The Players – Law 3



“Law 3 – The Players,” of the Laws of the Game of soccer, essentially determines the number of players who may play in a match and how substitutions are handled. Because this Law is oriented toward the highest levels of soccer, playing 11 v 11 with minimal use of substitutes, it is probably the one that is most modified by “local rules” in the United States.

In summary, Law 3 states that a match is intended to be played by two teams of 11-players each, one of whom is designated as the goalkeeper, and that a match can’t start or continue if either team has fewer than seven players. Further, in competitions at the highest levels, only a maximum of five substitutes may be used during regulation time, from a group of up to fifteen pre-authorized potential substitute players.  Competition rules may permit one additional substitute to be used in extra time.  Specific procedures must be followed when a substitution is made. Law 3 also specifies the sanctions to be imposed for violations of any part of the rule.

The majority of soccer games in the United States are not played according to the strict direction of this rule. These games are played under modified “local rules” that address everything from playing youth matches with teams using fewer players, known as “small- side” or “short-side” games, to unlimited substitution or re-substitution (“return substitution”) of all players on the team, in order to provide for equal exposure and fairness. Recently, Law 3 was modified to acknowledge and permit up to five substitutions and re-substitution “in youth, veterans, disability and grassroots football.”

As with all aspects of the Laws of the Game, coaches must first read and understand the specifics of Law 3 and its implementation. This includes both the rule and the interpretations of the rule. Second, they must find out how the law is modified for their particular circumstances and competitions (the local rules). This involves:

• The maximum number of players allowed on the roster
• If formal rosters and player passes are used, the procedures affecting them
• The maximum number of players on the field in a game
• The minimum number of players to start a game
• The minimum number of players to continue a game
• If a goalkeeper is even used
• How to ensure a change in goalkeeper is recognized by the Referee
• The number of substitutes allowed in a match
• If players may be re-substituted (returned)
• When substitutions are permitted (this usually involves a list of the acceptable “stoppages in play”)
• The procedures for making a substitution
• The specific procedures for changing the goalkeeper
• Additional permanent concussion substitutions – Competitions may use additional permanent concussion substitutions in accordance with the protocol listed under the “Notes and modifications” section of the Laws of the Game.  (See Soccer Coaching Tips below.)

Technically, Law 3 states that for the substitution procedure (at the highest levels):

“The names of the substitutes must be given to the referee before the start of the match.  Any substitute not named by this time may not take part in the match.

To replace a player with a substitute, the following must be observed:

  • the referee must be informed before any substitution is made
  • the player being substituted:
        • receives the referee’s permission to leave the field of play, unless already off the field, and must leave by the nearest point on the boundary line unless the referee indicates that the player may leave directly and immediately at the halfway line or another point (e.g. for safety/security or injury)
        • must go immediately to the technical area or dressing room and takes no further part in the match, except where return substitutions are permitted
        • if a player who is to be substituted refuses to leave, play continues
        The substitute only enters:
              • during a stoppage in play
              • at the halfway line
              • after the player being replaced has left
              • after receiving a signal from the referee
          • The substitution is completed when a substitute enters the field of play; from that moment, the replaced player becomes a substituted player and the substitute becomes a player and can take any restart.
            All substituted players and substitutes are subject to the referee’s authority whether they play or not.”

Each team must have a captain on the field of play who wears an identifying armband.  The team captain has no special status or privileges but has a degree of responsibility for the behavior of the team.

Soccer Coaching Tips:

Coaches also need to educate themselves on the following:

– What constitutes a forfeit and how it is determined
– How to properly inform referees of local rules before a match – this should involve a printed handout to be given to the referees as soon as possible before a match
– At each match, how the referee wants to be informed when the coach wants to make a substitution
– If an Assistant Referee is present at any given match, how he wants to be informed when the coach wants to make a substitution
– Even though a goalkeeper change during the halftime interval may not require informing the referee, tell the referee anyway
– The effects of “outside agents” such as dogs, people, siblings and overhanging limbs on trees
– The location and expected behavior of “Team Officials”
– Players being allowed to go outside of the field during normal play
– Changing the goalkeeper with a field player who is already in the game
– Allowance or disallowance when a goal is scored with an extra person on the field
– If a player even remotely shows signs or symptoms of a concussion – or if they have been seen having unusual contact to the head – they must be removed from the game immediately and given medical attention. (See: Concussions)

New coaches, particularly at the youth level, should learn the “I want to make a substitution” hand signal: rotating both hands around each other at chest level (used after calling out and getting the referee’s or assistant referee’s visual attention).

Also, particularly at the youth level, coaches need to instruct their players that, when they go in as a substitute, they must specifically call out the name of the player with whom they are exchanging. This should be emphasized with a “low-five” hand-tap by the two players as they are crossing paths. The performance of these two actions is particularly beneficial when coaches are making multiple substitutions at the same time in order to ensure that an equal number of players come off to the number going in. Of course, each player needs to be told in advance the name of the person for whom they are substituting. It is further helpful at this time to re-emphasize the position being taken. As a last step, the coach should count the players as they come off so that if they sent “four in,” they can confirm “four out.”

Players also need to be clearly instructed on how substitutions are performed.  Youth players just learning the game can hear “go in for Johnny” and immediately run onto the field with great enthusiasm.  They must be taught how to wait for permission and what “permission” looks like.

If a player enters the field of play without the referees permission, when required, and interferes with play, a direct free kick is awarded.

If a player changes places with the goalkeeper, other than at halftime (or the period between the end of the match and the start of extra time and/or kicks from the penalty mark), without receiving the referee’s permission, the referee allows play to continue, but cautions both players when the ball is next out of play.

Players coming out are to do so quickly.  If the player does not leave expeditiously, a caution (yellow card) may be issued by the referee.

Players identified as a Captain must be taught their duties for the coin toss and that they must immediately get control of a player who approaches a referee improperly.

The technical language in Law 3 limits the opportunities to substitute at the highest levels:

Official Competitions
The number of substitutes, up to a maximum of five, which may be used in any match played in an official competition will be determined by FIFA, the confederation or the national football association. For men’s and women’s competitions involving the 1st teams of clubs in the top division or senior ‘A’ international teams where competition rules permit a maximum of five substitutes to be used, each team:  -has a maximum of three substitution opportunities*, and -may additionally make substitutions at half-time.  *Where both teams make a substitution at the same time, this will count as a used substitution opportunity for both teams. Multiple substitutions (and requests) by a team during the same stoppage in play count as one used substitution opportunity.

Extra Time
If a team has not used the maximum number of substitutes and/or substitution opportunities, any unused substitutes and substitution opportunities may be used in extra time.  Where competition rules permit teams to use one additional substitute in extra time, each team will have one additional substitution opportunity.  Substitutions may also be made in the period between full-time and the start of extra time, and at half-time in extra time – these do not count as used substitution opportunities.  The competition rules must state:  -how many substitutes may be named, from three to a maximum of fifteen, and -whether one additional substitute may be used when a match goes into extra time (whether or not the team has already used the full number of permitted substitutes).

Other Matches
In senior ‘A’ international team matches, a maximum of fifteen substitutes may be named of which a maximum of six may be used.  In all other matches, a greater number of substitutes may be used provided that:  -the teams reach agreement on a maximum number, and -the referee is informed before the match.  If the referee is not informed, or if no agreement is reached before the match, each team is allowed a maximum of six substitutes.

For referees, technical language is also included in Law 3 that addresses if a goal was scored with an extra person on the field:  “If, after a goal is scored, the referee realizes, before play restarts, that an extra person was on the field of play when the goal was scored, and that person interfered with play:

– the referee must disallow the goal if the extra person was:

    • a player, substitute, substituted player, sent-off player or a team official of the team that scored the goal; play is restarted with a direct free kick from the position of the extra person
    • an outside agent who interfered with play unless a goal results…; play is restarted with a dropped ball

– the referee must allow the goal if the extra person was:

    • a player, substitute, substituted player, sent-off player or team official of the team that conceded the goal
    • an outside agent who did not interfere with play”

Historical note:  The legendary soccer great Pele was directly responsible for implementation of substitutions in the game.  Originally, there was no provision for substitutions, but he was being hacked so badly in attempts by opponents to take him out of the matches that something had to be done.

An additional permanent concussion substitution occurs when a player who has an actual or suspected concussion is substituted and takes no further part
in the match. This substitution does not count as one of the ‘normal’ permitted substitutions (or substitution opportunities, where applicable).

• Each team is permitted to use a maximum of one ‘concussion substitute’ in a match.
• A ‘concussion substitution’ may be made regardless of the number of substitutes already used.
• In competitions in which the number of named substitutes is the same as the maximum number of ‘normal substitutes’ that can be used, the ‘concussion substitute’ can be a player who has previously been substituted and may be used at any time, regardless of the number of substitutes already used.
• When a ‘concussion substitute’ is used, the opposing team then has the option to use an ‘additional substitute’ for any reason.
• The substitution procedure operates in accordance with Law 3 – The Players (except as outlined otherwise below).

A ‘concussion substitution’ may be made:

• immediately after a concussion occurs or is suspected;
• after an on-field assessment and/or an off-field assessment; or
• at any other time when a concussion occurs or is suspected, including when a player has previously been assessed and has returned to the field of play.
• If a team decides to make a ‘concussion substitution’, the referee/fourth official is informed, ideally by using a substitution card/form of a different color.
• The player with concussion or suspected concussion is not permitted to take any further part in the match, including penalties (penalty shoot-out), and should, where possible, be accompanied to the dressing room and/or a medical facility.
• The opposing team is informed by the referee/fourth official that it has the option of using an ‘additional substitute’ and an ‘additional substitution’ opportunity, which may be used concurrently with the ‘concussion
substitution’ made by the other team or at any time thereafter (except as outlined otherwise in the Laws of the Game).
• Making a ‘concussion substitution’ is separate from any limit on the number of ‘normal substitution’ opportunities.
• However, if a team makes a ‘normal substitution’ at the same time as a ‘concussion substitution’, this will count as one of its ‘normal substitution’ opportunities.
• Once a team has used all its ‘normal substitution’ opportunities, it cannot use a ‘concussion substitution’ to make a ‘normal substitution’.
• Where a team makes a ‘concussion substitution’, the opposing team can use an ‘additional substitute’ and receives an ‘additional substitution’ opportunity. This additional opportunity can be used only for the ‘additional substitute’ and not for a ‘normal substitute.’

NOTICE:  This article is based on the soccer Laws of the Game as maintained by The International Football Association Board (IFAB).  As represented in the article, the Laws may be paraphrased, edited for “American English” readability, or quoted in whole or in part.  Supplemental wording presented by® should be provided in brackets.  Every effort has been made to be faithful to the letter, spirit, and intent of the Laws however, since the Laws are subject to modification annually by the IFAB, recent changes may not be currently reflected.  Although national associations are permitted to institute local rules changes to the Laws, particularly for “youth, veterans, disability and grassroots football,” the IFAB is the original source for the official English-language version of the Laws of the Game.  If there is any question, the Laws of the Game may be found at

© Copyright, John C. Harves