Yep, the Rules For Substitutions in Soccer Are Just as Complicated as They Seem
Whether you’re a casual soccer fan or a die-hard, you’ve probably watched matches where players have been swapped out at some point during the game. These substitutions are a key part of the rules of the game – and match strategy – but they can also be a little bit complicated to understand.
Here’s everything you need to know about the current rules around soccer substitutions in high-level matches, including how many substitutions are allowed in soccer games at the Olympics and World Cup.
What Is a Substitution In Soccer?
Similar to many other sports, in soccer, a substitution means that a player currently on the field is pulled out of the game and replaced by an eligible substitute on the bench.
Key to the process of substitutions in soccer is the rule that, once a player has been pulled out, they cannot return to gameplay for the remainder of that match. If you’re a baseball fan, you can think of soccer substitutions the same way as a relief pitcher: necessary to relieve a starter’s fatigue, but removing that starter from the game permanently. (If you’re a “Ted Lasso” fan but not a full-time soccer fan, you might remember the substitution rule being a significant plot point for Jamie Tartt in the penultimate episode, too.)
There’s a certain level of strategy to coaches choosing when and if to use their substitutions. According to ESPN, many top coaches try not to use any of their substitutes in the first half, and the majority try to wait until at least 60 minutes in (barring a necessary substitution for injury). It’s a strategic way to make the best use of their players’ talents while also conserving energy, avoiding injury or burnout, and bringing in a fresh boost as the game enters its final phase.
Substitution Rules at the World Cup
A team in the World Cup tournament currently consists of 23 players: 11 starters and 12 potential substitutes. Until recently, teams were only allowed to make up to three substitutions per match. In 2020 (and later made permanent in 2021), The International Football Association Board (IFAB) made a rule change that raised the limit to five substitutions per team, per match.
However, there are only three opportunities to make substitutions during the game (plus halftime), which means that a team may end up substituting multiple players at once. In other words, a team can only pause gameplay three times (they can choose when those moments are) to make substitutions, but they can swap out more than one player during each pause.
If a match goes into extra time (perhaps due to a tie game), the official FIFA regulations for the 2023 World Cup allow one additional substitute to be used at that point. Even if a team has already maxed out their allotted substitutions during regular time, they can take advantage of the bonus substitution for the extra time period.
There’s also a secondary rule involving players who are injured or become sick at some point during the tournament. The official World Cup rules state that a player can be removed from a given match’s start list due to illness or injury and can be replaced with a substitute before the match even begins. In that case, however, that player cannot be selected as a substitute and be put on the field during that same match (but they can sit with eligible substitutes on the bench to watch).
If a player becomes sick or injured during the match and cannot continue, but their team has already used up all their allotted substitutions, their team must continue playing with fewer than 11 players. The official laws of the game only force a match to stop if one team is down to fewer than seven players. As soon as the ball goes out of play (that is, as soon as the game pauses for any reason) in this situation, the referee will stop the match, and what comes next (a rematch, a forfeit, etc.) is usually determined by the league’s rules and how much of the game has already been played.
Substitution Rules at the Olympics
According to the most recent set of Olympic soccer guidelines, released for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the rules for substitutions at the Olympics are pretty similar to rules at the World Cup. At those Olympics, there were fewer allowed substitutes – three – because game-day teams only consisted of 18 players, featuring 11 starters and 7 potential substitutes at a given match. Otherwise, the process and other rules remain the same.
Presumably, the Olympics will also increase the permitted number of substitutes to five per match starting with the Paris Olympics in 2024.