The Most Important Soccer Rules: A-Z Explained

With so many soccer rules to know, it difficult to know where to start. So, I formed the most important soccer rules in an easy-to-follow A-Z list.

One of my most vivid soccer memories involves a disagreement over the rules of soccer. Like all sports, soccer has many different rules that even players aren’t always familiar with. 

During one of my youth soccer games, my mother (who was my coach at the time) had a heated argument with another parent coach from the other team over where to place the ball for a corner kick.

Having played soccer for over 20 years, she knew that you could place the ball anywhere within the corner arc including on the line.

The male coach with an American Football background insisted the ball could not be on the line of the arc as the line was “out”.

Soccer Referee Signals For A Foul - Pointing towards the opposition goal for the attacker kick.
Soccer Referee Signals For A Foul – Pointing towards the opposition goal for the attacker kick.

As a young child, the referee did not know the right answer and just sided with the male coach. 

Ultimately, this situation leads to my mom yanking the flag from the corner so that our player could reasonably approach the ball from where the other coach falsely insisted it be.

This is one of a million scenarios in which the rules of the game are not understood by all parties and the disagreements lead to unfair decisions.

Soccer rules are address, fouls, restarts, scoring, and everything in between for soccer. The purpose of the rules is to ensure a safe, fair game for all parties. 

Parents, players, referees, and fans alike should understand the rules to create the best playing environment possible. 

Today, we’ll review some of the most important soccer rules and all of the basics you need to know from A to Z. 

○ The Most Important Soccer Rules: A-Z Explained ○ Soccer Positions Defense Midfield Forward. Field Diagram. SoccerBlade.com
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Advantage Play

If the opposition commits a foul, the referee might decide to let play continue – they will call advantage and direct their arms forward.

The advantage rule is to allow play to continue and keep the game flowing. But only if the attacking team who is fouled can take advantage of the situation.

If before playing the ball, the player who is fouled loses the ball – the referee will go back to the first offense and award the first foul.

Back pass to goalkeeper 

Players can pass the ball back to their goalkeeper. However, when a player intentionally plays the ball back to their goalkeeper, their goalkeeper cannot use their hands (even in the box). 

If the goalkeeper handles an intentional back pass, the opponent receives an indirect free kick at the spot of the handling.

However, if the handling happened within the 6-yard box, then the indirect free kick is taken from the 6-yard line at the closest spot of the infraction. 

  • There are two caveats to this rule. For one, the pass must be the intention. If a player goes to clear the ball and it ricochets off their leg toward the goal and the keeper saves it, this is not a back pass. 

The other caveat (which we will dive into in another section) is if the back pass is completed with the player’s head.

Back Pass To The Goalkeeper Example In Soccer. SoccerBlade.com
Back Pass To The Goalkeeper Example In Soccer. SoccerBlade.com

Body Checking  

Soccer players cannot throw their hip or body into other players. Calling body checking can be very difficult unless it is blatantly obvious.

When a player throws their hips into an opponent on the dribble, it is very clear to see and call body checking.

However, when a player has a position of the ball and is shielding it, determining body checking is not always as clear. 

Ball Out of Bounds 

The ball can go out of bounds over the sideline or either end line. The ball is considered out of bounds only when the entire ball passes over the line.

When the ball goes out of bounds over the sideline, a throw-in is awarded to the team who did not make the ball go out of bounds.

  • If Team A makes the ball go out of bounds (accidentally or intentionally with any body part), Team B received a throw-in at the location the ball went out. 

When the ball goes out of bounds over an end line, it will result in either a corner kick or goal kick, which we’ll detail shortly. 

soccer field infographic
Soccer Feld Infographic

Ball Crossing the Goal Line

The goal line is the part of the end line that is contained within the frame of the goal. The ball must completely cross the goal line to be considered a goal. If the ball does not fully cross the goal line, it is not a goal. 

In most competitions, the referee must determine if the ball fully crossed the plane of the goal.

In very high-level competitions, like the World Cup or Champions League, referees may consult VAR to review whether or not the ball crossed the goal line. 

  • It’s important to remember that it does not matter who puts the ball over the goal line.

If Team B is defending and their player accidentally kicks the ball over their defensive goal line, Team A is awarded a goal. 

Ball Hits the Referee

If the ball hits the referee and changes possession or crosses the goal line, a drop ball is awarded to the team who had possession before the contact. 

Cards

Cards are used by the referee to discipline players. Every foul does not result in a card, only certain offenses.

To administer the card, the referee will face the player and raise it in the air. The referee then records the player’s jersey number and the card issued.

Yellow cards are used to caution players, and a red card removes a player from the game.

Two yellow cards equal a red card, so upon receiving a second yellow a player must exit the game. 

Corner Kick 

When the defending team hits the ball over their defensive end line, the attacking team receives a corner kick.

If Team A is defending and they put the ball out of bounds over their defensive end line, then Team B received a corner kick. 

A corner kick is taken at the corner of the field. The ball must be placed within the arch around the corner. It can be placed on the line of the arc.

corner kick soccer
Corner Kick – Inside the arc

The player taking the corner kick cannot touch the ball two times in a row. A goal can be scored directly off of a corner kick, it does not have to touch another player. 

Contact with the Goalie

Contact with the goalie is permitted in soccer. However, referees tend to be cautious with goalkeepers and very strict about the type of contact that occurs. 

When goalkeepers enter a 50/50 situation, contact is a normal result.

For example, if a goalkeeper goes up to punch or catch the ball at the same time an opposing player jumps up to head the ball, normal contact may occur.

Attacking players are likely to be called for a foul if contact with the goalie is:

  • Late. occurring after the ball is secured or put out of the area of play. 
  • Studs up, sliding in with studs up at the goalkeeper. 
  • Near the head. If a goalkeeper comes to get the ball and a player swings near their head, the referee will likely make a call. 
  • Reckless.

Calling Mine

Calling out “mine” is a common way to communicate with teammates. 

  • However, if a defending player calls out “mine” to deceive an attacking player, they may be punished for unsporting behavior.

The attacking team would then get an indirect free kick. This is not relevant when the player is the only one near the ball. 

Frankly, this is not a rule that’s commonly enforced in the United States.

Contact 

Contact is a normal part of soccer, as it is a contact sport. However, there is a difference between legal and illegal contact. 

Legal contact in soccer includes:

  • Side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder
  • Challenging for space within playing distance of the ball
  • Both players have at least one foot on the ground 
  • No excessive force 

Illegal contact:

  • Extending the arms to push or shove 
  • Careless contact, acting without precaution 
  • Reckless contact, disregard for the opponent
  • Excessive force to endanger the opponent 

Drop Ball 

Contested dropped balls are no longer used. Dropped balls are now placed in front of the team that last touched it. Other players must be a minimum of four meters away. 

Play stopped in the penalty area results in a dropped ball for a goalkeeper. 

A common instance that results in a dropped ball is when the ball touches the referee and changes possession, disrupts a promising attack, or goes into the goal. 

Dangerous Play

A dangerous play threatens to hurt someone, including the player himself. Some actions may be acceptable under certain conditions but could result in a dangerous play if an opponent is nearby.

For example, a bicycle is only a dangerous play if an opponent is close enough to warranty concern for safety. 

The referee must assess whether something is considered a dangerous play. If the referee calls a dangerous play, then an indirect free kick is awarded. 

Direct Free Kick 

Direct free kicks are awarded for offenses committed while the ball is in play.

A direct free kick means that the player taking the kick can score a goal without any other player touching the ball, ie they can score directly from the free-kick. 

Plays deemed as careless, reckless, or using excessive force may warrant a direct free kick for the other team.

Examples of infractions that lead to a direct free kick include:

  • Jumping at another player
  • Kicking another player
  • Tripping or attempts to trip that involves contact
  • Excessive force to endanger an opponent
  • Holding an opponent
  • Biting
  • Spitting
  • Throwing something at the official, other players, or the ball. 
  • Using contact to impede an opponent 
  • Charging at other players 

Elbows

Players can’t use their elbows with the intent to impede another player. Intentionally elbowing another player results in a foul and often a card. 

Soccer Foul - Elbow in the face
Soccer Foul – Elbow in the face

Encroachment in the Penalty Box

When players are taking a penalty kick, all other players must be outside the box (including the arch on the box).

Players who enter the box or arc and have a clear impact on the outcome of the kick are encroaching.

According to the Premier League, 

“for player encroachment in the box, it is now judged on any part of a player’s body that is on the ground when the kick is taken.”

English Premier League Association

Extra Time 

Extra time is added to each half. The clock never stops during a half. If a player is injured or a substitution happens, the referee keeps track of the time it took. At the end of the half, that time is added on. 

If a ref adds 3 minutes of extra time, the fourth referee will show a sign with “3” when the normal time for the half ends. 

While extra time is one of the rules of soccer, it is rarely given in youth games. College soccer games also do not use the extra time, they will stop the clock. 

Goal Kick

The team defending is awarded a goal kick with the opposing team plays the ball out of bounds over their end line.

If Team A is defending and Team B plays the ball out of bounds over Team A’s defensive end line, then Team A gets a goal kick. 

For a goal kick, the ball is placed anywhere within the 6-yard box, including on the line of the 6-yard box.

  • The ball does not have to be placed on the side the ball went out of bounds on. Most often the goalkeeper takes the goal kick, but any player from the team can take the kick. 

In the last couple of years, there has been a key change to goal kicks. Previously, players could not receive the ball from a goal kick until it left the box.

This is no longer a rule. Now, players can receive a goal kick within their 18-yard box. 

Goalie Picks Up the Ball 

The goalkeeper can pick up the ball in the run of play, but only in their 18-yard-box. Once the goalkeeper picks up the ball, they have six seconds to put it back into play.

If the goalkeeper does not release the ball after six seconds, they receive a warning from the referee and then a yellow card. 

Goalie Obstruction 

When a player blocks the goalkeeper from getting the ball without making a play on the ball himself, he is obstructing the goalkeeper.

Goalie Interference

Goalkeeper interference is when an opposing player stands deliberately in front of the goalkeeper to block them from playing the ball.

If the goalkeeper has hand control (possession) of the ball, an opponent cannot interfere with or challenge the ball. 

Goalie Uses Hands Outside the Box

The goalkeeper can only use their hands in their 18-yard box.

If the goalkeeper handles the ball outside of the box, they will receive a yellow card (red card if they stopped a clear goal-scoring chance).

Handling

One of the most well-known rules in soccer is that you cannot use your hands/arms. However, “handball” is not a rule.

The ball simply making contact with a player’s hand or arm is not a call, rather the play must handle the ball. 

Handling is always called if a player intentionally touches the ball with their hand/arm.

  • Even if not intentional, if the player gains possession or ball control after touching it with their hand or arm, it is handling. 
Handball in Soccer - Area of the arm
Handball in Soccer – Area of the arm

Even if accidental, if a player scores a goal directly from their hand or arm, it is not a goal and handling should be called. 

If the player has made their body bigger using their hands and arm, or if the hand/arm is above shoulder level when contact is made, handling is usually called. 

However, it is not handling when:

  • The ball touches the hand or arm when it is close to the body. 
  • The ball his a player’s hand/arm directly from their body part or a body part of another player is close. 
  • When a player is falling and the hand/arm is between the body and ground to support the body (as long as it is not extended laterally or vertically). 

Handling the Bal in the Box 

Handling can occur anywhere on the field. If a defensive player handles the ball in their defensive box, then a penalty kick is awarded to the other team.

If an attacking player handles the ball in their attacking box, then the defending team earns a direct free kick. 

High Kick

If a player swings his leg above waist height near another player, they may be called for a high kick.

Oftentimes, the high kick results in an indirect free kick for the opposing team. 

Heading back to Goalie

Heading the ball back to the goalkeeper is an exception to the “back pass to the goalie” rule. Imagine goalkeeper is on Team B.

If a defender from Team B intentionally heads the ball to their Team B goalie, the goalie can legally pick up/handle the ball. 

Indirect Free Kick 

An indirect free kick is awarded for several different types of fouls. This type of free-kick requires another player to touch the ball before it can enter the goal.

Therefore, you cannot score “directly” from an indirect free-kick, another player on either team must touch the ball first. 

Here are infractions that can lead to an indirect free kick:

  • Dangerous play, like a high kick. 
  • Obstructing the opponent, if a player blocks another player’s movement even when they are not in playing distance of the ball. 
  • Impeding the goalkeeper. 
  • Unsporting behavior. 
  • Dissent. 

Kick-Off 

Each half begins with a kick-off. The first kick-off is decided by a coin toss, and the opposite team will kick-off the second half.

The ball is placed on the center dot of the center circle on the field.

The team taking the kick-off can be in the center circle, but the team defending the kick-off can not under until the ball has been touched. 

Kick Off in Soccer - Barcelona FC
Kick-Off in Soccer – Barcelona FC

Some rules regarding the kick-off include:

  • All players must be in their half of play. 
  • The player who takes the kickoff cannot touch the ball twice in a row. 
  • The referee must signal the start of the kick-off. 
  • You can score directly from a kick-off

Kick-Off After a Goal 

Following a goal, the team who was scored on will take a kick-off. The rules regarding a kick-off remain the same (players must be on their own half, etc). 

Kit Rules 

FIFA rules require players to wear a jersey, socks, and shorts. Any undershirt or tight must be the same color as the uniform.

Teams need a light-colored kit and a color-toned kit. Goalkeepers must wear a kit that is clearly distinguishable from all field players on both teams. 

Keylor Navas in Goal For a Penalty Kick - of Real Madrid
Keylor Navas in Goal For a Penalty Kick – of Real Madrid

Jerseys must have readable numbers on the back that are pressed or sewn in, and each player on a team must have a unique number.

Additionally, jerseys cannot have more than four colors. 

Last Defender Foul

The “last defender foul” often refers to denying a clear “goal scoring opportunity.”

FIFA rules do not specifically mention the “last man back”, but instead the referee must determine if the foul thwarted a goalscoring opportunity. 

Man-Marking/Player-Marking

Man-marking or player/marking is a traditional way of saying each player has one opposition player to mark.

To mark another player, you keep between your goal and the opposition player. Making sure they don’t get past you and stay within a yard or two.

This is typical when you’re a defender or midfielder and especially important for corner kicks. The other type of marking is zonal-marking, which we’ll look at later.

As in the example below, each player will not always have an opposition player to mark. So they will stay in their zone.

Man Marking Example in Soccer. SoccerBlade.com
Man Marking Example in Soccer. SoccerBlade.com

Number Rules

The numbers on uniforms must be clearly distinguishable. They have to be a different color than the jersey and must be sewn or pressed onto the jersey. 

  • Players can wear any number given to them from the team roster. The range is normally 1 to 39, but there have been players that have worn number 99.

The higher the number, the lower the rank of the player. The youth and reserve players have the higher numbers.

There are occasions when players keep their number even when they are star players because they keep it as their lucky number.

Nationality Rules

Nationality determines which international teams a player is eligible for.

The definition of nationality for soccer is

“any person holding a permanent nationality that is not dependent on residence in a certain country is eligible to play for the representative teams of the association of that country.”

Goal.com

Players with more than one nationality can change national team alliance only once even if the player played at the senior level. 

Offside

If a player is on their attacking half and behind the defending team’s last defender at the time the ball is played, the player is offside. An offside call results in an indirect free kick. 

Offside Example in Soccer. SoccerBlade.com
Offside Example in Soccer. SoccerBlade.com

The Assistant Referee must stay in line with the defending team’s furthest back defender to monitor the offside line. Timing is crucial.

  • Should the attacking player run behind the defender after the ball is played, they are onside, not offside.

Additionally, if the defensive player makes an intentional play for the ball, the player in the offside position will not be Beforecalled offside. 

Furthermore, players cannot be offside on a throw-in. 

Out of Bounds

A ball that has entirely crossed the boundary lines of the field is out of bounds. The whole of the ball must be over the line for it to be out of bounds.

An out-of-bounds ball results in a throw-in, corner kick, or goal kick for the team that did not put the ball out of bounds. 

Obstruction 

Obstruction is “impeding the progress of an opponent” when not in playing distance of the ball. Obstruction is punishable with an indirect free kick. 

Pushing 

Legal contact is permitted in soccer, but pushing with the arms is not.

Pushing is banned by FIFA as well as the NCAA. shoulder-to-shoulder contact with reasonable force will not be called for pushing.

  • Extending the arms from the body to shove is pushing. 

Penalty Kick

Fouling an opponent in your defensive 18-yard box results in a penalty kick for the opponent. For a penalty kick, the ball is placed on the dot 12 yards from the goal.

The only players allowed in the box are the goalkeeper and the opposing goalkeeper.

Messi penalty kick vs Argentina e1576487994417
Messi penalty kick for Argentina

When the referee blows his whistle, the shooter can approach the ball and shoot the penalty kick. 

  • The shooter cannot take more than one touch. The goalkeeper can move laterally leading up to the shot, but he can not step forward off the line.

If a penalty kick is scored during a game, it counts as a goal.

If the goalkeeper blocks the kick or the kicker misses, play continues as normal after the penalty kick. 

Physical Contact 

Physical contact is part of the game of soccer. Legal forms of physical contact include:

  • Shoulder-to-shoulder duels
  • Shielding the ball. 
  • Contact during 50/50 plays

However, not all physical contact is allowed. Examples of physical contact that will result in fouls include:

  • Pushing
  • Shoving
  • Kicking the player
  • Punching 
  • Excessive force 
  • Grabbing 

Red Card

A red card is the most serious consequence of misconduct. Players can earn a direct red card or two yellow cards that equal a red.

A red card sends the player off of the field. The player cannot re-enter and will have to sit out the next game as well.

The player’s team will not be able to substitute another player in, so they must play down a player for the rest of the game. 

Infractions that result in a red card include:

  • Extreme foul play (as determined by the referee)
  • Spiting at someone 
  • Abusive language 
  • Violence (striking another player or referee)
  • Intentionally fouling on an attacker with a clear goal-scoring opportunity 

Referee 

The referee enforces the rules of the game. There is a center referee and an assistant referee on each side of the field.

At the professional level, there is also a fourth referee who manages substitutions.

  • The center ref has the final say for any calls, and the assistant referees primarily focus on calling offside and notifying the center ref of any fouls nearby. 

The referees wear a uniform different than the uniform of both teams. They are all dressed in the same uniform.

The center ref has a whistle that he uses to stop the play. The assistant referees each hold a flag that they raise to alert the center ref of an offside or foul.

Restart

A restart is used to continue the play once it has stopped. There are different types of restarts based on the reason the play stopped.

The primary types of restarts are:

  • Throw-ins
  • Goal kick
  • Corner kick  
  • Kick-off
  • Dropped ball 

Scoring 

There is only one way to score in soccer, and that is to put the ball over the goal line between the goalposts of the opponent’s net. A team earns one point per goal in soccer. 

Substitutions

Substitutions are when a team switches a player from the bench with a player on the field.

The number and timing of substitutions allowed depending on the level of play. 

Prior to COVID-19, teams were allowed three substitutions during a game. Many leagues during COVID-19 allowed for five substitutions.

When a player substitutes out, they can not re-enter the game even if they came out for an injury (this is different for youth and college soccer). 

Throw-In

When the ball goes out of bounds over the sideline, the team who did not play it out gets a throw-in. 

The throw-in must be taken from behind the line. During the throw-in, the ball must come straight back behind the player’s head with both hands.

  • Both feet must be on the ground during the throw. Players cannot be offside on a throw-in, but a team cannot score directly from a throw-in. 

An incorrect throw-in results in a throw-in for the other team (at higher levels). 

Yellow Card

A yellow card is an official warning from the ref about player conduct. Yellow-card offenses include:

  • Delaying a restart
  • Refusing to respect the required distance on a free-kick 
  • Persistent offenses of the laws of the game
  • Unsporting behavior 

Zonal Marking

Marking is when you stand near an opposition player to be in close range to stop danger from occurring. Zonal marking is when you stand in an area near an opposition player.

You will often see zonal marking when a team defends a corner kick.

Instead of each player marking one player each (man-marking), each player will have a zone to defend – a 2-yard square.

Zonal Marking Example in Soccer. SoccerBlade.com
Zonal Marking Example in Soccer. SoccerBlade.com

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