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How is Soccer Played?

Nicole Madison
Updated May 23, 2024
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The sport of soccer, which is called football in most of the world, is a field game that is played with an inflated round ball. To play, two teams are assembled on a rectangular field. Each team has a goal, a metal frame covered with a big net, that is located behind its team members. The object of the game is to score points by kicking the ball into the opposing team’s goal. The team with the most points wins the game, although in most cases, it is possible for the game to end in a tie.

Field and Equipment

A regulation, full-size soccer field is 114.8 yards (105 m) long and 74.4 yards (68 m) wide, but many fields vary somewhat in length or width. Smaller fields typically are used for youth leagues, and some leagues or organizations might use different dimensions. A full-size ball has a circumference of about 27 to 28 inches (68 to 70 cm) and weighs 14 to 16 ounces (410 to 450 g), but youths usually use a smaller ball. Once made of leather, most modern soccer balls are made using 32 small panels of a waterproof, synthetic material. The goal is 24 feet (7.3 m) wide and 8 feet (2.4 m) high, but again, smaller goals are often used for younger players.

Handling the Ball

One of the important rules of soccer is that, with few exceptions, players are not allowed to touch the ball intentionally with their hands or arms. The goalkeeper, who stands in front of his or her team's goal and tries to prevent the ball from going in, is allowed to use his or her hands and arms in the area in front of the goal. Also, when the ball goes out of bounds, players are allowed to use their hands to throw it back onto the field during a play called a throw-in. Otherwise, the players generally control the ball with their feet, knees, heads and torsos — but mostly their feet.


Typically, soccer is played with 11 players on each team, but some variations, such as games in youth leagues or indoor soccer leagues, use fewer players. There are various names for players' positions, but they typically are divided into three groups: forwards, midfielders and defenders. Forwards' primary role is to attack offensively, midfielders help control the ball for their team, and defenders help the goaltender prevent the opponent from scoring. At the highest levels, teams have a very limited number of substitutions that can be used in a game — typically three — so most players must play the entire game. In games at lower levels or some exhibitions matches, also called "friendlies," more substitutions or unlimited substitutions might be allowed.


Soccer uniforms include shirts, shorts and socks in the team’s colors. Players typically wear shin guards as well. Goalkeepers wear a different color of shirt to make them easily distinguishable from the rest of the team. They also wear special large gloves to make grabbing the ball easier. Soccer players often wear shoes that have cleats on their bottoms, which gives them better traction.


A referee watches over the game, along with two assistant referees. The referee roams the field and is the main judge of scoring, penalties and other infractions. Each assistant patrols one of the sidelines and is mainly charged with determining whether the ball goes out of bounds and which team last touched it, as well as whether a player is guilty of being offside. In some games, a fourth official is positioned off the field, mostly to help with administrative duties, but he or she can help the referee make on-field calls as well.

Penalties and Infractions

Along with not being allowed to deliberately handle the ball, players are prohibited from doing things such as tripping, kicking, pushing or otherwise impeding an opponent. They also cannot be involved in a play after being offside — which means that they were closer to the opponent's goal line than any opponent except the goalkeeper when the ball was kicked to them. Unsportsmanlike conduct, including abusive language, also is prohibited. There also are technical rules of the game that players must follow, such as those regarding substitutions or positioning for certain types of plays.

The punishment for a foul, penalty or infraction depends on the severity of the action. For dangerous play or unsportsmanlike behavior, a player might be shown a yellow card, which is like a warning, or a red card, which means that he or she has been kicked out of the game. Other infractions might result in the opposing team being given possession of the ball, starting with a free kick or a penalty kick. A free kick can be termed "direct" or "indirect," which determines whether the player kicking the ball is allowed to kick it directly at the opponent's goal or must kick it to a teammate instead. On a penalty kick, a player is given a close-range shot at the opponent's goal, with the goalkeeper being the only player allowed to try to stop it.


A full-length regulation game lasts 90 minutes, split into two 45-minute halves, plus any time added by the referee to make up for injury stoppages. Each half begins with the teams occupying opposite halves of the field, and one of the teams makes a kickoff from the designated center spot. From that moment, the game clock continues to run until halftime or the end of the game.

In most games, there is a short overtime period — or two short overtime periods — if the score is tied at the end of regulation. During many tournaments or in other cases when ties are not acceptable, if the score is tied after overtime, a shootout is held. In a shootout, each team has five players attempt penalty kicks, and the team that makes more of them wins. If both teams make the same number of penalty kicks, the shootout continues with the teams taking one at a time until a winner is determined.

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Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a Sports n' Hobbies writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By anon958779 — On Jun 29, 2014

Soccer is played with 11 players on each team.In other countries like Europe, South America and Africa, the sport is known as football. Soccer is also the most popular sport in the world.

By anon251212 — On Feb 29, 2012

How long does a football game last and describe it!

By beachgirl05 — On Jul 08, 2010

The United States is not the only country that uses the word soccer to refer to the game. Canada also uses the word soccer, not football, as the official name of the sport.

In other countries including South Africa and Australia it is also common for the game to be called soccer by players and fans. The word soccer is also favored by many people in New Zealand and Ireland.

By allienoelle — On Jul 08, 2010

The term soccer is used almost exclusively in the United States. However, the term actually originated in England.

The British officially started the game of soccer in the late 1800s, which they referred to as Association football. Shortly after, the term soccer was created by the British as a nickname for Association football. The nickname was created to eliminate confusion and distinguish the game from rugby football. Therefore, the game is referred to as soccer in the United States to differentiate the sport from American football.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a Sports n' Hobbies writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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