How Does Soccer Work? The Basics To The Beautiful Game

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Soccer is widely known as the most popular sport. Although it’s popular, few people understand the rules, purpose, and structure of the sport. So how does soccer work? 

My name is Ethan, I have played soccer for the majority of my life. I’ve played at the highest levels in the youth soccer system in the United States. I currently play soccer for my local university. 

I’m super passionate about helping others become familiar with the sport. Given my playing experience and added research I’m going to provide you with the basics of soccer and how it works.

Soccer is being played in almost every country and billions watch it around the world. To put this into perspective, 1.5 billion people watched a single match, the 2022 FIFA World Cup final between Argentina and France. 

If you were one of those people and didn’t quite understand what was going on, then this will clearly break down the basics. 

The topics included:
Basic Rules Of The Game
League Structure

Let’s jump right in and discover how soccer works.

Basic Rules Of The Game

The purpose of soccer is to get the goal in the opposing team’s net without using your hands. There are 11 players on the field from each team. The goalkeeper is the only player on the team that can use their hands. Their main objective is to protect the goal and block shots from the opposing team. Three groups summarize positions, defenders, midfielders, and forwards. The graphic shows the general areas that these positions operate in on the field. 


In soccer, the offside rule is a position-based rule where a player is considered offside if they are nearer to the opponent’s goal line than both the second-to-last defender (usually the last outfield player) and the ball at the moment the ball is played to them unless they are level with the second-to-last defender or level with the ball when it is played to them. Being in an offside position is not an offense in itself. It becomes an offense if the player becomes actively involved in the play from that position. This happens by receiving the ball or interfering with an opponent.

Game Details

Each game is 90 minutes long with two 45-minute halves. There is stoppage time added to each half depending on how long play was stopped for. The clock doesn’t stop running and counts up instead of down like in the NBA and NFL. 

Penalties and Freekicks

When a player is fouled inside the goalbox that team is awarded a shot from the penalty spot which is 12 yards from the goal. The goalkeeper then tries to block the shot by guessing which direction the ball will go or reacting quickly to the shot. 

Free kicks are given to a fouled player outside the box. The ball is placed where the foul occurred and no one from the opposing team can be within ten yards of the freekick. 

If the ball goes out of bounds off one team, the other team throws the ball back in bounds to resume play. This is called a throw-in and there are no offsides on throw-ins so players can sit behind the defensive line if they choose. 

If a player gets a yellow card, they receive a warning for foul play or serious illegal tackles. If they receive two yellow cards then they are given a red card and are sent off the field immediately. Players can be given a straight red card if the foul is serious enough. 

League Structure

From this point on I will be referencing European league structure as an example. Most leagues around the world follow a similar structure with the exception being the Major League Soccer (MLS). 

Each country has a top-division league with lower-division leagues below it. Each league has what’s called promotion and relegation. Teams that finish at the top of their current division are promoted to a higher division for the next season. Teams that finish at the bottom are relegated or moved down to a lower division. This system helps maintain competitiveness throughout the entire league. It allows teams to progress or face new challenges depending on their success. 

When a team wins a league game they receive three points, a draw is one point, and a loss is zero points. The team at the top of the standings is crowned champion of the league, without playing in a playoff bracket. 

The MLS is different from the traditional league structure. There is an Eastern and Western Conference with 15 teams in each conference. The top 9 from each conference qualify for the MLS playoffs. The winner of the playoffs is the champion of the league allowing for a team that didn’t have the most points to still have a chance at winning the title.


A season consists of more games than just league games. There are tournaments and cups that teams participate in yearly if they qualify for them. Domestic cups such as the FA Cup in England or the Super Copa in Spain are examples of this. Teams from lower divisions also participate in these cups so it’s not just the teams in the top league playing in them. There are multiple domestic cups for different countries. England’s two biggest cups are the FA Cup and the Carabao Cup. This structure is generally replicated worldwide. 

European tournaments are what every team dreams of playing in. The Champions League, Europa League, and the Conference League are the main European tournaments. Teams can qualify for these tournaments by finishing high in their league standings. For example, the top 4 teams in the Premier League (England’s domestic league) earn a spot in the Champions League (UCL). The best teams from each league compete in this tournament. The second-tier teams from each league compete in the Europa League and so on for the Conference League. These trophies are prized silverware that are comparable to the NBA playoffs or the Super Bowl. 

During the off-season, players return to their home countries for international tournaments. Every four years the World Cup is played and it is the biggest sporting event in the world. The gap years are spent playing in qualifying matches to get into the World Cup and other international tournaments such as the Gold Cup. 

So How Does Soccer Work?

In summary, soccer is a game that’s easy to understand but incredibly exciting to watch. The offsides rule, physical contact, and game duration all play into what makes the game so great. There are no commercial breaks during the half and you can expect a physical matchup that consists of tactical strategy. Each game has a remarkable display of skill from the world’s best athletes. 

Soccer is all about two teams trying to score goals. There are different leagues in different countries where teams compete. The best teams move up to a higher league, while the struggling ones go down. Promotion and relegation are what maintain a high level of competition throughout the league. The point system is where a win is three points, a draw is one point and a loss is zero points. This ensures that the points reflect the team’s overall success for that season. 

One of the most exciting parts is the tournaments, like the World Cup. This is where countries compete once every four years for the most sought-after trophy in sports. The second biggest tournament, the UEFA Champions League, happens annually and includes the best clubs in the world. These events are massive and draw millions of viewers. 

Soccer is evolving as time goes on, but for the most part, the traditional structure of the leagues, tournaments, and rules stay the same. 

What’s The Next Step?

I hope that this article provides you with a good foundation for understanding how soccer works. 

The inner workings of soccer are a bit more complicated and are reliant on you knowing the positions and formations in soccer. Check out our articles on the best soccer formations and all positions in soccer.

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Ethan is the owner of Skillful Soccer and has over 20 years of playing experience. He is currently a collegiate soccer player and is thrilled to share his insights for all things related to soccer.

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