How to play football: Rules and everything you need to know about soccer

Here’s everything you wanted to know about the beautiful game - football rules and technicalities explained. 

By Utathya Nag
Picture by Getty Images

Arguably the most popular sport in the world, football or soccer owes much of its mass appeal to its simplicity.

A strip of open space, two players and a ball is all that's needed to start a casual game of football.

However, the more organised version played in official leagues like the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga or big international events like the FIFA World Cups, Euros, the Olympics and so on, abide by a set of universal football rules.

The laws of the game have been devised and fine-tuned by FIFA - the official global governing body of football – over the years.

The football pitch: Dimensions and layout

To understand how to play football, it's important to know the layout of a football field.

A football pitch, topped either by natural grass or artificial turfs, is rectangular in shape and can be anywhere between 90 to 120m in length and 45 to 90m in breadth.

The borders running along the length of the field are called touchlines or side-lines, while the ones lining the breadth of the pitch along the perimeter are called the goal-lines. The four corners of the playing area are marked with corner flags.

Top-view of a football field.
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The playing area enclosed within the side-lines and goal-lines is divided into two by the half-line drawn parallel to the goal-lines.

A circle is drawn taking the mid-point of the half-line as centre and hence called centre-circle.

At the central points of each of the goal-lines at each end of the pitch, two goalposts are placed. Goalposts are essentially rectangular metal or wooden frames 7.32m in length and 2.44m in height. Goalposts are generally lined with nets.

Around each goalpost, there's a designated penalty area, also called the 18-yard box. The penalty area extends 16.5m inside the field from the goal and the same distance from either side of the two ends of the goalpost along the goal-line.

There's a smaller rectangular area called the 6-yard box or goal area inside the penalty box and around each goalpost. It extends 5.5m inside the field from the goal line and the same distance on either side of the two ends of the goalpost.

There's a penalty spot marked 11m away from the centre of the goal. The mark falls between the outer edge of the 6-yard-box and 18-yard-box.

Rules of football

Football matches are played between two teams and typically last for 90 minutes. The match is divided into two halves of 45 minutes each.

There's a 15-minute break called half-time which separates the two halves.

A match kicks off from the centre circle with one team in possession of the ball.

The teams switch sides after half-time, with the other team in possession and kicking off proceedings.

The objective of each team is to kick or head the football within the opposing team’s goalposts to score a goal.

Scoring a goal is the ultimate objective in football.
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The entire ball must cross the goal-line for it to count as a goal for the attacking team. The side which scores more goals within the 90 minutes wins the match.

Match officials can also add a few minutes at the end of each half, called added or injury time, to account for injuries or other stoppages during play.

There are 11 football players on each team including one designated goalkeeper. The goalkeepers are the only players on the pitch who are allowed to handle the ball during a football match.

However, they can only catch the ball or use their hands to block it as long as the ball is inside the penalty area.

The remaining 10 players of a team are called the outfield players. Each team can also make three substitutions throughout the game.

Outfield players are assigned different roles. While some are defenders and play closer to their goal area, others are more skilled at attacking and play higher up the pitch.

The entire team, however, works together to score goals while keeping the opposing team at bay.

Outfield players cannot use their hands or arms to take or keep possession of the ball. Players generally kick the ball around with their feet to maintain possession but heading it and using the torso to control it is also allowed.

Players can move the ball quickly around the field by passing it to team-mates. They can also run and dribble with the ball to move it towards the opposition goal.

Throw-ins, goal kicks and corner kicks

If the ball crosses the side-lines after taking a touch from a player, it results in a throw-in for the opposition team.

During a throw-in, a player stands outside the side-lines and throws the ball back into play, usually to a team-mate.

However, the player taking the throw-in needs to have both his feet planted to the ground while releasing the ball from above his head for it to count as a legal throw.

If a ball crosses the goal-line from either side of the goalpost or over it, two outcomes are possible.

If the ball is sent out because of an attacking player, it results in a goal kick to the defending team.

A goal-kick allows the defending team to kick the ball back into play from anywhere inside the 6-yard-box.

If the ball is sent out by a player from the defending team, then the attacking team gets a corner kick. During a corner kick, a player from the attacking team can place the ball near the corner flag (which is the closest to the area from where the ball went out of bounds) and kick it in play.

Corner kicks are considered good scoring opportunities.

Fouls, cards, free kicks and penalty kicks

When a team is in possession, the opposing team tries to intercept the ball or tackle the player in possession to gain control over the ball.

However, if the tackle is deemed too dangerous or illegal by a referee or assistant referee, a foul is called.

Players touching the ball, intentionally or unintentionally, with their hands is also considered a foul. This rule doesn’t apply for goalkeepers as long as they are in their own penalty area.

Depending on the severity of the foul, a referee can either let a player off with a warning or show them a card. Every foul, though, doesn’t warrant a card.

A yellow card is shown if a foul is considered severe enough and the accumulation of two yellow cards in a match results in a red card. The player shown a red card has to immediately leave the field and is also suspended for the next match.

Receiving a red card means the player has to leave the field.
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A direct red card can also be shown if the foul is deemed too serious. Conduct or behaviour which breach the sportsman spirit and rules of the game can also be penalised with yellow or red cards.

If a player commits a foul, the opposition team is awarded a free kick.

During a free kick, the ball is placed on the spot where the offence took place and the defending players need to be at least 9.15m away from that mark. A player can either take a direct shot at goal from a free kick (direct freekick) or pass the ball to a team-mate (indirect freekick).

If a foul is committed by a defending team inside their own penalty area, however, a penalty kick is awarded to the attacking team.

During a penalty kick, the ball is placed on the penalty spot inside the 18-yard-box and a player from the attacking team can take a shot directly at the opposition goal with only the goalkeeper to get past.

The remaining players have to be outside the penalty area while a penalty kick is being taken.

A penalty kick taker only needs to beat the opposition goalkeeper to score.
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Penalty kicks, more often than none, result in goals.

Extra time in football games

If both teams don’t score any or end up scoring the same number of goals at the end of 90 minutes and injury time, the match is declared a draw.

However, in certain situations like knockout games and finals of tournaments, a winner needs to be decided.

Situations such as these are solved through extra time and penalty shootouts.

Extra time is played over 30 minutes (two 15-minute halves) after the regulation 90 minutes are over. If a team emerges as the winner in the extra time, the match is over.

If the teams are still deadlocked after the 120 minutes and injury time, penalty shootouts are forced.

In penalty shootouts, players from the two teams take penalty kicks alternately.

There’s an initial set of five rounds, with each team taking a kick each in a single round. The team which leads in the shootouts after the five rounds is the winner. If they are still tied after the five rounds, the shootout continues and sudden death comes into effect.

In sudden death, if a team scores and the other misses its kick in a set, the scoring team is the winner.

Sudden death continues till a winner is determined.


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