Soccer Rules: The 17 Laws Explained

Soccer (Association Football) is the most popular sport throughout the world. With a history that dates back thousands of years, billions of people have come to love this amazing game. For centuries, the game was unregulated with every territory playing a different version. This all changed in 1863 when association football setup fundamental rules to control matches. 

We will go over each rule in detail. These are 17 laws that govern the game and they are below. 

  • Law 1 – The Field of Play
  • Law 2 – The Ball
  • Law 3 – The Players
  • Law 4 – The Players’ Equipment
  • Law 5 – The Referee
  • Law 6 – The Other Match Officials
  • Law 7 – The Duration of the Match
  • Law 8 – The Start and Restart of Play
  • Law 9 – The Ball In and Out of Play
  • Law 10 – Determining the Outcome of a Match
  • Law 11 – Offside 
  • Law 12 – Fouls and Misconduct
  • Law 13 – Free Kicks
  • Law 14 – The Penalty Kick
  • Law 15 – The Throw-in
  • Law 16 – The Goal Kick
  • Law 17 – The Corner Kick

Continue along as we go over each law in simple terms so you will be well aware of each law and how it applies to the game. 

Law 1 – The Field of Play

The field can be natural or artificial. Artificial turfs must be green. But, field markings are very particular. 

  • The touchline must have a minimum length of 90 m (100 yds) and a maximum length of 120 m (130 yds). This is the longest part of the field and where throw-ins take place. 
  • The goal line must have a minimum of 45 m (50 yds) and a maximum of 90 m (100 yds). 
  • At the center of each goal line is an eight-yard wide goal.
    • Goal area includes two lines drawn at right angles to the goal line, 5.5 m (6 yds) from the inside of each goal post and extends into the field of play for 5.5 m (6 yds) and are joined by a line drawn parallel with the goal line
    • Penalty area includes two lines drawn at right angles to the goal line, 16.5 m (18  yds) from the inside of each goalpost and extends into the field of play for 16.5 m (18  yds) and is joined by a line drawn parallel with the goal line.
  • Corner areas are defined as a quarter circle with a radius of 1 m (1 yd) from each corner. There is a 1.5 m (5 ft) tall flag post at each corner of the field.

Note that measurements are for 11v11 professional games. Youth fields are smaller because there are fewer players on the field and they are smaller. 

Your club and organization will take care of this, so don’t focus too much on this unless you have the responsibility to mark the fields.

Law 2 – The Ball

The ball must be spherical, made of synthetic material, hold a circumference of between 68 cm (27 ins) and 70 cm (28 ins), weigh between 410 g (14 oz) and 450 g (16 oz), and have a certain pressure.

If a ball is defective, a new ball will replace it. Play is stopped and will restart by dropping the replacement ball where the original became defective. 

Additional balls may be placed around the field of play and their use is under the referee’s control. Younger players practice and play with smaller balls as they develop.

Law 3 – The Number of Players

A match is between two teams; each team can have up to eleven players, one must be the goalkeeper. Each team needs at least seven players to start or continue to play. Youth teams are often fewer than 11 players as games as the youth leagues build up as the children grow up. 

Teams can have up to five substitutions per game. Top division and senior international teams are allowed three substitutes. Check with your organization rules as to how many are allowed within your league. Most youth leagues allow unlimited substitutions. 

Substitutes have a few rules to follow. They can only enter during a stoppage in play while standing at the halfway line. But only after the player being replaced has left the field and the player has received a signal from the referee to enter the field. 

There are many substitution offenses and sub-rules that we won’t cover here, but you can read more about them here.

Law 4 – Player’s Equipment

A player may not wear anything that is considered dangerous. Jewelry must be taken off. No taping of jewelry is permitted. Jewelry includes necklaces, rings, bracelets, earrings, leather bands, rubber bands, and the like. 

Referees inspect each player before the start of the match and each substitute before entering the field. If a player is caught wearing any of the above items, the referee must order the player to remove the item or leave the playing field. 

Each player is required to wear the following: a shirt with sleeves, shorts, socks, shinguards, and shoes. During play, sometimes a player loses their cleat or shinguard. They must replace their equipment as soon as possible but no later than when the ball goes out of play.

Team players must wear colors that are different from each other and the referees. 

Goalkeepers must wear colors that are different from the other players and the game officials. 

Some players like to wear undershirts and undershorts. They must be the same color as the shirt or shorts. 

To learn more about goalkeeper rules, read this article.

Protective gear is allowed such as headgear, facemask, and knee and arm protectors as long as they made of soft, light-weighted padded materials.

Law 5 – Referee

Each match is controlled by a referee who has full authority to enforce the Laws of the Game. The rules are at the discretion of the referee and should always be respected and are considered final. 

The responsibilities of a referee are as follows:

  • Enforce the Laws of the Game
  • Controls the match in cooperation with the other match officials
  • Acts as timekeeper and keeps a record of the match 
  • Supervises and indicates the restart of play

A referee can allow play to continue when the penalty occurs and the non-offending team receives the advantage and penalizes the offending team if the advantage doesn’t continue. 

Disciplinary actions 

A referee can punish players or team members like a coach to protect and control the game. This includes showing yellow or red cards to warn or send off players and team officials for not acting in a responsible manner. This includes calling penalties or disciplining players off the advice of other officials. 

Injuries occur during play and the referee will allow play to continue until the ball is out of play if the injury is minor. If the injury is major, play should stop. This would include a goalkeeper getting injured, colliding of players, penalty kick has been awarded but the injured player is the kicker.

Outside Interference a referee can stop play if an outside force affects gameplay such as the floodlights go out, an unsuspecting person enters the field, or if a spectator blows a whistle or throws an object onto the field. 

Referees are not held responsible for any injury suffered by a player or loss suffered by any person or property. 

Law 6 – Assistant Referees

Other referees may assist in controlling a game, but the main referee will make the final decision. 

They indicate when:

  • the entire ball leaves the field of play and which team is entitled to a corner kick, goal kick or throw-in
  • a player in an offside position
  • a substitution is requested
  • during penalty kicks, the goalkeeper moves off the goal line before the ball is kicked and if the ball crosses the line
  • when the entire ball passes over the goal line, including when a goal is scored
  • which team is entitled to a corner kick or goal kick
  • whether, at penalty kicks, the goalkeeper moves off the goal line before the ball is kicked and if the ball crosses the line

Law 7 – Duration of the Match

A match lasts for two equal forty-five-minute halves. Halftime is not to exceed fifteen minutes. 

Allowance for lost time is decided by the referee in each of half for the time lost in that half through substitutions, injuries, wasting time, disciplining players, stoppages for drinks and cooling breaks.

The duration of games isn’t the same for all age groups. Youth games in the US are detailed below. Information is provided by US Soccer. 

Penalty kicks must be completed before the half is completed. 

Law 8 – Start and Restart of Play

Every half starts with a kick-off and restarts play after a goal has been scored. Other restarts include free kicks, penalty kicks, throw-ins, goal kicks and a dropped ball. Law 8 covers in-depth kickoffs while Laws 9, 13-17 cover the remainder. 

Start of Game Procedure

  • Every game starts with a coin toss. The winning team gets to decide which goal to attack in the first half or to take the kick-off. The opposing team receives the alternate decision. 
  • In the second half, the opposite happens. For instance, if the winning team picks the kick-off, then the opposing team will receive it in the kick-off. The team changes sides and try to score on the opposite goals.

Kick-off Procedure

  • All players, except the player taking the kick-off, must be in their own half of the field of play. 
  • Opponents must be at least 9.15m (10 yds) from the ball until it is in play. This means outside of the center circle. 
  • The ball starts in a still position on the center mark, and the referee gives a signal to start play. 
  • The ball is in play when it is kicked and clearly moves forward. 
  • The first player to touch the kick-off can’t touch it twice in a row or a penalty is awarded to the opposing team. 
  • A goal may be scored directly against the opponents from the kick-off

Example –

A dropped ball is a method of restarting play. 

Drop Ball Procedure

The ball is dropped for the defending team goalkeeper in their penalty area when play is stopped if the ball is in the penalty area or the last touch of the ball was in the penalty area. In all other cases, the player that last touched the ball receives a dropped ball. The ball is dropped in the last position it was last touched. All other players (of both teams) must remain at least 4 m (4.5 yds) from the ball until it is in play and the ball is in play when it touches the ground.

The ball is dropped again if it touches a player before it touches the ground and/or if it leaves the field of play after it touches the ground, without touching a player.

If a dropped ball enters the goal without touching at least two players, play is restarted with a goal kick if it enters the opponents’ goal or a corner kick if it enters the dropped ball team’s goal.

Law 9 – Ball In and Out of Play

A ball out of play when it passed over the goal line or touchline on the ground or in the air. See diagram to better visualize. 

Soccer field diagram

In other instances, the ball is out of play when the referee stops play. 

The last scenario involves if it touches a match official and: a team gets an attacking opportunity, the ball goes directly into the goal or the possession changes teams. In any of these events, play is restarted with a dropped ball. Otherwise, the ball is in play when it touches a referee and when it bounces off a goalpost, crossbar, or corner flag post and stays on the field. 

Law 10- Method of Scoring

A goal is scored when the entire ball passes over the goal line, between the goalposts, and under the crossbar. This also assumes that the attacking team didn’t commit any fouls. 

In an unlikely chance, a goalkeeper can’t throw the ball into the opponents’ goal. If they do so, a goal kick is awarded. 

If referees signal a goal before the entire ball passes over the goal line, play is restarted with a dropped ball. 

This comes as no surprise but the team with the most amount of goals wins. If each team has the same number of goals, the match ends in a draw. Some competition requires a winner and there are three ways to break a tie:

  • Away goals rule – teams play twice, once at each team’s home field. The team that scored the most goals away from home wins
  • Two periods of extra time not more than 15 minutes a piece
  • Penalty kicks

Penalty kicks are the most exciting to watch as it keeps teams and fans on the edge of their seats. There are detailed procedures that referees and teams must follow. We will touch on the basics here, but for full detail check out the Rules to the Game. 

  • The head referee tosses a coin twice. The first time is to determine which goal to use. The second is to determine which team decides to pick the first or second kick. 
  • Each team picks players to kick in whichever order they choose. Only players on the field at end of the game are eligible. All players must stand in the center circle until it is their turn to kick. 
  • Kicks are alternated by each team. Both teams get five kicks.
  • A kick is done when the ball stops moving, goes out of play or the referee stop play due to a penalty or offense. 
    • If the goalkeeper commits a foul, the kick is retaken.
    • If the kicker commits a foul, the kick is recorded as a miss.
    • If both commit a foul, the kick is retaken regardless of what happens. 
  • Each of the five kicks must be taken by a different player until all five kicks have been taken, and there is still a tie. Then a second round of kicks can be granted. 
    • After five kicks, they continue until one team has scored more than the other from the same number of kicks.
  • If one team scores more goals than the other team could with their remaining kicks, no more kicks are taken. The team with the most amount of goals wins. 

Law 11 – Offside

There is no harm in being in the offside position. The referee won’t blow the whistle. 

Let’s take a step back on what it means to be in the offside position. A player is in the offside position if any part of the head, body, or feet is in the opponents’ half (excluding the halfway line) and is closer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent. The last opponent would be the goalkeeper. Arms aren’t considered in the offside position, only head, body, or feet. 

If a player is a level with second-last opponent or last two opponents, they aren’t considered in the offside position. 

Check out this video to get a visual idea of what we are talking about. 

It only becomes an issue if a player in the offside position touches or plays a ball from a teammate or interfering with an opponent. This means they are involved in active play by:

  • Stopping an opponent from playing by standing in line of vision or 
  • Challenging an opponent for the ball or 
  • Hurting an opponents ability to play the ball

If the offside player gains an advantage by playing ball or interfering with an opponent when it has rebounded or been deflected off the goalpost, crossbar, match official an opponent or been deliberately saved by any opponent. 

No penalty is called when the player in the offside position receives a goal kick, throw-in, or corner kick. 

If an offside penalty is called, an indirect free kick is awarded at the location of the penalty. 

Law 12 – Fouls and Misconduct

There are two types of kicks that a referee can award after a penalty, which are direct and indirect kicks. 

Direct Kick

In the simplest terms, a direct kick allows a player to score by kicking the ball directly into the goal at the point of the foul. Direct kicks come from contact fouls and handballs. 

Contact fouls are those that include a player that charges, jumps at, kicks or attempts to kick, pushes, strikes or tries to strike, tackles or challenges, or trips or tries to trip an opponent. This must be done in a way that the referee considers to be careless, reckless or using excessive force.

Furthermore, there are a few other contact instances in which a direct kick is called: when a player holds an opponent, impedes an opponent with contact, bites or spits at someone, or throws an object at the ball or an opponent, referee, etc.

A handball is a direct kick penalty. This is when a player deliberately touches the ball with their arm or hand or when a player receives the ball after it touches their arm and scores or gets a scoring opportunity. Keep in the mind the rules apply to goalkeepers outside of the penalty area. They are treated no differently.

There are a few instances when a ball touches a player’s hand and it doesn’t result in a direct kick or penalty.

  • If the ball comes directly from the player’s own head or body
  • If the ball comes directly from the head or body of another player closeby
  • If the hand or arm is next to the body (player isn’t deliberately trying to touch the ball)
  • If a player falls and their hand or arm is between their body and the ground and not extended away from their body

Contact and handballs can be subjective and you are at the mercy of the referee play-calling ability. This can be frustrating. We wrote an article about handling bad referees if you want to read more.

Indirect Kick

During an indirect kick, another player must touch the ball before it can go into the goal. This means the person kicking the ball can’t shoot directly at the goal and score. It won’t count. Indirect kicks are the most common kick awarded by a referee and what you will see called most of the time. These are non-contact fouls.

Referees award indirect kicks if a player puts someone in danger, impedes the progress of an opponent, uses poor language or gestures, prevents a goalkeeper from releasing the ball or tries to kick it when the goalkeeper is releasing the ball. 

Goalkeepers are a unique position on the field. They are allowed to do things others can’t, but they have a few rules that they must follow. 

  • Must release the ball before six seconds elapses
  • Can’t touch the ball again after they release it and it hasn’t been touched by another player
    • An example of this would be if the goalkeeper drops the ball to his feet to pass to a teammate. But an opposing player runs towards the goalkeeper because the ball is live. The goalkeeper isn’t allowed to pick up the ball again or it will result in an indirect kick. 
  • Can’t touch the ball with their arms or hands after a teammate deliberately kicks or throws the ball to the goalkeeper.

Disciplinary Action

Referees have the ability to caution or send off players or team officials by using the yellow (caution) and red (sending off) cards. 

Yellow cards or cautionable actions consist of:

  • Delaying the restart of play
  • Dissent by word or action
  • Entering or leaving the field without the ref’s permission
  • Standing too close during a corner kick, free kick, or throw-in
  • Numerous penalties
  • Unsportsmanlike behavior 
  • Entering the referee review area
  • Excessive celebration of a goal

Red cards or send off penalties include:

  • Blocking the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by a handball offense. 
  • Serious foul play
  • Biting or spitting at someone
  • Violent conduct
  • Using offensive language or gestures
  • Receiving two yellow cards in the same match
  • Entering the video operation room

If a player receives a red card before the match, the committing player must leave but the team still plays 11 players. A replacement takes the place of the sent-off player and it doesn’t count as a substitution. 

If a player receives a red card during the game, the player must leave and no one can replace her. A player who receives a red card must leave the field of play and the technical area. 

In recent years, the IFAB added yellow and red cards for team officials as well. The rules are long, but the offenses are similar to those of players. To summarize here some caution and sending-off offenses that are in addition to the ones listed above:

  • Team officials don’t stay in their technical area or enter the opponents’ technical area
  • Constantly gesturing for a red or yellow card
  • Showing a lack of respect for the game

Sending-off instances

  • Throwing or kicking an object into the field of play
  • Entering the field of play to confront a match official or opposing player
  • Using unauthorized electronic or communication equipment

Law 13 – Free Kicks

In the last section we discussed what causes each type of kick. This law discusses the procedure once the referee has called a foul and awarded a direct or indirect kick. 

After the whistle blows for a foul, look to the referee to know what type of kick will be awarded. When the referee raises his arm above his head, this indicates an indirect free kick. If the foul is a direct free kick, the referee points one arm in the direction of the free kick. 

All free kicks take place at the location of the penalties. There are a few exceptions such as an indirect kick for the attacking team inside the opponents’ goal area. Indirect kicks of this nature are taken from the nearest point on the goal area line which runs parallel to the goal line.

In another instance, free kicks to the defending team in their own goal area may be taken from anywhere in that area. For free kicks involving players committing off the field penalties, the ball is placed on the boundary line as close to where the penalty occurred. 

The ball:

  • must be stationary and the kicker must not touch the ball again until it has touched another player
  • is in play when it is kicked and clearly moves

Until the ball is in play, all opponents must remain:

  • at least 9.15 m (10 yds) from the ball, unless they are on their own goal line between the goalposts
  • outside the penalty area for free kicks inside the opponents’ penalty area

Where three or more defending team players form a ‘wall’, all attacking team players must remain at least 1 m (1 yd) from the ‘wall’ until the ball is in play.

The kicking player may feint to take a free kick to fake out opponents. Some skilled players will try to kick the ball at an opponent in order to play the ball again. This is allowed as long as it is done in a non-aggressive way.

Law 14 – Penalty Kick

Some of soccer’s most exciting moments come as penalties kicks. A penalty kick happens if a player commits a direct kick foul within their own penalty area against an opponent. In this scenario, there is one kicker and one goalkeeper and no one else in the penalty area. Since it is a direct kick, many goals are scored this way. 


The ball must be placed on the penalty mark and the player taking the kick must be identified. The players other than the kicker and goalkeeper must be outside of the penalty area, behind the penalty mark, and inside the field of play. 

The referee will blow the signal for the ball to be kicked. The player kicking the ball must move the ball forward. The goalkeeper must remain on the goal until the ball is kicked. Once the ball is kicked, it is in play, however, the kicking player can’t touch the ball until it has touched another player. 

Players are allowed to feint during the runup to the ball, but once the kicker is up to the ball no fakes are permitted. 

The penalty kick is done when the ball stops moving, goes out of play or the referee stops for another foul. In other words, the remaining players outside of the penalty area can play after the ball is played by the kicker. 

Law 15 – Throw-In

Throw-ins are a way to restart play after the ball passes over the touchline, on the ground or in the air. 

Goals can’t be scored from a throw-in. For example, if the ball enters the opponent’s goal directly from a throw-in, a goal kick is awarded to the non-throwing team. If the ball enters the thrower’s goal, a corner kick is awarded to the non-throwing team.


The proper form to perform a throw-in is as follows: stand facing the field of play at the point where it left the field of play, have each foot on the touchline or behind the touchline, feet must remain on the ground, throw the ball with both hands behind the head and over the head.

The ball is live as soon as it enters the playing field. If the ball hits the ground before passing the touchline, it is retaken by the same team. If the thrower isn’t taken correctly, it is retaken by the opposing team.

A thrower can’t touch the ball until it has been touched by another player, offense or defense, or it will result in an indirect free kick for the opposing team. 

Law 16 – Goal Kick

Goal kicks happen when the ball passes over the goal line and the last team to touch the ball was the attacking team, and a goal wasn’t scored. 

Goalkeepers with a large foot can score directly from goal kicks while it isn’t likely. It does happen on occasion. If the ball goes into the kicker’s net, a corner kick is awarded to the opposing team. 


The ball must be at a standstill and is kicked from any point within the goal area by a player of the defending team. The ball is in play as soon as it is kicked similar to a penalty kick. Opponents aren’t allowed in the penalty area until the ball is live unless they didn’t have a chance to leave before the kick was taken. In these scenarios, the referee allows play to continue. If the opponent deliberately stays in the penalty area or challenges the kicker, the goal kick is retaken.

Similar to throw-ins, the kicker of a goal kick can’t be the first person to touch the ball before it touches another player. If this happens, an indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team. 

Law 17 – Corner Kick

Corner kicks can be thought of as the opposite outcome of a goal kick. Corner kicks are when the defending team last touches the ball before it crossed the goal line and a goal wasn’t scored. 

A goal may be scored from a corner kick. Many teams practice long hours on strategies best suited for gaining an advantage during corner kicks. If the ball goes into the kicker’s goal, a corner kick is awarded to the opponents.


The ball must be placed in the corner closest to where the ball went out of bounds. The ball is at a standstill and is kicked by a player of the attacking team. The ball is live as soon as it is kicked. The flagpost at the four corners of the field may not be moved. Opponents must give at least 10 yards (9.15m) from the corner arc to allow the kicker space.

The kicker isn’t allowed to touch the ball until another player has touched it. An indirect free kick is awarded if the kicker commits this penalty. 

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