How Soccer Works

A soccer game in progress. See more sport pictures.
Image courtesy Rick Dikeman

Soccer (or football, if you're not American) is by far the most popular sport in the world. Tens of thousands of fans regularly show up for games played in stadiums on every continent except Antarctica, where they still play but the crowds are rather sparse. For major international matches, worldwide television viewers can number in the hundreds of millions. From its rough and tumble origins to the current crop of multimillionaire celebrity players, "the beautiful game" has thrilled and captivated sports fans for more than 100 years. Learn how to play soccer, where it came from and some tricks to win the game.

Because soccer is a very simple game at its core, many cultures have claimed to have invented it. Games involving teams, balls and some kind of battle over territory have existed in various cultures worldwide since prehistory. Some of them allowed players to carry or throw the ball, while some were brutally violent. The origins of the modern game of soccer can be traced to Britain. There, some holidays were celebrated with mass games played in the streets in which young men from rival villages would strive to steal a ball and carry it to a certain place or goal. These were raucous affairs with hundreds of players, no rules and much damage to the players and village property.


More formal ball games were eventually developed by British schoolboys, but each school had their own set of rules. When different teams played against each other, they had to compromise on the rules used for that particular game. In 1848, representatives from many schools met at Cambridge to try and create a unified rule system, and several more meetings held over the next two decades formed the basis of modern soccer. The football community was divided, however. Some preferred a rougher game in which the ball could be carried, while others were playing something akin to today's soccer. The two sides eventually split, with the other game becoming rugby [Source: Murray]. The soccer clubs formed an organization that would codify and regulate the rules -- the Football Association. Thus, the game became known as Association Football. Today, most of the world simply calls it football, but Americans refer to it as soccer, a term taken from part of the word association.

The game spread from Britain to the rest of the world, with leagues forming in continental Europe, Africa, South America and North America in the latter decades of the 19th century. In 1904, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was formed to regulate international play. At the time, the major international tournament was the Olympics, but FIFA wanted to create their own world championship. It took until 1930 to happen, and even then only because host country Uruguay agreed to pay travel expenses for every team competing. The hosts beat Argentina 4-2 in Montevideo to win the first World Cup. The tournament has grown steadily in popularity ever since - the 2002 World Cup had an average worldwide television audience of 314.1 million people per game. During a semi-final game between England and Brazil, Brazil's TV Globo had a 94.2 percent market share. That means that virtually every person in Brazil who was watching TV at the time was watching that soccer game [Source: FIFA].

The United States Football Association was formed in 1913. Known today as the U.S. Soccer Federation (or just U.S. Soccer), the governing body for soccer in the United States regulates and promotes soccer from the men's and women's national teams to Major League Soccer, the United States' primary professional soccer league. Development leagues at all levels also receive support from U.S. Soccer. Although the sport does not have a following approaching that of American football, baseball or basketball, soccer in the United States has grown tremendously in the last 20 years. Both national teams have achieved unparalleled success, MLS continues to thrive and youth soccer programs attract millions of young players every year.

Soccer Basics

Image courtesy Ysangkok

Soccer is perhaps the most elemental team ball sport. Two teams, each with 11 players (including the goalkeeper) work to push a ball into the opposing team's goal using any part of their body other than their hands or arms. At the end of two 45 minute periods, whichever team has scored the most goals wins the game. Direct physical contact (pushing, checking, grabbing, etc.) is not allowed.

Matches are played on a field (often called a pitch) marked off on all four sides with white boundary lines. A typical field is 100 yards long and at least 50 yards wide, although some fields are larger. If the ball goes across the line on the sides of the field, it is returned to play via a two-handed overhead throw-in, the only situation where a non-goalie player can use his hands. If it goes out of play across an end line, it's returned to play by the goalie kicking it (if the offensive team played it out) or by a corner kick by the attacking team (if the defenders played it out).


The goal is eight yards long and eight feet high. The ball must completely cross the end line between the goal posts to be counted as a goal. Directly in front of each goal is a large rectangle called the goal area. If a defending player commits a foul within this area, the attacking team receives a penalty kick. This is a free shot at the goal with only the goalie to defend it, from a distance of ten yards.

Fouls committed elsewhere on the field can result in a variety of penalties. Minor offenses, such as inadvertently touching the ball with the hands, tripping or holding an opponent or kicking at the ball while it's up in the air and dangerously close to people's heads results in a free kick for the other team. This change of possession usually happens quickly and keeps the game moving along.

More flagrant fouls can result in cards. Severe or repeated fouls, fighting, disrespecting the officials and intentional fouls give the referee the option of issuing a yellow card to the offending player. This is like a warning - the ref takes an actual yellow card out of his pocket and holds it in the air to let everyone know it's being issued. He then writes down the player's number in a notebook. A yellow card has no immediate effect, but if the same player receives another yellow card in the same game (and sometimes within the same tournament), he gets an automatic red card. A red card results in ejection from the game, and that player's team can't replace him, forcing them to play short-handed for the remainder of the match. Extreme offenses can result in an immediate red card, whether or not a prior yellow card was issued.

The goalie can freely use his hands to catch, block and throw the ball within the goal area. He can move beyond the goal area, but must use his feet to move the ball.

The clock in a soccer game is continuous. If play stops due to an injury or other delay, the referee keeps track of the lost time. At the end of each half, the referee will add on this extra time, known as injury time, after the clock has run out.

If a game ends in a tie, the decision will depend on where and why the game is being played. In friendly matches and regular league games, the game simply ends and each team is credited with a tie, worth one point in league standings. In some tournaments, teams play two games against each other (several days apart) and the winner is determined by total goals scored. That can make a tie as bad as a loss for a team already behind on goals. In some tournaments, a tie is resolved with a shootout. This is a series of five penalty kicks, with teams alternating kicks. The team that scores the most goals with their five kicks wins.

The soccer ball itself is an inflated sphere made of synthetic leather. Real leather was used in the past, but has a tendency to absorb water, making the ball very heavy in wet conditions. Most balls are covered with stitched panels. Inside is a fabric liner and a rubber bladder which holds the air [Source: Soccer Ball World].

Soccer players wear minimal equipment. Shin pads and cleated shoes for traction on natural grass make up the gear needed by most players. Many goalies wear gloves for padding and grip, and goalie pants and shirts may have padded panels sewn in for protection when diving onto hard ground to make saves.

Soccer Techniques

A young player dribbles the ball
Image courtesy Libby A. Baker used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 2.5

Although any part of the body other than arms and hands can be used to play the ball in soccer, it's mostly a kicking game. Forceful, accurate passes can be made using the inside of the foot. More advanced players can make sudden shots with the outer edge of the foot, and can even use this technique to put spin on the ball, making it curve (or bend) in the air. When the ball bounces into the air, it can be struck with the head.

Individual players may "dribble" the ball with their feet to move it forward, but it is generally more efficient to pass the ball. One common offensive technique has an attacking player carry the ball at high speed down the sideline, toward the opponent's corner. Meanwhile some of his teammates run toward the front of the goal, being careful to stay onside. The player with the ball attempts to time a long cross pass to the front of the goal so that it reaches there just as the other players do, giving one of them a chance to kick or head it into the net.


Aside from the goalkeeper, the other ten players are divided up as forwards, mid-fielders (or halfbacks) and defenders (or fullbacks). The specific arrangement of players is up to the coach -- there are no rules dictating how many fullbacks, midfielders or forwards must be present. A given team's positioning can be described by three numbers indicating how any of each kind of player is on the field, starting with the fullbacks. So a team playing a 4-4-2 formation would have four fullbacks, four midfielders and two forwards.

Fullbacks generally stay behind their teammates, making sure the opponents are unable to generate scoring opportunities. When their goal is under attack, they will 'mark' an opposing player and stay close to him to keep him from receiving a pass. However, many teams have had success with fullbacks who occasionally make surprise attacks. Midfielders have a difficult job, as they must support the fullbacks in their defensive duties, but also control the center of the field and set up scoring chances for the forwards. Forwards tend to play in the opponent's half of the field, always working to bring the ball closer to the net for a shot at the goal.

Some formations use a sweeper, a fullback who covers a wide area in front of the goal. Alternately, a striker may be used -- this a forward who is devoted almost solely to attacking, constantly driving up the middle toward the opponent's goal in hopes of receiving a cross pass.

Soccer Leagues and Championship Cups

The Premiere League trophy
Public domain image

Most soccer playing nations have a domestic league in which teams associated with their home cities vie against each other for the league championship. Players from all over the world can sign on to these teams, although some leagues have rules requiring a minimum number of players from the league's home country per team. Many domestic leagues emulate the system used in England.

The English Premier League, by some estimates the most successful and popular sports league in the world, is the highest tier of professional football in that country. Below it is the Coca Cola Championship League; also know as the First Division. There are also second and third division teams, as well as regional leagues. The key to the whole system is the concept of promotion and relegation. At the end of the season, the bottom three teams in any division are 'relegated,' or sent down to the next lowest division, where they will compete next season. The top three teams of a division (except for the Premier League) are 'promoted' into the next higher division. Usually, the top two teams are automatically promoted while the next four teams compete in a playoff for the remaining promotion spot. Being promoted to a higher division means a major boost in television coverage and the resulting revenue.


Club teams from domestic leagues in Europe also compete against each other in various cup competitions, such as the Champions League and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Cup. These prestigious tournaments pit the best teams from various domestic leagues each year. South American club teams have a similar tournament, Copa Libertadores de América. The major club competition in the United States is the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Members of the U.S. Men's National Soccer team during practice prior to the 2006 World Cup.
Courtesy of Jarrett Campbell

Each soccer-playing nation also has a national team, made up of the best players who are citizens of that country. All national teams are part of FIFA, and they are also part of a regional division. For example, UEFA is FIFA's European division. Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) is the division for that region. National teams compete within their division in a series of matches to determine rankings. They also compete in national cups, such as the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the UEFA European Football Championship. These competitions, along with a long series of qualifying matches, set up world rankings to determine which teams are eligible to enter the biggest international tournament of all: the World Cup. Held every four years (the last one was held in 2006), the World Cup is a massive event on par with the Olympics. The winners go down in history as one of the greatest football teams to ever play.

FIFA and Soccer Worldwide

The FIFA World Cup trophy.
Image courtesy Ulf Dietrich

Soccer has grown to enormous levels of popularity since World War II, and FIFA has more member nations than the UN. The quadrennial World Cup tournament sets off a wave of soccer mania that encompasses the entire world. With that kind of popularity comes the chance for big profits.

The average annual salary for a player in the English Premier League was about $1.3 million as of 2006 (based on May 2007 exchange rates). Lower-tiered leagues have lower salaries, but the average salary in England’s fourth division is still almost $90,000 [Source: The Sport Independent]. British Sky Broadcasting paid $1.77 billion for the rights to broadcast English Premier League games [Source: BBC]. England is a hotbed of football, though, and in countries where the sport is not quite as popular (or the economy can’t support such huge salaries), players earn considerably less. Players in the U.S.’s MLS make more than they did just a few years ago, but the numbers don’t compare to the money made in European leagues. A few players earn salaries with six digits, but some earn as little as $11, 700 per year, the league minimum [Source: The Washington Post]. Those players would almost certainly need to hold a second job to make ends meet.


Soccer’s legions of fans show their team or national pride in different ways around the world. They wear the team colors or paint them on their faces. Many international matches feature a great deal of flag waving in the stands. Unison chanting or singing is popular in Europe, with certain songs being associated with particular teams. Perhaps most famous is “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” sung by supports of Liverpool F.C. In some countries, fans light flares or even start celebratory fires in the stands, obviously dangerous practices.

The dark side of soccer is revealed by hooligans, fans whose behavior escalates to violence and vandalism. Some hooligans are fans who take devotion to their favorite team too far, attacking opposing fans and destroying property. Other hooligans have little interest in the sport and simply use it as an outlet for their antisocial tendencies. Hooliganism has been curbed by fierce crackdowns in Europe, with known offenders banned from attending matches (or even from traveling to the place where a match is being held), and teams being harshly penalized for the misbehavior of their fans. Club penalties include loss of league points or being forced to play matches in empty stadiums, denying the team any ticket sales revenue.

Even without malicious intent, the huge crowds at soccer matches can turn deadly. Stadium collapses and stampedes caused by overexcited fans have caused thousands of deaths. In 1946, an FA Cup match was played in Bolton, England with dead bodies lying along the sidelines after a barrier collapsed. Over 300 were killed during riots at an Olympic qualifier between Peru and Argentina in 1964. A stampede in Moscow in 1982 killed 340 people, and Britain’s worst football disaster occurred in 1989 when 96 fans were crushed in a stampede prior to an FA Cup match [Source: Hunt].

Great Soccer Players



Even the most casual soccer fan has probably heard of Pelé. The Brazilian star played for club team Santos, but truly made his mark in international competition. Hitting his peak in the 1970 World Cup tournament, Pelé led Brazil to victory in what is considered by many one of the greatest displays of soccer in history. He finished his international career with 96 goals, and ended his career in the U.S.'s NASL (North American Soccer League), playing for the New York Cosmos [Source: Hunt]. His skill and fame single-handedly elevated the popularity of the sport in the United States.

Mia Hamm

The single most dominant player in women’s soccer, Mia Hamm’s legacy includes not just a record for most international goals that may never fall (158 of them in 275 games), but a legion of American girls who discovered a love for soccer and a role model for strength and perseverance.


Bobby Moore

England’s Bobby Moore is practically a saint in his home country. The fullback captained his national team to a 1966 World Cup victory and gave a heroic but futile performance in 1970 against Pelé’s Brazilian team [Source: Hunt]. A virtually unbeatable defender, Moore was also adept at setting up offensive strikes with long, accurate passes.

Diego Maradona

Maradona’s dribbling skills and eye for open space made him the most stunning player in the world in the 1980s. Despite a career overshadowed by drug scandals, he led his home nation of Argentina to a World Cup victory in 1986. That tournament included the infamous “Hand of God” goal, in which Maradona appeared to have headed the ball into the net. He later admitted that he had partially used his fist to punch it in.

For lots more information on soccer, other sports and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links


  • BBC News. 'Football TV rights bids submitted.'
  • FIFA. '2002 FIFA World Cup TV Coverage.',3509,10,00.html
  • Harris, Nick. '£676,000: The average salary of a Premiership footballer in 2006.' The Indpendent. April 11, 2006.
  • Hornby, Hugh. "Soccer." Dk Pub, June 2000. ISBN 978-0789462848.
  • Hunt, Chris. "The Complete Book of Soccer." Firefly Books (October 26, 2006). ISBN 978-1554071616.
  • Murray, Bill. "The World's Game: A History of Soccer." University of Illinois Press, January 1, 1998. ISBN 978-0252067181.
  • "Ball Construction and Design."
  • Washington Post. "MLS 2006 Salaries." longterm/2006/mls.salaries.html
  • Widdows, Richard. "Arco Book of Soccer Techniques and Tactics." MacMillan Publishing Company, July 1984. ISBN 978-0668058919.