Prior to the FA’s foundation, each club adhered to their own regulations, and match rules were often only decided on the day. The meeting in 1863 saw the drawing up of a universal code which provided the foundations on which future amendments could be made. The current ‘laws of the game’ are monitored by the domestic Football Associations and FIFA. The following is an interpreted list of those laws, minus much of the detail which is applicable only to prospective referees and to ensure a particular game conforms exactly to official FIFA standards. If you want to educate yourself on the minutiae, check the FIFA official website.
Fairplay in football
Alongside the laws of the game, FIFA advocates a Fair Play programme. Based around a number of rules, typically involving abstract ideas, they are intended to inform footballers and spectators on proper behaviour on and off the field:
- Play fair on the field.
- Play to win but accept defeat properly.
- Observe the Laws of the Game.
- Respect everyone involved in the game.
- Promote football’s interests.
- Honour those who defend football’s reputation.
- Reject any corruption, drugs, racism, violence and other harmful vices.
- Help others to do exactly the same.
- Denounce any who discredits the integrity of football.
- Use football to make a better world.
Basics of football
At its core, football is a game with two teams of eleven players, played over the course of 90 minutes. This period is split into two 45-minute halves. The objective of the game is to score more ‘goals’ than the opposition. The term ‘goal’ refers to two areas either side of the pitch, each one defended by one of the teams. A ‘goal’ is scored by depositing the ball into the opponent’s area.
The Laws of the Game
Field of play
Football can be played on a natural or artificial (e.g. Astroturf) surface. However, the shape of the field must be rectangular, with the dimensions of 90-120 metres long by 45-90 metres wide. Notably, the guidelines for international matches are stricter (100-110 metres x 64-75 metres).
- Goal Area: Starts 5.5 metres from each goalpost and extends 5.5 metres out, with the two lines joining vertically
- Penalty Area: Starts 16.5 metres from each goalpost and extends 16.5 metres out, with the two lines joining vertically.
- Flagpost: Placed at each corner, with a quarter-circle on the field (1 metre in radius).
- Goals: 7.32 metre area between the posts, and 2.44 metres high. The posts cannot exceed 5 inches in width.
Naturally spherical, with a circumference of 27-28 inches.
Number of players
One of the eleven is classified as the goalkeeper and permitted to handle the ball in his team’s penalty area. The eleven players are supplemented by the option to bring on a maximum of three substitutes from a pre-decided list of three to seven players (the number of substitutes permitted is slightly higher for international friendly matches).
In order to bring on a substitute, the referee must first be informed and then there has to be a break in the play (for example, a free-kick or a throw-in). The substitute then comes on as a replacement for one of the 11 current players.
Basic equipment is the team jersey, shorts, shinguards with socks and studded boots or trainers depending on the surface. The goalkeeper is also permitted gloves and a different coloured jersey for identification purposes.
The referee adjudicates the match in collaboration with two linesmen (properly referred to as ‘referee’s assistants’) and a fourth official, situated on the touchline, if necessary. The referee’s tasks include acting as a timekeeper (although with advice on the amount of ‘injury time’ to be added on to the 45 minutes each half to compensate for injuries and other stoppages), awarding free kicks and penalties and generally dealing with anything requiring a ruling. Can also choose to allow play to proceed in case of a foul, providing there is an ‘advantage’ to be gained by the team against which the foul has been committed.
Follow play from their respective touch lines and help to decide on throw-ins, corner kicks and goalkicks along with offside decisions (although naturally the referee has the final say). Can also draw the referee’s attention and advise on or alert him/her to any on-field activity, which can influence all manner of decisions. To signify their decision or grab the referee’s attention, they wave a brightly coloured small flag, which they keep at all times.
Duration of the match
The match officially lasts 90 minutes, split into two 45-minute halves with a half-time interval of no longer than 15 minutes.
In the knock-out stages of competitions, extra-time is used if there is no winner after 90 minutes. This extra period is 30 minutes, split into two 15 minute halves. If extra-time does not find a winner, then a penalty shoot-out takes place, where five players from each team are selected and alternate shots on goal from the penalty spot against the opposition goalkeeper. In that instance, the team with the most successful penalties is declared the winner. If they are still tied then they will move on to sudden-death penalties, where each team will take one penalty until one of the two sides has scored move than the other after the side amount of spot kicks.
Start and restart of play
A coin toss takes place just before the game starts, the winner of which will get the choice of choosing which end to attack or whether to kick-off. Should they choose to kick-off then the other captain will be allowed elect which end to attack in the first half. Should the winner decide to choose which end to attack then the loser can choose whether to kick-off in the first or second half.
The kick-off is also used after a goal has been scored, the task befalling the team who has conceded, and for both halves of extra-time.
At the kick-off, players from each side must all be in their half of the field. The actual kick-off takes place on the centre spot in the centre circle. The player who kicks off cannot touch it again until another player has made contact.
A team can only score if the whole ball crosses the goal line between the goalposts. The winner is the team who scores more goals, except in a competition where the ‘away goals’ rule applies. The ‘away goals’ rule means that, if a team scores a goal away from their home stadium, the goal counts extra (therefore, a 1-1 scoreline would mean the away team wins).
The perennial problem for newcomers to football is understanding the offside rule. This is made somewhat harder by the fact there are two elements to offsides in football; being in an offside position, and committing an offside offence.
To be in an offside position is to be closer to the opponent’s goal than the last opposition outfield player (therefore excluding the goalkeeper) and the ball. However, to commit an offside offence is to have the ball played forward towards you while in that position. As such, you can be in an offside position and not commit an offside offence.
The rule is further complicated by the fact the referee or his assistant must adjudge you to be ‘active’ in the play before giving an offside decision against you. This can be obvious, for example if you touch the ball in an offside position, but it can be extremely nebulous. The official rule states ‘active’ as meaning “interfering with play… or an opponent… or gaining an advantage by being in that position”. However, as you will find as you watch more and more games, what one referee or linesman considers to be active can be very different to another individual’s interpretation, and the offside rule is generally a major debating point.
There are other factors to consider which can exempt you from the offside rule. You cannot be offside in your own-half of the pitch, for example, and you cannot be penalised for being in an offside position when a goal kick, throw-in, indirect free kick or corner kick is taken.
Fouls and misconduct
A foul can take place anywhere on the pitch, and a free kick is awarded where that foul takes place (excepting fouls in the penalty area, which result in a penalty kick). The referee can choose simply to award the foul, speak to the player about his conduct or take matters further.
Punishment for offences
If the single infraction is deemed serious enough or the culprit persistently offends during a match, the referee can choose to take extra action against a particular individual:
- Yellow Card – A ‘caution’ given to a player. If two of these cards are shown to the same player, it means a…
- Red Card – Showing a red card to a player means he/she is expelled from the match. A straight red card (no previous ‘caution’) can be shown for extreme offences such as serious foul play, violent conduct, spitting, deliberate hand-ball to prevent a goal, a professional foul (denying a goalscoring opportunity) and insulting language and/or gestures.
Whenever a free kick is taken, the opposition must be at least 10 yards away from the ball until it is delivered. If this rule is not adhered to, the kick is retaken. There are two types of free kick awarded, depending on the nature of the offence:
- Direct free kick – Allows the team to take a direct shot at the opponent’s goal. Awarded as a result of fouls with evidence intent to harm or reckless/excessive force (e.g. a sliding tackle which takes the player first, shirt-pulling and a deliberate hand-ball).
- Indirect free kick – A direct strike on goal is not permitted, meaning any shot must come from the second player to touch the ball after the kick is taken. If a direct strike is successfully made on goal, a goal kick to the opposition is given. An indirect free kick is awarded for any foul which is dangerous or impedes an opponent.
An indirect free kick can be awarded in the case of a passback offence, a fairly uncommon foul in the game. This is given if one team’s player passes the ball to the keeper, who immediately picks it up rather than taking a touch with his feet. The free kick is subsequently taken wherever the goalkeeper picked the ball up.
A penalty kick is awarded for offences taking place in the penalty and goal area. A nominated member of the team awarded the penalty is allowed a strike at goal from the penalty spot (see the image in the ‘field of play’ section), with only the goalkeeper to beat. The goalkeeper must remain on his line until the ball has been kicked, and all other players must be outside the area behind the penalty spot. After he has taken the kick, he cannot strike the ball again without another player touching the ball.
A throw-in is awarded when the whole ball crosses the touch line (conceded by the team who last touched the ball). It is delivered off the field of play with both hands and from behind and over the deliverer’s head. Otherwise it is deemed to be a ‘foul throw’ and a throw-in is given to the opposition. It cannot go direct to the goalkeeper’s hands (if on the same team) and you cannot score directly from a throw-in.
Awarded once the whole ball crosses the goal line if it last touched an opposition player. The ball is kicked from anywhere in the goal area outfield, but must cross the penalty area line.
Awarded once the whole ball crosses the goal line of the opposition, after last touching one of their players. Taken from the corner of whichever side the ball exited the field, in the prescribed quarter-circle space. Opponents must be 10 yards from the corner arc and the kicker cannot touch the ball a second time without contact from someone else beforehand (or the opponent receives an indirect free kick).