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The Laws of Soccer

The laws of the game are very brief, and are intended more to define the basic parameters rather than to describe how to play or officiate the game. A considerable amount of judgment and discretion has been given to the referee, who has full control, and whose decisions on matters of fact are not even subject to appeal.

Following is a very brief introduction to the aspects of the game that are related to the laws. For a fuller explanation, you should look in the laws themselves or the "Frequently Asked Questions" web pages prepared especially for coaches. These exist in a brief summary version of around 15 pages and a comprehensive version of over 150 pages available in RTF or .zip format, both of which may be downloaded as document files. The links in the following text lead to the Coaches' FAQ on the LOTG. For more information on any of these subjects, please follow the link. There is also a page that offers suggestions on teaching the laws.

Pregame Basics

Starting at about age 11 or 12, soccer typically is played with 11 players per side [Law 3 - Number of Players], with a full-size ball -- about 26 inches around, called a Size 5 [Law 2 - The Ball].) For younger players the sizes of the field, goal and ball are usually scaled down, and the number of players is also commonly reduced, perhaps down to 3 on a team.

The field for regulation adult soccer games is about 70 yards wide by 110 yards long, with a goal 8 feet high by 8 yards wide at each end [Law 1 - The Field of Play]. Lines on and around the field are about 4-5 inches wide, and are considered to be a part of the playable field area which they enclose. A ball in the air over one of the lines, or rolling on the ground outside but partly hanging over the line, is in play. Also, the referee, the goals and the corner flags are all part of the field, so a ball that strikes one of these remains in play unless it then goes out over a line. The principal lines on a soccer field are the boundaries: goal lines at the ends (with a goal in the center of each), and touch lines along the sides. The principal areas are the largish penalty areas at each end and the smaller goal areas they contain. The penalty area is important mainly because the goalkeeper can use her hands to play the ball in her own penalty area and because fouls there can lead to penalty kicks, but there are also some technical restrictions involving the goal and penalty areas that apply during free kicks and goal kicks.

There is usually a center referee for most club soccer matches. Sometimes, there will be two assistant referees (also called linesman) who help make the calls [Law 5 - Referees and Law 6 - Assistant Referees]. The officials may be volunteers, or the league may pay them, or each team may need to pay them before the game. After checking the players' uniforms and shoes [Law 4 - Players' Equipment], and walking the field to make sure that it is playable and properly marked, the referee usually will call for the captains of each team to come to the center circle in order to hold the coin toss which determines which side will kick off and which team will start on which end of the field [Law 8 - Start and Restart of Play]. Each coach appoints his own captains (usually 1-3 players). At older levels, the captains are in charge of the team on the field, so they may be the best and most-seasoned leaders. At the younger ages, however, captains frequently are selected randomly (such as the kids who brought snacks for the game).

The visiting team usually gets to call the coin toss. The team winning the toss picks the end to defend. The team losing the toss gets kickoff. At halftime, the teams will switch ends. Thus, there is often no real advantage in picking one end or another, unless the sun's angle will affect the goalkeeper's vision or the wind may affect the ball's flight. The two halves of the game should be of equal length, however the referee will probably add a minute or two to allow for time lost through substitutions or injuries. (Substitutions can only be made with the referee's permission and play is stopped, not on-the-fly as in hockey.)

Starting and Restarting Play

Each half of the game, and any overtime period(s), starts with a kickoff. Each team goes to its own half of the field, and the defending team must be outside the 10-yard circle in the center. The ball is in play as soon as it is kicked (it must go forward), and it stays in play until it goes completely over a boundary line or the referee blows his whistle to stop play [Law 9 - Ball In and Out of Play]. Kickoffs also occur after every score. The only way to score is to propel the ball (with feet, head, or body (excluding the arms) completely across the goal line, between the posts and beneath the crossbar, either in the air or on the ground." [Law 10 - Method of Scoring].

The most common stoppage in a soccer game is when the ball leaves the field along one of the sides, going over one of the touch lines. The restart for this is a throw-in [Law 15] from the point where the ball went out. The throw-in is taken by a player from the team that did not touch it last. A throw-in must be thrown with two hands, straight over the top of the head, with both feet on the ground. It's difficult to throw the ball a very long way like this, which is the idea -- the purpose is just to get the ball back into play.

If the ball goes out over the goal line but not through the goal, the restart is a goal kick [Law 16] if an attacker touched it last, or a corner kick [Law 17] if it was last touched by a defender. A goal kick is kicked from anywhere in the goal area or on one of its lines (since the lines are part of the area), and must go entirely outside the penalty area before any player can touch it. The other team must vacate the penalty area and stay outside of it until the ball leaves the penalty area. A corner kick is played by the attackers from inside the little arc at the corners of the field on the side where the ball went out. The defenders must stay at least 10 yards away, and the ball is in play as soon as it is kicked.

With older players, many goals are scored on free kicks [Law 13] which are awarded after fouls or offside infractions. Serious fouls lead to direct free kicks from which a goal may be scored immediately. On an indirect free kick (such as after offside), the ball must touch at least one player besides the kicker (for instance, one player pushes it to a teammate who then scores) for the score to count. The referee indicates an indirect free kick by holding one arm in the air from when he awards the kick until the ball is touched by the second player. For either kind of free kick, the opponents must move at least 10 yards away from the spot of the kick and remain there until it the kick is taken. They may form a "wall" if they wish. The kicking team may prevent this by taking the kick immediately, thereby not giving them enough time to get the wall organized.


Offside [Law 11] is like the analogous rule in American football, although there are obviously some differences because a soccer game isn't divided into discrete plays each with its own line of scrimmage. The soccer law says a player can't play behind the other team's defense unless he dribbled the ball there himself, or unless he's chasing a ball that was played to him when he was not behind the other team's defense. The place behind the other team's defense is called offside position. A player is in an offside position if she is all of these things:

A player is involved in active play (participating is a term often used) and subject to being called for offside if she does any one of these:

It's okay to be in offside position, it's just not okay to affect the game while there. It's not offside when a player who isn't in offside position runs past the defenders in pursuit of a pass -- offside position is determined when the pass is made by a teammate, not when it is received. It's also never offside when a player receives a throw-in, goal kick or corner kick, wherever he is, nor when the opponents have possession of the ball.

Fouls and Misconduct

The list of fouls that lead to direct free kicks is short [Law 12 - Fouls and Misconduct]. Only two are clearly defined:

The others are two that are always fouls:

and six that are fouls when done in a careless, reckless or excessively forceful manner:

The names of the fouls may seem clear, but considering the nature of soccer there may be not much difference between reckless charging (the foul) and charging (a legal tackle), or pushing and a legal tackle. Remember this judgment is up to the referee, and the quality of a game depends partly on the ref's experience and manner, and partly on the players' willingness to get on with the game and not push the envelope.

There are also some less serious infringements that lead to indirect free kicks. Those that can be committed by any player include: playing "in a dangerous manner" (such as kicking high near another player's head); impeding (obstructing) an opponent without actually holding or pushing her; and preventing the goalkeeper from putting the ball into play from her hands. There are also some technical infringements that apply only to the goalkeeper: taking too many steps while holding the ball (technically more than four steps, but few referees are that picky); picking up the ball after releasing it from the hands; handling the ball after it has been deliberately kicked to her or thrown-in to her by a teammate; and wasting time while holding the ball. In all these cases, any free kick is awarded at the place of the foul or infringement. If a direct free kick foul is called against you within your own penalty area, the other team gets a penalty kick [Law 14] instead of a free kick.

Players can also be given cautions and be sent from the field if they commit more serious offenses or commit too many "ordinary" fouls. A caution is also called a "yellow card" and a sending-off a "red card", after the colored plastic the referee holds in the air when making the call. The 14 offenses that lead to this punishment are collectively known as misconduct, and are various forms of violence, dissent and extremely poor sportsmanship.

If the referee stops play and none of the restarts mentioned earlier applies, he restarts the game by dropping the ball. This is commonly seen when there's an injured player on the field, but the ball doesn't go out of play by itself. The referee will gather either one player from each team, or just one player, and drop the ball from about waist height. The one-player drop ball may be used when one team had clear possession when play was stopped, such as the goalkeeper holding the ball.

Updated 2 April 1999
Overview | Principles | Resources | Guidelines | Practices | Game Day | Very Young | More Reading