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How To Call A Foul In Soccer?

How To Call A Foul In Soccer?

Like most of the world’s other sports, soccer has its share of actions categorized as fouls. These actions are either committed intentionally or unintentionally.

The actions that fall into the foul category are clearly stated in the Laws of the Game (the official rule book of soccer). In addition, the 12th law, ‘Fouls and Misconducts’, addresses all offenses and resulting disciplinary actions.

The officiating match referee is solely responsible for interpreting the game’s laws on the pitch and calling out fouls. As a result of this, several decisions taken are sometimes considered controversial.

Since the law’s interpretations are subject to the referee’s discretion, certain actions that may be considered as a foul in one match may be overlooked by another referee in another match.

Clear fouls may be easy to call out, but certain actions fall under the grey areas of the law where they’re not expressly stated. Actions like these, by law, are subject to the referee’s prerogative.

To help soccer referees in their decision-making, the governing bodies introduced the Virtual Assistant Referee (VAR). When in doubt, match referees can use the VAR to cross-check if previous decisions were correct or wrongly judged.

With this in mind, this article intends to examine the aspects of offenses that are considered fouls in soccer. It also highlights possible sanctions, cautions, or actions taken by the referee to restart gameplay.

How to call a foul in soccer?

During gameplays, the match referee is the only individual (including officials and non-officials) on/out of the pitch that can call a foul. In other words, irrespective of whether a play-action is deemed a foul by the Laws of the Game, the match referee is the only authorized official to acknowledge it by blowing the whistle.

When the match referee calls a foul, it results in the stoppage of play. When fouls cause stoppage of play, the referee resumes gameplay with a free kick — direct or indirect — or penalty kick depending on where the foul was committed.

To ensure fairness in games, referees are trained to apply the laws in line with the spirit of the game. Do referees get it right all the time as regards calling for a foul? Maybe not! However, players, coaches, and fans are advised to respect their decisions.

soccer referee giving a yellow card after a foul

For a match referee to consider an action a foul in soccer, it must fall within these parameters;

  • it must have happened during gameplay
  • the action must have been done on the pitch
  • a player on the field must have committed the foul
  • It must be done against another on-field opponent player

For better understanding, a foul cannot be said to have occurred if a substitute player performs an unfair action towards a player on the field. The same is true if a player on the field intentionally or unintentionally tackles the match referee.

It would certainly attract disciplinary actions but would fall within the confines of Misconducts rather than Fouls.

Depending on the severity of the foul, subject to the discretion of the referee, a cautionary card (Yellow card) may be issued. Persistent fouling may cause a player to be sent off.

Several situations constitute a foul in soccer. Since fouls can only be committed on the field of play during gameplay and by on-field players, let’s examine foul situations using two distinct playing positions — goalkeepers and outfield players.

Foul action calls for goalkeepers

Although the rules of soccer apply to all players on the field, goalkeepers have special rules that enable them to perform their goal protection duties. As a sport played with the foot, goalies are the only players allowed to touch the ball with their hands.

While it may seem like a privilege or advantage, it also comes with its limitations. Here are possible situations that can result in a foul for goalkeepers.

Holding the ball for more than six seconds

It is not one of the most popular rules in soccer, but it does exist for good reasons. In all of their wisdom, the governing bodies included this rule in its over 200-page Laws of the Game to prevent goalkeepers from wasting time.

According to the rule, goalkeepers are expected to control and release the ball (by passing or shooting) within six seconds. You may be wondering if goalies obey this six-second rule because some goalkeepers have been known to hold on for just a few more seconds.

goalkeeper holds a ball for long time

While it may be uncommon for referees to count down six seconds every time the ball falls into the hands of the goalkeeper, there have been situations where a referee acknowledged a foul because the goalie held on to the ball for more than six seconds.

A good example happened in the 2015/2016 UEFA Europa League match between Liverpool and Bordeaux. Liverpool’s goalie at that time, Simon Mignolet, decided to hold on to the ball for about 22 seconds.

This did not sit well with the match referee as he immediately blew his whistle for a foul. As a result, an indirect free-kick in the penalty area was awarded to Bordeaux.

When a goalie commits a foul of this nature, an indirect free-kick within the penalty area is awarded.

Breaking the back-pass rule

What is the back-pass rule? Just as the name signifies, the rule forbids goalies from touching the ball with their hand if a deliberate pass is made to them with the foot by a teammate.

The rule was later added to the Laws of the Game because players were using the back pass to delay gameplay and waste time.

Back passes are common practices that occur mostly between defenders and their goalkeepers. If you observe closely, whenever an outfield player (more commonly defenders) kicks the ball back to a goalie, the goalie uses his foot to make first contact with the ball before handling it.

When a goalkeeper touches the ball directly with his or her hands, from a back pass, the referee blows his whistle to acknowledge a foul. Like the previous offense, this results in an indirect free-kick to the opponent. The indirect free-kick will also be taken from within the penalty area.

In the heat of the moment, goalies can become overwhelmed with thoughts and distractions and fall prey to the sanctions of this rule.

goalkeeper diving to catch soccer ball with his left hand

A notable example of the goalie attempting to avoid breaking the rule was in the game between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in the semi-final of the 2017/2018 UEFA Champions League game.

Sven Ulreich, the goalkeeper for Bayern Munich at the time, received a back pass from one of his teammates. As a result of a miscalculation, he dropped down to catch the ball with his hands but immediately realized it was against the rules. This split-second blunder and an attempt to correct it resulted in a goal.

Touching the ball after release without other players’ contact

This is a straightforward rule punishable with an indirect free-kick within the penalty area. The match referee considers it a foul and would stop gameplay to allow the indirect free-kick to be taken.

When a goalkeeper makes a save or somehow has the ball in his possession, he must continue to play immediately without delay to ensure fairness to the opposing team.

When a goalie releases the ball by either passing or shooting, the ball must make contact with another player on the field before the goalie can touch the ball a second time.

goalkeeper shooting a soccer ball

Aggressive tackles to prevent a goal-scoring opportunity

Goalies are not generally known to be involved in aggressive tackles, but some can take their goal-preventing duties a little too seriously. Players are required to maintain the spirit of the game and engage each other in a sportsmanlike manner.

When goalkeepers make careless and reckless tackles, it can result in a foul. Since the goalkeeper resides within the 18-yard box, the referee blows the whistle to stop gameplay when a foul is adjudged to have taken place.

Actions such as these usually require a direct freekick to restart play. However, if it happens within the 18-yard box, the referee points at the penalty spot for a penalty kick.

Depending on the nature and severity of the tackle, the referee decides if the action attracts a cautionary card (Yellow card) or a send-off card (Red Card).

As earlier explained, this is one of those situations when a foul and misconduct are said to have taken place.

Foul action calls for outfield players

Outfield players include all other positions on the field of play, excluding the goalkeeper. Since a foul can occur anywhere on the pitch, we can also categorize the goalkeeper as an outfield player when he is outside of the penalty box.

When a goalie leaves the 18-yard box (commonly referred to as the penalty area/box), he is stripped of all special privileges he may enjoy.

Since he’s unable to touch the ball with his hands outside the penalty box, these foul actions to be discussed will apply to him or her.

In other words, the term “outfield players” would include players in other positions (defenders, midfielders, and strikers) and also the goalkeeper when he or she is outside the 18-yard box.

soccer referee giving a yellow card and soccer player is begging

All related handball offenses

Other than during throw-ins, outfield players are prohibited from touching the ball with their hands. There are a few grey areas on what constitutes a handball.

Still, when there’s a deliberate use of the hands or when a player positions his or her hands in an unnatural position, a handball offense or foul is said to have taken place once ball contact is confirmed.

Handball offenses are considered an unfair advantage to the team that commits it. For this reason, the match referee calls for a stoppage of play and restarts it with a direct freekick.

The direct free kick is taken from the area where the offense took place. However, a penalty kick is given if it occurs within the penalty area.

Preventing the opponent from advancing with the ball

While this may seem self-explanatory, it is important to note that it is regarded as a foul whether contact was made or not. It is one of those offenses that fall within the spheres of both fouls and misconducts.

To impede an opponent, with contact, from advancing with the ball takes the form of kicking, tugging, and striking. A foul is said to have taken place as long as the contact action prevents the opponent from moving and gives undue advantage to the fouling player.

There are times when players may unintentionally make contact with the opposition. For example, think of a situation where a player falls onto an advancing opponent for support in trying to regain his balance. If this action causes the opponent to lose control of the ball, the referee blows for a foul.

Generally, when an opponent is prevented from advancing with the ball through contact, a direct freekick is taken to restart play.

two soccer player prevent each other from advancing the ball

To impede an opponent without contact can occur when a player makes a deliberate trick or feint. For instance, a player may pretend to initiate a dangerous tackle causing the opposition player with the ball to stop playing to protect himself. This gives an unfair advantage to the other player.

Whether or not contact was made is inconsequential for the match referee. The referee alone judges if such action is unfair in line with the spirit of the game.

An indirect free-kick is awarded to restart gameplay, unlike in a situation in which contact is made.

Impeding the goalkeeper from clearing the ball or making passes to his teammates is also considered a foul. While goalkeepers try to honor the six-second rule, opponent players cannot deliberately prevent them from releasing the ball.

Actions like these are categorized as fouls and result in an indirect free-kick.

Aggressive tackles and gameplay

During gameplay, players are charged with the responsibility of ensuring the safety of other players. An excellent way to achieve this is to not deliberately endanger or bring to harm any member of your team or players on the other team.

Aggressive tackle is one sure way to jeopardize the safety of other players. The match referee will blow for a foul upon sighting actions that put the safety of a player into question.

kid soccer player tacking a ball agressively

Most unsportsmanlike tackles result in an indirect free-kick to restart play. However, if it occurs within the penalty area, a penalty is given.

Match referees, especially after several warnings, may issue a cautionary card or send off an erring player when he or she deems him or her a threat to others.

In today’s soccer world, when tackles or aggressive tackles are mentioned, a name that stands out is Sergio Ramos. Although regarded as one of the best soccer defenders, he’s an easy target for foul calls and cautions when playing.

Offenses outside the Laws of the Game

This is a bit difficult to explain because one would think the Laws of the Game should be encompassing. However, match referees are professionally trained to judge dynamic situations as the game progresses.

They are given a significant degree of discretion to decide what constitutes a foul and whether it necessitates caution. They are encouraged to apply common sense to actions that may seem too controversial to be pinpointed to a law in the book.

For this reason, match referees continue to face criticism on some of their decisions. Even with the inclusion of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), the onus still lies on the referee to take the final decision.

How to call a foul in futsal?

Futsal, considered one of the variants of soccer, is an indoor sport with fewer players (five players in each team) and a smaller pitch size. The rules of the game are somewhat similar to association football but have their shared differences.

Just like in association football, actions considered as fouls results in a direct free-kick, indirect free-kick, or a penalty kick if it occurs inside the penalty box.

Foul action calls for goalkeepers

All the fouls mentioned for goalkeepers in association football still apply in futsal. The only major difference is in the duration of time goalies can handle the ball.

Unlike in association football, where the law stipulates that goalies can only hold the ball for six seconds, in futsal, goalies can only hold the ball for four seconds. Anything beyond this, the referee has the liberty to blow for a foul.

goalkeeper in futsal holding a soccer ball

This type of fall is penalized with an indirect freekick. A reduction in the time may be a result of the size of the pitch and the duration of the game (40 minutes in total).

Foul action calls for outfield players

All of the situations highlighted and discussed in association football apply here in Futsal. These actions attract the same kind of punishment that is decided by the officiating match referee.

two soccer players in futsal

How to call a foul in beach soccer?

This soccer variant is played on the beach or on a sandy pitch. Generally, it has the same rules as soccer but has certain unique rules that apply solely to it. A notable mention of one of such unique rules is the prohibition in the use of soccer cleats.

Like Futsal, it allows just five players in a team. Another major difference it has with other soccer variants is the number of referees.

Unlike in association football, where a single referee (match referee on the pitch) has the sole responsibility of interpreting and enforcing the game’s laws, beach soccer has two referees. Both are charged with the same authority to interpret and enforce the laws.

In beach soccer, called-out fouls result in a free kick or a penalty kick if it occurs in the designated penalty area. Freekicks are taken from the halfway line of the pitch or from where the foul was committed.

four people playing beach soccer

Foul action calls for goalkeepers

Just like in Futsal, goalkeepers are only allowed to handle the ball for four seconds.

A violation of this rule will result in a four-second count that must be openly called out by the match referee closest to the action. After that, a free-kick is taken to restart play and must be taken from the midpoint of the imaginary pitch halfway line.

All other situations for fouls in association football and Futsal hold for goalies in beach soccer.

Foul action calls for outfield players

Just like in association football, all fouls apply and are subject to sanctions which can be a free kick or a penalty kick.

Awarded freekicks are either taken from the halfway line or at the spot the offense was committed.

How to call a foul in street soccer?

Although popularly regarded as an informal variant of soccer, it still has rules that govern its gameplay. A foul in street soccer results in an indirect free kick or penalty.

There are no direct freekicks in street soccer. At the blow of the whistle, all indirect freekicks are quickly taken.

Foul action calls for goalkeepers

In street soccer, what is termed fouls for goalies in other soccer variants mostly apply here. However, two major differences result in fouls in street soccer.

Unlike in association football and the others, goalies can handle the ball for a maximum of five seconds. Violation of this law results in a foul subject to a penalty kick to restart play.

Another difference is that when they leave the penalty area with the ball, goalies are not allowed to return into their penalty area with it. It is generally regarded as the Hermit Crab rule.

goalkeeper of street soccer

To prevent a foul, the goalie must lose possession of the ball just before making a re-entering into the penalty area. This foul also results in a penalty kick.

Foul action calls for outfield players

Actions deemed careless, reckless, and deliberate are considered fouls and can result in a blue or red card. Actions to restart the match are also an indirect free-kick or a penalty.

Fouls categorized as unfair usually attract a blue card. Unlike in association football, a yellow card results in a two-minute timeout for the player. The team would have to continue play without the player who returns back into the pitch with the referee’s consent, after the expiration of the two minutes.

street soccer players

When a red card is shown, it attracts a penalty. It is usually awarded for reckless and deliberate tackles.

Any player can be awarded a red card, including coaches. A red card means the individual has to leave the game area like in association football.

Other foul actions described in association football for outfield players are also considered fouls in street soccer.


Fouls are a regular occurrence in soccer. They occur irrespective of whether it was performed intentionally or not. Part of the duties of a match referee is to ensure fouls are called out to create fairness in the game.

Since fouls give an unfair advantage to a team, the referee stops gameplay to even the playing field (pun intended).

For most of the other soccer variants, fouls are generally the same. They are considered to be either careless, reckless, or deliberate.

Although there are few differences in fouls in some soccer variants, all fouls are sanctioned appropriately and will require either an indirect freekick, direct freekick, or a penalty kick to restart play.