Soccer is a dynamic game that involves free-flowing play and creativity. While this is one of the great appeals of the sport, it also makes for some ambiguity when it comes to the rules.
Debates and arguments about refereeing decisions are common after virtually every soccer game. Despite there being a clear set of universal rules, soccer fouls remain a popular topic of discussion.
The following article takes you through the laws of the game in relation to soccer fouls. We dive into the official IFAB Laws of the Game to give you a better understanding of soccer fouls. The topics we’ll cover include:
- Common questions about fouls
- The IFAB Laws of the Game
- Law 12: Fouls and Misconduct
- Direct vs indirect free kick fouls
- Who is responsible for calling fouls
A foul is an on-field occurrence, committed by a player, that the referee deems to be an infringement of the rules. Many different actions constitute a foul, such as an aggressive tackle, lunge, or push.
Specific offenses that can be deemed a foul are outlined in the official IFAB Laws of the Game. We’ll discuss Law 12: Fouls and Misconduct a little later in the article. First, let’s tackle some of the basic information regarding soccer fouls and their impact on the game.
This will give you a better understanding of fouls before we delve into the more detailed information surrounding the laws of the game.
What Is a Foul Outside The Box?
A foul outside the box is an infringement by a player that occurs on the field but outside of either penalty box. A standard foul outside the box results in a free kick being awarded to the opposition team.
A severe foul, like an overly aggressive tackle, a professional foul, or pulling a player’s shirt can result in disciplinary action in the form of a yellow or red card.
- Yellow cards are essentially a warning.
However, if a player receives two yellow cards, they are dismissed from the game and cannot be replaced by a substitute. Red cards are given for serious foul play, like a two-footed tackle or bringing down a player who has a clear goalscoring opportunity.
A straight red card means a player is ejected from the game and cannot be replaced by a substitute.
What Is a Foul in The Box?
A foul inside the box is an infringement that occurs inside the penalty box. If a player is fouled inside the opposition penalty box, they are awarded a penalty kick. If a player is fouled inside their own penalty box, they are awarded a free kick.
In theory, all fouls are equal, meaning a tackle that warrants a free kick outside the box should also warrant a penalty if it occurs inside the box. However, in reality, referees can be a lot more hesitant to award penalty kicks, since they have a 75% success rate.
Is It a Penalty If The Foul Is on The Line?
If a foul occurs on the line that marks out the penalty box, it is a penalty. The box extends to the edge of the line so incidents that occur along the line marking are considered to be inside the box.
Does a Foul Count as a Tackle?
Not all fouls count as a tackle in soccer. Not every coming together or physical collision is a tackle. A tackle is an attempt to gain possession of the ball from an opponent.
Pulling your opponent’s shirt, pushing, or barging are automatic fouls. Since winning the ball isn’t in the player’s intentions, these types of fouls don’t count as a tackle.
If a player commits a foul while tackling an opponent, it still counts as a tackle, despite it being a failed attempt. However, many soccer broadcasters display “successful tackle” statistics, rather than total tackles attempted.
So if you’re wondering why the tackle, fouls, and free kick statistics aren’t adding up when you’re watching a game, this is probably the reason.
What Is a Foul In Youth Soccer?
Soccer is played under unified rules, so fouls in youth soccer are the same as fouls in the senior and professional games. However, depending on the region, there may be slightly different rulesets for kids under the age of 12.
For example, there are generally no offsides in kids’ games until they reach the ages of 12 or 13.
IFAB Law 12: Fouls and Misconduct
The International Football Association Board (IFAB) is an independent organization that creates and determines the official Laws of the Game.
Although it is an independent body, the IFAB’s laws are recognized by the major soccer associations around the world, including FIFA. IFAB takes the role very seriously and is known for taking a cautious approach to changes.
IFAB’s approach is based on the “spirit” of the “beautiful game”. All decisions and changes are made with this in mind, ensuring the integrity of the sport is maintained each season.
IFAB outlines 17 Laws of the Game:
|The Field of Play
|The Players’ Equipment
|The Other Match Officials
|The Duration of the Match
|The Start and Restart of Play
|The Ball In and Out of Play
|Determining the Outcome of the Match
|Fouls and Misconduct
|The Penalty Kick
|The Goal Kick
|The Corner Kick
Law 12 is dedicated specifically to fouls and misconduct.
It covers all important aspects as clearly as possible. Let’s take a look at the most important sections of the law, investigating different types of fouls as well as the punishments associated with each.
Direct Free Kick Fouls
A direct free kick is a regular free kick. The free kick taker is permitted to score directly from the kick. The vast majority of fouls result in a direct free kick being awarded against the offending team.
The criteria for calling a direct free kick are clearly laid out in Law 12. A direct free kick is given if a player carries out the following actions in a careless or reckless manner, or uses excessive force:
- Charges at an opponent
- Jumps at an opponent
- Kicks or attempts to kick an opponent
- Pushes an opponent
- Strikes out or attempts to strike an opponent
- Headbutts an opponent
- Tackles an opponent or challenges the ball
- Trips or attempts to trip an opponent
If any of these instances create contact between players, the referee awards a direct free kick. It’s also important to distinguish what is meant by careless, reckless, and excessive force:
A player is deemed to be acting carelessly if they demonstrate a lack of consideration for their opponents when making a challenge. In general, a careless foul doesn’t warrant disciplinary action (yellow or red card).
A reckless action is where the offending player shows no regard for his or her opponent’s safety. Reckless fouls are usually penalized with a yellow card.
Using excessive force on an opponent means the player goes beyond the necessary use of force while making a challenge, potentially endangering them.
Committing a foul with excessive force should be punished with a red card.
Certain other offenses result in a direct free kick being awarded to the opposition, meaning they are also technically regarded as fouls.
These fouls include:
- Holding onto an opponent or pulling their shirt
- Making contact with an opponent to impede their progress
- Biting or spitting at an opponent, coaching staff member, or game official (e.g. referee or linesman)
- Throwing the ball or an object at an opponent, coaching staff member, or game official
Indirect Free Kick Fouls
An indirect free kick is similar to a direct free kick. However, the taker is not allowed to score a goal directly from the kick. If an indirect free kick enters the opponent’s goal, the goal doesn’t count and a goal kick is awarded.
In many cases, indirect free kicks are awarded for off-the-ball incidents.
They are often given for non-contact fouls, where the offending player commits an offense that doesn’t involve a clash with an opponent.
Reasons for awarding indirect free kicks include:
- Acting in a dangerous manner (e.g. verbally threatening to injure an opponent)
- Impeding a player’s progress without making contact (e.g. intentionally blocking their path)
- Using insulting or abusive language in dissent of a refereeing decision
- Stopping the opposition goalkeeper from throwing or kicking the ball
- Committing an offense, not listed in the official Laws of the Game, causes the referee to stop the game and present a red card
Several incidents involving the goalkeeper give rise to an indirect free kick. If a goalkeeper commits a certain offense in their own penalty box, an indirect free kick can be awarded inside the box.
- As with a standard indirect free kick, the taker may not shoot directly on goal.
The following offenses by a goalkeeper inside their own penalty box result in an indirect free kick:
- Holds the ball in their hands for more than 6 seconds (although this foul is rarely called)
- Touches the ball with their hand or arm after releasing it (before another player touches it)
- Touches the ball with their hand or arm after receiving an intentional pass from a teammate via a kick or a throw-in
Here are some of the best goals from indirect free kicks!
Awarding yellow and red cards for a foul is at the discretion of the referee. In fact, the referee is entitled to award a yellow or red card from the moment they enter the field for the pre-game inspection until they leave the field after the game has ended.
This includes extra time and penalties. If the referee decides, they can prevent a player or team representative from participating in the game before it even begins.
What Is Serious Foul Play In Soccer?
Serious foul play is a sending-off offense that endangers the safety of an opponent. According to IFAB, the referee rules a foul as serious foul play if a player commits a tackle or challenge with excessive force or brutality, putting their opponent’s health and safety at risk.
- One of the most common examples of serious foul play is a two-footed tackle.
Regardless of the angle or whether the tackler wins the ball, tackling with two feet has long been deemed as serious foul play. It is one of the most common reasons for a referee to send off a player.
Another example of serious foul play would be a high tackle where the player makes contact with their opponent with the bottom of their cleats, where the studs or blades are exposed.
This type of challenge is extremely dangerous and goes against the spirit of the game.
Is It a Foul If You Get The Ball First?
While getting the ball first is an important part of tackling, it doesn’t mean that the challenge can’t be a foul. Sports fans and players often argue that if you make contact with the ball before the opponent, it is a clean challenge.
However, this is simply not the case. Just because a player “gets the ball first”, it doesn’t mean they weren’t careless, reckless, or using excessive force.
Rather than focusing on whether or not the tackler touches the ball, the referee assesses the nature of the tackle, the intention of the tacklers, and the force at which the challenge is made.
In the past, soccer was a much more physical game and referees were quite lenient in what they deemed to be a legal tackle.
Perhaps this is where many fans developed the idea that it isn’t a foul if you get the ball first.
What Is The Difference Between a Foul and Misconduct In Soccer?
Fouls are on-field instances that occur between players during a game. Misconduct is any action committed by a player or team staff member that the referee deems to warrant disciplinary action.
In contrast to fouls, misconduct can be called at any time and doesn’t have to occur between opponents.
- An example of cautionable misconduct is complaining to the referee after making a decision.
- An example of sending off misconduct is spitting at an opponent.
Who Determines What Is A Foul?
All fouls are called by the referee. However, they often receive assistance from their linesmen or lineswomen. Modern referees and their assistants communicate via in-ear radios.
If a linesman or lineswoman spots a foul, they wave their flag and communicate with the referee. However, the referee has the decision-making power and can overrule their assistants.
Over the last 5 years, VAR has become a major part of the game, to the dismay of fans and players alike. Many players have spoken out against VAR, complaining about its negative effect on the game. Liverpool’s Andy Robertson heavily criticized its use in 2020:
“A lot of people I have spoken to are not enjoying football as much as they once did because it is constantly in review, constantly on a screen and you are still not getting the consistency we are looking for.”Andy Robertson, 2020
Although VAR is taking over black and white decisions like offsides, the referee still gets the final call on fouls. However, they may be invited to watch a replay of an incident on the side of the field to review their decision.
Incident reviews often result in a decision being changed.
Will we ever see VAR totally replace referees?
Joel is a seasoned soccer journalist and analyst with many years of experience in the field. Joel specializes in game analysis, player profiles, transfer news, and has a keen eye for the tactical nuances of the game. He played at various levels in the game and coached teams - he is happy to share his insight with you.