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Understanding Soccer Rules

Updated on February 20, 2016
Jaynie2000 profile image

Jaynie is a seasoned marathoner, triathlete and soccer player with an interest in fitness and nutrition.

Soccer for Beginners

So your kid wants to play soccer? You may be less than excited, imagining this will mean long mornings sitting the stands in blistering sun or pelting rain, questioning the referee’s decisions, feeling frustrated because the opponents are too physical, and worried about whether or not your athlete is getting enough play time.

If these are your concerns, you don’t know soccer! Granted, everything mentioned does happen. A lot. But, they don’t call soccer “the beautiful” game for nothing. If you have a basic understanding of the rules, you’ll enjoy your time as a spectator so much more because you’ll be able to see the beauty and the strategy of it. You may even be inspired to give it a try yourself.

Let’s start with the basics.

Soccer fields are rectangular in shape and must be a minimum of 100 x 64 meters. Balls are also various sizes but children 12 years and older play with a size 5. Referees are responsible for assuring that balls are properly inflated for maximum effectiveness. They are also responsible for assuring that players are in regulation gear, which includes proper footwear (regulation cleats) and shin guards. For safety purposes, most youth leagues and many adult leagues ban jewelry and certain hair accessories as well.

Soccer is an 11 v 11 game. This means that each team has 11 players on the field at all times (unless there’s been a red card, but we’ll get to that later). There are 10 field players and one goalie per side.

There are three basic designations for field players. They are forwards, midfielders and defenders. The forward, often referred to as strikers, are primarily responsible for scoring.

The midfielders pass the ball to the forwards who shoot and hopefully score. Midfielders have a lot of ground to cover and are typically the best-conditioned field players. Not only do they feed the forwards, but they also help cover on defense to prevent the opponents from scoring. A common midfield formation includes 4 players, 2 on the outside midfield, referred to as “wings,” and two center midfielders.

A defender’s primary responsibility is keep the opponents from scoring and ideally, from even taking shots on goal. Defensive formations vary from team to team and play to play. Some formations incorporate a stopper. This person is essentially a defensive midfielder whose primary responsibility is to help shut down offense momentum.

A sweeper is a defensive player that is often the last line of defense between the defensive line and the goalie. His/ her job is to catch the balls that the defensive line was unable to stop.

Off Sides

Off side calls can be confusing to new players and spectators and can be difficult for a head referee to catch. That’s why they have ARs (assistant referees) to help. ARs, aka line judges, run up and down the sidelines on either side of the field, to help identify fouls, especially off side calls. Off sides refers to the position of the offender to whom the ball is passed at the time the ball is passed. A player is “off sides” if, at the time the ball is passed, there are no defenders between the offender and the goalie. A pass can be made by kicking or heading and the off side rule applies to both.


When a player is fouled by the opponent and the referee allows play to continue, it is typically because the offensive player maintains control of the ball despite the foul. If the referee blows the whistle to call a foul in this instance, it would take the advantage away from the team in possession of the ball, thus penalizing the team that was fouled. But if the play is allowed to continue, there is no lost advantage. This is important because to deny advantage to a team that was fouled, may lead to denial of a scoring opportunity.

If a foul occurs that leads to loss of possession, e.g. push, trip, etc. the referee will whistle a play dead and offer a free kick to the team that was fouled.

Free Kick

A free kick is a kick taken by the team that was fouled, from the spot of the foul. These shots can be made directly on goal. The opposing team must line up at least 10 yards from the kicker, forming a wall that is meant to be a last line of defense between the kicker and their intended target.


Handballs are typically those in which the ball hits the hand or arm of a player. If a ball hits anywhere on a players arm and the arm advances, potentially interfering with play, or giving that player an unfair advantage, they are likely to be called for a handball penalty. Handballs in the goalie box result in automatic penalty kicks. Handballs outside the goalie box result in free kicks. The reason for this penalty is to prevent defenders from using their hands to prevent scoring opportunities. Even when the handball is unintentional, it may often be called, so players must take every precaution to avoid them. Handballs can also be committed by a goalie if the goalie uses his or her hands to make a play outside the goal box.

Penalty Kick

A penalty kick (PK) is taken from a dot marked on the field inside the goalie box about 12 yards from the goalie. There are no defenders allowed between the kicker and goalie. This is a one on one opportunity. The vast majority of penalty kick attempts are successful. Goalies must stand on the goal line and are not allowed to move until the ball is kicked.

Goal Kick

A goal kick is awarded to the defending team if the ball is kicked out of bounds at the back of the field by the opposing team without being touched last by the defending team. The goalie or designee (usually another defensive player) must kick the ball. Punts are not allowed as the kicker cannot use their hands.

Corner Kick

A corner kick is awarded after the ball is kicked or tipped out the back of the field by the defensive team. The kick is taken by the offensive team after placing the ball somewhere on the corner mark. This is a dangerous play as effective corner kickers can drop the ball in the box directly in front of the goal where it is often headed or kicked into the goal by a teammate.

Throw In

A throw in is awarded to a team when the ball leaves the field of play from the sideline as a result of a kick our bounce off the opposing team. The throw in must be made from outside the sideline by throwing the ball over one’s head while the player’s feet remain on the ground. Throws during which one or both of the thrower’s feet leave the ground are illegal.

Yellow Card

A yellow card is issued to a player as a penalty for committing a significant foul against an opponent or demonstrating unsportsmanlike conduct. Such fouls may include slide tackles in which a player makes contact with an opposing player but no contact with the ball, a blatant push, especially if committed from behind, or other particularly dangerous maneuvers that threaten the safety and wellbeing of opponents. Unsportsmanlike conduct may include insubordination to the referee, failure to respect the distance required during free kicks, corner kicks, etc (infringement) or purposeful delays of game.

A second yellow card issued to the same player in the same game or tournament will result in a red card.

Red Card

A red card is a card issued after the most egregious fouls. Red cards require automatic ejection. These cards are typically issued for excessively violent behavior, denying an opponent’s scoring opportunity by committing offenses such as handballs, or tackles in which a defender goes for an opponent’s body instead of playing the ball.

If a player other than the goalie receives a red card, they may not be replaced. If a goalie receives a red card they may be replaced by a field player. In turn, that field player’s position may not be replaced.

Red carded players are typically suspended from one to three games.

Play to the Whistle

A play is only dead if the referee blows the whistle to signal a dead ball. Therefore, you may often hear spectators and coaches instructing players to “Play to the whistle!” Failure to do so may result in lost advantage by one’s own team. If a team cedes advantage, there is no foul.

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© 2015 Jaynie2000


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    • renee21 profile image


      3 years ago

      I play soccer in college now. It is so much fun and awesome exercise! Great hub!

    • Yossef Ziati profile image


      3 years ago from morocco

      i like this .


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