Guide to the Rules of Football

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  • The Basics
  • Stops In Play
  • Fouls and Infringements
  • Penalties
  • Cards
  • Substitutions
  • Further Reading

Football, the beautiful game, is the most popular sport in the world. And with good reason. The best games have everything you could want from a spectacle; drama, passion, tactical intrigue and moments of individual brilliance.

In this guide we take you through the rules of the game, so, if to your eyes the big match just looks like a load of people in shorts chasing a ball around the field, read on and be enlightened.

The Basics

Football is a team sport. Two sides contest each match. They’ll have 11 players on the pitch at any one time, but will have more players on the bench that they can sub on (more on which later). The game takes place on a field of the following dimensions:

football rules

As you can see there is goal at each end of the pitch. The aim of the game is to get the ball into the opponent’s goal. The winner is decided by whoever has scored the most goals by the end of play, which is 90 minutes plus any extra time that needs to be added for stoppages.

As the name suggests, players control, pass and take shots using their feet. The only players who can use their hands are the goalkeepers. Each team has one goal keeper. They can only handle the ball whilst in their area (this is the larger rectangle you see around each goal).

As well as the feet, players can use any other part of their body aside from the arms and hands. The head and chest are used quite frequently to play and control the ball.

Play starts with the kickoff. The ball is placed in the middle of the centre circle. Two players from the team taking the kickoff enter the circle to start play, all other players stand in their own half of the pitch, outside of the circle. Play then continues for 45 minutes, at which point there is a break for halftime.

The second half starts with the other side taking the kickoff and ends on 90 minutes plus stoppage time. If at any point a goal is scored the conceding team restart with a kickoff described above.

So far so simple! Now let’s look at some of the finer points of the game.

Stops in Play

As with many other free flowing ball games, many of the sports rules are to do with governing when play needs to stop and be restarted. The three events you’d expect to stop play are; the scoring of a goal, the ball leaving the field, a foul (an infringement of the rules).

Goals, though they are what the game centre’s around, are simple enough as far as the rules are concerned. If the ball crosses the goal line (the part of the pitches’ outline the runs between the posts) then a goal is awarded to the attacking team and, as stated above, the conceding side restart with a kickoff.

As far as the ball leaving the field is concerned there are three different scenarios that might occur.

  • A Throw In: The ball crosses the boundary at one of either sides of the pitch. In this case play is restarted by a throw in which is taken from the point the ball left the field. The throw in is taken by the opposing team to that which knocked the ball out of play.

    When taking a throw in, a player must be on or behind the line (so not on the pitch itself). His feet must remain planted when he throws the ball. He must throw using both hands and start the throwing motion from behind his head, like so. If they throw the ball in a manner that doesn’t fit this description, it is a foul throw. In this case the throw in gets to be taken by the side that originally conceded it.

  • A Goal Kick: If the play is played off the end of the pitch by the team that is attacking that side (say, for example, if a shot goes over the bar) the game is restarted by a goal kick. This is taken by the team who are defending the end in question. The ball is placed anywhere in the goal area (the smaller rectangle around the goal) and kicked back into play. All players aside from the kicker must be outside of the box when the kick is taken and cannot play the ball until it leaves the box (which to clarify again is the larger area drawn around the goal.)
  • A Corner: When the ball is played off the end of the pitch by a player from the side defending that end, a corner is awarded to the attacking side. They will take it from the left or right in accordance of which side of the pitch the ball left play. The corner taker kicks the ball back into play from the small area you can see marked out in the corners of the pitch. When he is taking the kick, all defending players need to stand at least ten yards back from the ball.

Though not as commonly scored from as corners in a sport like field hockey, corners in football are still seen as a good chance to get a goal.


If players were angels the situations described above would be the only stops and starts in the game. Unfortunately, they aren’t. They break the rules leading to breaks in play. The vast majority of these result in a free kick. This is where the non-offending side restart play from the point on the pitch the offense occurred. The players of the offending side must stand 10 yards back when a free kick is being taken.

Here is a look at the most common infringements and how they are punished.

  • Unfair Tackle: A tackle is where one player dispossesses an opponent by taking control of the ball. If this is done unfairly, by pulling on the shirt, or hacking at the player a free kick will be awarded. This free kick will be direct, meaning the taker can score from it without the ball having to touch any other player.

    If a tackle is very late or reckless the referee may issue a yellow card to the offender. They may also give a yellow card if a player has committed multiple lesser fouls. If the tackle is dangerous (they jump in showing studs, use both feet, or go in with an inappropriately high foot) they can be given a ‘straight red’ (a red card that is not preceded by a yellow). If you aren’t following with regards to red and yellow cards, don’t worry these are covered further down the article.

  • Hand-ball: This is where a player plays the ball with their hand or arm. A free kick is only awarded if the referee deems that it was deliberate or that the player had not tried hard enough to avoid committing an accidental hand-ball. Play restarts with a direct free kick. If the referee thinks the hand-ball was cynical they will usually be booked.

  • Being Offside: If a player is standing closer to the goal he is attacking than any of the opposition (excluding the goal keeper) at the time a ball is played to him by a teammate, he is offside and the defending team will get an indirect free kick (a free kick they need to use to pass with rather than shoot from).

    The offside rule does not apply when a player is in their own half, or when they receive the ball direct form a thrown in, corner or goal kick. It also doesn’t apply if a defending player accidentally passes it to them. If a player is not interfering with play, it doesn’t matter if they are offside. If you want more information, we go into a great amount of detail in our guide to the offside rule.

  • Simulation: More often referred to as diving, this refers to any action that a player might take to try and fool the referee into thinking that they have been fouled when they have not. It is a bookable offence.

  • Goal Keeping Infingements: A goalkeeper cannot pick up the ball if it was played to him deliberately by a team mate using their feet or from a throw in. He cannot pick up the ball, put it down and then pick it up again without another playing touching it first. He cannot hold the ball in his hands for more than six seconds. All of these infringements result in an indirect free kick.



If a foul that would normally result in a direct free kick (a hand-ball or a bad tackle) is committed in the area by the side defending that area, the attacking team get a penalty kick. This is where play is restarted by an attacking player kicking the ball forward from the penalty spot (which you can see on our pitch diagram above). All other players apart from the kick taker stand outside the box. The exception is the defending goal keeper, who can stand anywhere on his goal line. As with a free kick or a corner when taking a penalty, a taker can only kick the ball once before waiting for someone else to play it.

In the overwhelming majority of cases a penalty taker will simply attempt to score, however there is nothing in the rules to say they have to. They can play the ball forward for a teammate to run onto.

When taking a penalty the run up must be continuous. You cannot go back once you’ve started your run up.


We’ve already mentioned yellow and red cards. Yellow cards are given for cynical or persistent fouling. If a player gets a second yellow card, then he is also shown a red card. Red cards can also be given straightaway for dangerous play or for denying a clear goal scoring opportunity by foul play. If a player is shown a red card they have to leave the field of play for the rest of the game and they cannot be replaced. It varies from competition to competition but in most cases a player is also suspended from his next game if he gets a red as the result of two yellows and is suspended for three matches if he gets a straight red.

Players can be booked or sent off for unprofessional conduct that is not covered in the list of fouls given above. For instance, whilst you cannot technically foul a teammate, if players from the same side start fighting each other they will be sent off for violent conduct. A player could also be cautioned or sent off for dissent (usually rudeness towards the referee following a decision they disagree with) or for being abusive to anyone else. Players can be given cards even when they are not actually playing. For example, subs can receive cards and players can be reprimanded for goings on in the tunnel.


Substitutions are made at the discretion of a team’s manager and can be made at any point in the game, including at half time. A substitution involves taking off a player currently on the pitch and replacing him with a teammate on the bench. Once the manager has signalled to the officials that they want to make a substitution they have to wait for a break in play to get the one player off and the other off.

In most competitions there is a limit of how many substitutions can be made. Typically, this will be three. If a player has to be replaced because they are injured this counts as a substitution. This means that if a team has used all its subs and someone is injured, they have to carry on with less than their full allocation of players.

Further Reading


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