There’s no sport that comes close to the popularity and history of soccer. It’s a simple game to play, but some of the rules and positions can be a little difficult to understand at first, which is why we’ve created a beginner’s guide to soccer rules for you.

Learning the game of soccer might be easier than you think. Other sports in the United States such as American football and baseball can be very difficult to understand and take quite a lot of time to fully grasp. Soccer, on the other hand, is the most popular sport in the world for essentially two reasons: its free-flowing style is fun to watch (e.g. why it’s referred to as the ‘beautiful game’) and it’s a fairly simple sport to understand.

Basic Gameplay

Soccer is played with 11 players on each team, 10 outfield players and 1 goalkeeper. Each game consists of two 45-minute halves; however, as the clock never stops, extra time due to fouls, injuries, substitutions, etc. will be added on to each half.

Each team is normally allowed three substitutions per game. The managers are allowed to make these substitutions at any stoppage throughout the game. Once a team has made their full amount of substitutions, they cannot make another player switch.

Beginner’s Guide to soccer rules


Rules are fairly straight forward in soccer, but the offsides rule is undoubtedly the trickiest one to understand. A player is considered offside when their body (excluding arms) is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent at the time the ball is played. Most times the opposing goalkeeper is one of the players, the attacking player just has to be either level or in front of one more defending player when advancing on goal.

In the diagram above, the blue player with the ball (‘P’) passes it to their teammate labeled ‘A.’ When the pass is played, player ‘A’ is offside because he is closer to the opponents goal than the ball and the second-last opponent (player ‘D’). Every other blue player in the diagram would be considered onside. There are two exceptions that allow for offsides. 1. Throw-ins 2. All field players are on the attacking team’s defensive half. All other times an offside pass results in a free kick to the opposing team.

Various fouls and ‘bookings’

Fouls are committed when a player attempts for the ball, but only makes contact with an opposing player, delay the restart of play, pulls an opponent’s shirt, or a field player touches the ball with their hands. A goal keeper can handle the ball with their hands as long as they are inside their goal box. The only time a goal keeper can not use his hands in his own goal box is when a player on his team passes the ball back to him using his feet. Basic, non-dangerous fouls mostly result in just a free kick for the opposing team. This means that the referee blows his whistle and allows the opposing team to kick the ball wherever they want without the other team’s players too close.

Persistent fouls by one specific player or one hard foul could result in a yellow card. A yellow card is essentially a warning by the referee. Any player receiving two yellow cards (or one red card) during a match is kicked out and their team must finish the match with just 10 players.

Red cards are given to players that commit dangerous fouls (a two-footed challenge, punching, contact with referee, etc.). Any player receiving a red card is immediately removed from the game and must face a suspension of further games.

Out of bounds

As the field is a rectangle, the ball can go out of bounds in four different areas. If the ball goes out of the sides of the field, then the team that did not touch the ball last is able to throw the ball in (the only time outfield players can throw the ball). If the defending team last touches the ball and it goes over the end line (where each goal is), then the attacking team receives a corner kick. This is a free kick on either corner of the pitch nearest the attacking goal.

If the attacking team last touches the ball and it goes over the end line, the defending team is given a goal kick. This means that the goalkeeper is allowed to kick the ball to his teammates without opposing players in the surrounding area.


Penalties are given if a foul occurs inside the 18-yard boxes in front of the two goals. Any attacking player that is fouled inside these areas receives a chance to score from 12 yards away from goal, with only the opposing goalkeeper allowed to attempt to stop the ball.

The Soccer Field (or ‘Pitch’)

Soccer fields, or ‘pitches’ as they are also called, are basically the same length of an American football field (including end zones), but a little wider. Most soccer fields need to be between 100 and 130 yards long and between 80 and 95 yards wide.


There are essentially four different positions in soccer: goalkeeper, defender, midfielder, and forward. Essentially, defenders live up to their namesake. That is, they defend their goal from the opposition. Basically, that means forming a line to stop the opposition’s attack. Midfielders are deployed in the middle of the pitch and create a link between their team’s defense and offense. Forwards, or strikers, are normally the players that score the most goals. They do not do much defending and are played the furthest up the field.

Formations are labeled with a series of numbers beginning with the amount of defenders on the pitch, then midfielders, then finally forwards. For example: a 4-4-2 formation consists of four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards. Goalkeepers are not included in formations, as every team deploys just the one goalie. Below is an example of a basic 4-4-2 formation.

Promotion and relegation

While not a rule that applies during the 90 minutes of play on the field, a common  mechanism throughout much of the soccer world is promotion and relegation. Check out our explanation of how it works here.

READ MORE: Name variations of soccer leagues, cups and tournaments

Have any questions about our Beginner’s guide to soccer rules? Let us know in the comments section below.

Browse through these beginners guides to the many of the popular soccer leagues:

Soccer Beginner's guides

• Beginner's guide to soccer rules

• Beginner's guide to Argentine Primera División

• Beginner's guide to Bundesliga

• Beginner's guide to Championship

• Beginner's guide to Champions League

• Beginner's guide to Copa América

• Beginner's guide to English Premier League

• Beginner's guide to FA Cup

• Beginner's guide to Korea's K League

• Beginner's guide to La Liga

• Beginner's guide to Serie A

Beginner's guide to Women's World Cup

• Beginner's guide to World Cup