warming up near the assistant referee and happen to disagree with a call). If one of your substitutes is sent off for any reason before getting into the game, you will not be able to replace him or her on the bench. Note that if this happens, you can still field your normal complement of players (in other words, you won't have to play short one player).

3.11 The referee sent one of our players off during the half-time interval for spitting at an opponent, and he wouldn't let us replace that player even though the offense happened before the kick-off for the second half. What's going on?

The referee was correct: no substitute may be sent on for a player who is sent off during the half-time interval, and the team must play the second half short one player. Sorry!

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Law 3

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Updated March 5, 1998