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Football (soccer)

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The striker (wearing a red shirt) has run past the defender (in white shirt) and is about to take a shot at the goal, while the goalkeeper positions himself to attempt to stop the ball.

Football is a ball game played between two teams of eleven players, each attempting to win by scoring more goals than their opponent. Football is played predominantly with the feet, but players may use any part of their body except their hands and arms to propel the ball; the exceptions to this are the two goalkeepers, who are the only players allowed to handle the ball in the field of play, albeit with restrictions.

The sport is also known by other names in some parts of the English-speaking world, usually soccer or association football. These names are often used to distinguish the game from other codes of football, since the word "football" may be used to refer to several quite different games.

Football is played at a professional level all over the world, and millions of people regularly go to a football stadium to follow their favourite team, whilst millions more avidly watch the game on television. A very large number of people also play football at an amateur level.

According to a survey conducted by Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), football's governing body, published in the spring of 2001, over 240 million people regularly play football in more than 200 countries in every part of the world. Its simple rules and minimal equipment requirements have no doubt aided its spread and growth in popularity. In many parts of the world football evokes great passions and plays an important role in the life of individual fans, local communities, and even nations; it is therefore often claimed to be the most popular sport in the world.

Nature of the game

Two teams of eleven players each compete to get a spherical ball (itself known as a football) into the other team's goal, thereby scoring a goal. The team which has scored the most goals at the conclusion of the game is the winner; if both teams have an equal number of goals then the game is a draw. The primary rule for this objective is that players, other than the goalkeepers, may not intentionally touch the ball with their hands or arms during play (though they do use their hands during a throw-in restart). Although players mainly use their feet to move the ball around, they may use any part of their bodies other than their hands or arms.

A goalkeeper dives to stop the ball from entering his goal.

In typical game play, players attempt to move towards a goal through individual control of the ball, such as by dribbling (running with the ball close to their feet); by passing the ball from team-mate to team-mate; and by taking shots at the goal. Opposition players may try to regain control of the ball by intercepting a pass or through tackling the opponent who controls the ball.

Football is generally a free-flowing game with the ball in play at all times except when the ball has left the field of play by wholly crossing over a boundary line (either on the ground or in the air), or play has been stopped by the referee. When play has been stopped, it recommences with a specified restart (see below).

The game is played in accordance with a set of rules known as the Laws of the Game, which are summarised below.

The Laws of the Game

History and development

The Laws of the Game are based on efforts made in the mid-19th century to standardise the rules of the widely varying games of football played at the public schools of England. The first set of rules resembling the modern game were produced at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1848, at a meeting attended by representatives from Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester and Shrewsbury, but they were far from universally adopted. During the 1850s, many clubs were formed, thoughout the English-speaking world, independent of schools or universities, to play various forms of football. Some came up with their own distinct codes of rules, most notably the Sheffield Football Club (formed by former pupils from Harrow) in 1857, which led to formation of a Sheffield FA in 1867. In 1862, J.C. Thring of Uppingham School also devised an influential set of rules.

These efforts contribute to the formation of The Football Association (The FA) in 1863 which first met on the evening of 26 October 1863 at the Freemason's Tavern in Great Queen Street, London. The only school to be represented on this occasion was Charterhouse. The Freemason's Tavern was the setting for five more meetings between October and December, which eventually produced the first comprehensive set of rules. At the final meeting, the first FA treasurer, who was the representative from Blackheath, withdrew his club from the FA over the removal of two draft rules at the previous meeting, the first which allowed for the running with the ball in hand and the second, obstructing such a run by hacking (kicking an opponent in the shins), tripping and holding. Other English rugby clubs followed this lead and did not join the FA but instead in 1871 formed the Rugby Football Union. The eleven remaining clubs, under the charge of Ebenezer Cobb Morley, went on to ratify the original fourteen rules of the game. Despite this, the Sheffield FA played by its own rules until the 1870s.

Today the laws of the game are determined by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). The Board was formed in 1882 after a meeting in Manchester of The Football Association, the Scottish Football Association, the Football Association of Wales, and the Irish Football Association. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association FIFA, the international football body, was formed in Paris in 1904 and declared that they would adhere to the rules laid down by the IFAB. The growing popularity of the international game led to the admittance of FIFA representatives to the IFAB in 1913. Today the board is made up of four representatives from FIFA and one representative from each of the four British associations.

Football is popular among children as well as adults.

Overview of the Laws

There are seventeen Laws in the official Laws of the Game. The same laws are designed to apply to all levels of football, although the preface to the Laws does grant national associations the ability to authorise certain modifications for juniors, seniors, women, etc. The Laws are often framed in broad terms, which allows flexibility in their application depending on the nature of the game. In addition to the seventeen Laws, numerous IFAB decisions and other directives contribute to the regulation of football. The Laws can be found on the official FIFA website.

Players and equipment

Each team consists of a maximum of eleven players (excluding substitutes), one of whom must be the goalkeeper. Competition rules may state a minimum number of players required to constitute a team (this is usually seven). There are a variety of positions in which the outfield players are strategically placed by a manager/coach, though these positions are not defined or required by the Laws.

One player on each team must be designated as that team's goalkeeper. The goalkeeper is the only player allowed to handle the ball with his hands or arms, however is restricted to doing so within the penalty area (also known as the "box" or "18 yard box") in front of his own goal.

The basic equipment players are required to wear includes a shirt (or jersey), shorts, socks (or stockings), footwear and adequate shin guards. Players are forbidden to wear or use anything that is dangerous to themselves or another player (including jewellery or watches).

A number of players may be replaced by substitutes during the course of the game. The maximum substitutions permitted in international games and in national level leagues is three, though substitution numbers may be varied in other leagues. The usual reasons for a player's replacement include injury, tiredness, ineffectiveness, a tactical switch, or to waste a little time at the end of a finely poised game. In standard adult matches, a player who has been substituted may not take further part in the match.


A game is presided over by a referee, who has "full authority to enforce the Laws of the Game in connection with the match to which he has been appointed" (Law 5), and whose decisions regarding facts connected with play are final. The referee is assisted by two assistant referees (formerly called linesmen). In many high-level games there is also a fourth official, who assists the referee and may replace another official should the need arise.

Playing field

Standard pitch measurements (Large version) (Metric version)

The length of the field (pitch) for international adult matches should be in the range 100-130 yards (90-120m) and the width should be in the range 50-100 yards (45-90m).The pitch must be rectangular, with the length of the touch line longer than the width of the goal line.

The longer boundary lines are touch lines, while the shorter boundaries (on which the goals are placed) are goal lines. On the goal line at each end of the field is a goal. The inner edges of the goal posts must be 8 yards (7.32m) apart, and the lower edge of the crossbar must be 8 feet (2.44m) above the ground. Nets are usually placed behind the goal, though are not required by the Laws.

In front of each goal is an area of the field known as the penalty area (colloquially "18 yard box"). This area consists of the area formed by the goal-line, two lines starting on the goal-line 18 yards (16.5m) from the goalposts and extending 18 yards into the pitch from the goal-line, and a line joining these. This area has a number of important functions, the most prominent being to denote where the goalkeeper may handle the ball and where a foul by a defender which would usually punished by a direct free kick becomes punishable by a penalty kick.

The field has other field markings and defined areas; these are described in the main article above.


Standard durations

A standard adult football match consists of two periods (known as halves) of 45 minutes each. There is usually a 15-minute break between halves, known as half time. The end of the match is known as full-time.

Extra time and shootouts

If tied at the end of regulation time, in some competitions the game may go into extra time, which consists of two further 15-minute periods. If the score is still tied after extra time, some competitions allow the use of penalty shootouts (known officially in the Laws of the Game as "kicks from the penalty mark") to determine which team will progress to the next stage of the tournament. Note that goals scored during extra time periods count towards the final score of the game, unlike kicks from the penalty mark which are only used to decide the team that progresses to the next part of the tournament (with goals scored not making up part of the final score).

Competitions utilising two-leg stages (i.e. where each round involves the two teams playing each other twice) may utilise the so-called away goals rule to attempt to determine which team progresses in the event of the teams being equal on wins; however, should results still be equal following this calculation kicks from the penalty mark are usually required. Other competitions may require a tied game to be replayed.

Golden and silver goal experiments

In the late 1990s, the IFAB experimented with ways of making matches more likely to end without requiring kicks from the penalty mark, which were often seen as an undesirable way to end a match.

These involved rules ending a game in extra time early, either when the first goal in extra time was scored (golden goal), or at the end of the first period of extra time if one team was by then leading (silver goal). Both these experiments have been discontinued by IFAB.

Referee as official timekeeper

The referee is the official timekeeper for the match, and it is part of his duties to make allowance for time lost through substitutions, injured players requiring attention, cautions and dismissals, sundry time wasting, etc. When making such an allowance for time lost, the referee is often said to be "adding time on". The amount of time is at the sole discretion of the referee, and the referee alone signals when the match has been completed. There are no other timekeepers, although assistant referees carry a watch and may provide a second opinion if requested by the referee. In matches where a fourth official is appointed, towards the end of the half the referee will signal how many minutes remain to be played, and the fourth official then signals this to players and spectators by holding up a board showing this number.

Note that there is often semantic debate as to whether the referee is "adding on" time to the end of a half, or rather treating time during stoppages as though it never existed as part of the match time; this distinction has little bearing on the practical conduct of a game, however it may be noted that the pre-1997 wording of the laws stated that the referee "shall ... allow the full or agreed time adding thereto all time lost through injury or accident" (Law V), and later FIFA guidelines regarding the annotation of goal scoring times suggested that time is indeed "added-on" to the end of the agreed half period.

Starts and re-starts

Each playing period in football commences with a kick-off, which is a set kick from the centre-spot by one team. At kick-off all players are required to be in their half of the field, and all players of the non-kicking team must also remain outside the centre-circle, until the ball is kicked and moved. Kick-offs are also used to restart play following a goal.

From the initial kick-off of a period until the end of that period, the ball is "in play" at all times until the end of the playing period, except when the ball leaves the field of play or play is stopped by the referee; in these cases play is re-started by one of the following eight methods:

  • Kick-off: following a goal by the opposing team, or to begin each period of play. (Law 8).
  • Throw-in: when the ball has wholly crossed the touchline; awarded to opposing team to that which last touched the ball. (Law 15).
  • Goal kick: when the ball has wholly crossed the goal line without a goal having been scored and having last been touched by an attacker; awarded to defending team. (Law 16).
  • Corner kick: when the ball has wholly crossed the goal line without a goal having been scored and having last been touched by a defender; awarded to attacking team. (Law 17).
  • Indirect free kick: awarded to the opposing team following "non-penal" fouls, certain technical infringements, or when play is stopped to caution/send-off an opponent without a specific foul having occurred. (Law 13).
  • Direct free kick: awarded to fouled team following certain listed "penal" fouls. (Law 13).
  • Penalty kick: awarded to fouled team following "penal" foul having occurred in their opponent's penalty area. (Law 14).
  • Dropped-ball: occurs when the referee has stopped play for any other reason (e.g. a serious injury to a player, interference by an external party, or a ball becoming defective). (Law 8).

Fouls and misconduct

A foul occurs when a player (not a substitute) commits a specific offence listed in the Laws of the Game, against an opponent, when the ball is in play. The offences that constitute a foul are mainly listed in Law 12. "Penal fouls", for example handling the ball, tripping an opponent, pushing an opponent, etc, are punishable by a direct free kick or penalty kick depending on where the offence occurred. Other fouls are punishable by an indirect free kick.

Misconduct may occur at any time, and need not be against an opponent. Substitutes may commit misconduct. Whilst the offences that constitute misconduct are listed, the definitions are broad. In particular, the offence of "unsporting behaviour" may be used to deal with most events that violate the spirit of the game, even if they are not listed as specific offences. Misconduct may be punished by a caution (yellow card) or sending-off (red card).


The offside law limits the ability of attacking players to remain forward (i.e. closer to the opponent's goal-line) of both the ball and the second last defending player. It is often assumed that the purpose of this law is to prevent "goal scrounging" or "cherry picking", but in fact the offside law has similar roots to the offside law in rugby (see full article). The details and application of this law are complex, and often result in controversy: for more information on offside please refer to the main article above.

Governing bodies

The recognised international governing body of football (and associated games, such as futsal and beach soccer) is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

Six regional confederations are associated with FIFA; these are:

The recognised various national associations (see football around the world) oversee football within their jurisdictions. These are affiliated both with FIFA directly and also with their respective continental confederations.

Note that the Laws of the Game are not maintained by FIFA itself; rather they are maintained by the International Football Association Board, as discussed in the history and development section above.

Major international competitions

Worldwide international competitions

The major international competition in football is the World Cup organised by FIFA. This competition takes place over a four-year period. Over 190 national teams compete in regional qualifying tournaments for a place in the finals. The finals tournament, which is held every four years, now involves 32 national teams (increased from 24 in 1998) competing over a four-week period.

There has been a football tournament at the Summer Olympic Games since 1900, except at the 1932 games in Los Angeles. Originally this was for amateurs only, however since the 1984 Summer Olympics professionals have been permitted as well, albeit with certain restrictions which effectively prevent countries from fielding their strongest sides Currently, the Olympic men's tournament is played at Under-23 level with a restricted number of over-age players per team; consequently the competition is not generally considered to carry the same international significance and prestige as the World Cup. A women's tournament was added in 1996; in contrast to the men's event, the women's Olympic tournament is played by full international sides without age restrictions. It thus carries international prestige considered comparable to that of the FIFA Women's World Cup.

Confederation competitions

The major international competitions of the continental confederations, followed by their major club events where appropriate, are:

Names of the game


The rules of football were codified in England by the Football Association in 1863, and the name association football was coined to distinguish the game from the other forms of football played at the time, specifically rugby football. The term soccer first appeared in the 1880s as a slang abbreviation of Association football.

Today the sport is known by a number of names throughout the English-speaking world, the most common being football and soccer; this has generated debate regarding the "correct" name for the sport. The term used depends largely on the need to differentiate the sport from other codes of football followed in a community. Football is the term used by FIFA, the sport's world governing body, and the International Olympic Committee. For more details of naming throughout the world, please refer to the main articles above.

See also

Other varieties of the game

Teams and players



Further reading

  • Stefan Szymanski and Tim Kuypers (1999), Winners and Losers: The Business Strategy of Football, Viking

External links