How to play Football

Known globally as ‘the beautiful game’, football is the world’s most popular sport, played by more than 250 million players.

Officially invented in 1863 in England with the official name of ‘Association Football’ (hence the nickname ‘soccer’ in some countries), football is a team sport played with a spherical ball on a rectangular pitch, with a goal at each end. The aim is simply to score more goals than the opposition.

The basics

If a team wins a match, they are awarded three points, while both teams will get a point each for a draw.
Traditionally played with 11 players on each side (a goalkeeper and 10 outfield players who are all allowed to go anywhere on the pitch), teams are permitted to make three substitutions during a game.
Football is typically played on a grass pitch, although synthetic options are also permitted in certain leagues and competitions.

A game lasts for 90 minutes (two halves of 45 minutes with a 15-minute half-time break) and requires a referee and two assistant referees to officiate. Some competitions will see matches go to extra time if scores are level after 90 minutes. This lasts for 30 minutes (15 each way) and will then go to a penalty shoot-out if the teams still cannot be separated. This means teams get to take five penalties each to decide the winner. If the scores remain level, penalties continue into sudden death until a winner can be decided.

While the referee has ultimate control, assistant referees generally signal for throw-ins, corner kicks, goal kicks and offside. They will sometimes also flag to award a free-kick or penalty kick.

Red and yellow cards

Players can be shown yellow or red cards by the referee, depending on the level of offence. Two yellow cards in a match mean a player receives a red card and must leave the pitch. A player may also be shown a straight red card. They cannot be substituted and so their team must continue with one fewer player. A red card typically means that player will also be suspended for the next game, or next three games if the sending-off was for violent conduct.

The vast majority of the laws of football are very straightforward, for example, no player except the goalkeeper when inside his or her own goal area (known as a penalty box) is permitted to use their hands – but the offside law is slightly more complex.

The offside rule

An attacking player will be judged offside if they are in front of the second-to-last defender when the ball is played. Usually, the second-to-last defender will be the deepest outfield player, as the goalkeeper also needs to be taken into account. Players cannot be offside; in their own half of the pitch, or if they receive the ball directly from a throw-in, a corner-kick or a goal-kick, if they are behind the ball when it is played, or if the ball is played to them by an opponent.


Football tactics have evolved drastically over the years and continue to do so. Teams will set up in a specific formation, involving their defenders, midfielders and forwards. A typical modern formation is 4-4-2, although many come in and out of fashion, such as 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 etc. This gives a general idea of the way a team has set up to play a match but is by no means rigid.

Football is widely regarded as a very simple sport to play, with minimal equipment required – part of the reason it is so popular around the world, and played in over 200 countries and dependencies.