Your Guide To Learning Football, According to Coaches

Sport & Activity

Football coaches explain the basics of how to play football.

Last updated: 13 September 2022
7 min read
How to Play Football, According to Football Coaches

Whether you played as a kid or have never kicked a ball, you may find that learning how to play football is easier than it seems. The game itself is straightforward, the positions are interchangeable and the camaraderie between players can motivate more kickabouts and practices.

How to Play Football for Beginners

Traditionally, a football game involves 22 players on the pitch and each team has 10 outfield players with one goalkeeper.

"A full game is 90 minutes, split into two 45-minute halves", said Carl Wild, a certified football coach with the English Football Association and Scottish Football Association, management expert and author of "Essential Practices for Player Development".

"There are no breaks or [time-outs] within those halves. If there is a stop for an injury or substitution, officials will stop the watch and, usually, after 90 minutes, three or four minutes are added to the time", he said.

(Related: How to Clean Football Boots)

Football pitch sizes vary, but they're usually about the same size as an American football field (110 metres in length). However, you can play on smaller pitches of between 45 and 90 metres. A football field is called a pitch and is "split in half, so each team has a half they start in", Wild said. Located within each half is an area called the penalty box or 18-yard box, which is positioned around the goal.

Scoring in football is quite simple—one goal equals one point. And, if it's a league game, one team doesn't have to win the game. Wild said one team will win or they will have what's called a draw. A draw is when the score is tied, which can occur even if the game ends at 0–0. This changes in a competition format.

"After 90 minutes, if it's the same score, you usually play another 30 minutes, split into two halves—so, 15 minutes and 15 minutes", he said. "At the end of that, if it's still the same, then it's a penalty shoot-out and that's usually five penalty kicks each, taken in turns", he said. For context, penalty kicks entail a player kicking the ball into the net with a goalkeeper defending the goal.

After penalty kicks, if one team scored more than the other, that team wins the game. If they don't score and the game is still tied, it goes into a round of sudden death, which is when players keep kicking penalty kicks until one team scores more than the other.

Player Positions (and the Difference Between Forward and Defence)

Football is the ultimate team sport in that anyone on the pitch can switch between defence and attack and score a goal, whatever their position. "The best way to describe all the positions in football is that they're all the same and require the same skills, it's just a matter of where you are on the pitch and what you want to do", said Ray Selvadurai, a three-time youth football national championship coach in New York City.

In the game, there are 10 outfield players on each team in either forward, defender and midfielder units and more specific roles within those units. "Knowing how you work together within those units is important", Wild said. This ensures each player contributes to the game in necessary and impactful ways.

  1. 1.How to Play Forward in Football:

    Forward is an offensive position, sometimes referred to as an "attacking" position. The players in forward positions are typically the ones scoring or creating goal opportunities by passing the ball to the striker.

    (Related: Every Position in Football, Explained)

  2. 2.How to Play Defence in Football:

    Defence is all about "defending and keeping the ball out of the goal and making sure that the other team doesn't get dangerous opportunities to score", Selvadurai said.

    While the main objective of a defender is to keep the ball away from the goal, a defender can also score.

    "That's one of the best parts about being a defender—you're kind of a two-way player", Selvadurai said. "You can get forward and try to score and at the same time you have to make sure that you're keeping the other team from getting scoring opportunities".

  3. 3.Goalkeeper:

    In football, there are two goalkeepers on the pitch, each protecting their team's goal. This position requires different skill sets than a defender or forward.

    "Not only do you have to keep the ball out of the net with your hands, but you also have to manage the game", Selvadurai said. "Goalkeepers see the entire pitch the entire time—they're usually very vocal and give [teammates] lots of directions", he said.

  4. 4.Midfielder:

    Selvaduri calls midfielders the "link-up players" because "they're really good distributors of the ball". They're the players who try to keep possession of the ball within their team and tend to switch between forward and defence roles the most.

  5. 5.Striker:

    A striker is a single player on the pitch situated closest to the other team's goal. This is an attacking or forward position and strikers are typically good at manoeuvring around defenders to score a goal.

The Rules of Football

Learning how to play football also means gaining a basic understanding of the rules. The more you play, practise and watch matches, the better you'll grasp these parameters, but going into the sport with some idea can help get you up to speed. Here are the basic rules of football.

  1. 1.No Hands:

    Using your hands is a big no-no in football. In football, it's against the rules to manoeuvre the ball with your hands and arms—this is often called a handball.

    "The handball rule is very important and a growing grey area", said Luke Toughey, a professional football coach at the University of Brighton. "No player other than the goalkeeper inside their marked-out area can touch the ball with any part of their arm below the sleeve of their shirt or it will be the opponent's ball", he said. That said, there are instances when the ball might be kicked in your direction and come in contact with your arms. Accidental cases like that are OK, as long as you don't use your arms to handle the ball.

  2. 2.Offside:

    This is another term you'll hear frequently in football—and one of the most important rules of the game. According to Toughey, offside means that "the furthest forward attacker on a team must have at least one opposition outfield defender between them and the opponent's goal or the attacker will be in an offside position".

    Being offside creates a situation where it might be easier for an attacking player to score a goal because there isn't anyone to defend the ball.

  3. 3.Foul:

    In football, foul play is against the rules. While it's up to the referee's discretion, fouls are when a player kicks, trips, pushes or showcases other types of unsportsmanlike behaviour towards an opponent.

  4. 4.Penalty:

    Just like other sports, penalties occur in football. The referee will call a penalty when a player makes a foul from inside the 18-yard box. Penalties are typically categorised by colour and the referee will hold up either a red or yellow card to communicate the penalty. Yellow cards in football mean dangerous or unsportsmanlike behaviour, whereas red cards mean the player is removed from the match.

    "It is fundamentally important to not commit a foul or handball inside your penalty area, as doing so will result in the opponent being awarded a penalty kick, whereby the opponent striker is statistically very likely to score a goal", Toughey said. "Even more important than not conceding a penalty is having a player sent off [the pitch], either by being handed a red card or two yellow cards for indecent conduct, such as a dangerous tackle", he said. When a player gets sent off the pitch, it means they are no longer allowed to participate in the game. This player also can't be replaced.

  5. 5.Corner Kicks:

    If the ball goes over the goal line but a goal is not scored and it is last touched by a player from the defending team, a corner kick is awarded to the attacking team. The corner kick restarts play, giving the attacking team a chance to redeem themselves.

  6. 6.Goal:

    A goal is when a player kicks the ball into the net of the opposing team. While forwards are more likely to score, any position and player on the pitch can score, including goalkeepers.

  7. 7.Throw-ins:

    If a player kicks the ball out of bounds, the referee gives a player from the opposing team (the team that did not last touch the ball) a throw-in. When throwing the ball back into bounds, players must keep both feet on the ground with both hands on the ball and above their head.

  8. 8.Penalty Kicks:

    When a foul occurs within the penalty box by the defending team, the opposing team gets a penalty kick, meaning they have the opportunity to score a goal with just the goalkeeper defending. Penalty kicks must occur 9.15 metres away from the penalty line, directly at the goalkeeper.

  9. 9.Free Kicks:

    When a foul occurs anywhere else on the pitch (not the penalty box), it's a free kick to the opposing team. A direct free kick means that a player gets to kick the ball directly at the goal, which may be blocked by a group of defenders on the opposing team. And an indirect free kick is when a player must kick the ball to a teammate first before it can go into the goal (and count).

    Words by Jessie Quinn

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