Every team sport that exists has rules relating to how many players are allowed to play for a team at any one time. With American football it is 11, for baseball, it is 9, for basketball it is only 5, and for soccer, the number is usually 11.
We say usually because there are many circumstances and events that can alter that figure of 11 up or down. Also, in most soccer matches it will not always be the same 11 players on each team who start the game, that will finish it.
In this article, we'll look at all the facts surrounding the number of players in soccer teams, how that number can be affected, and one or two unusual events in relation to players on the field.
One, Two, Three, Four...
You might think that is a rather unusual title for a section relating to soccer, but what it is meant to signify is that the game of soccer can be played by any number of players. If we put aside properly organized soccer leagues and tournaments, there is no rule to say how many people should play soccer in any given situation.
One person could play with their soccer ball alone and merely be kicking against a wall repeatedly. Two players could be practicing passing it to each other. Three might play one vs one with the third acting as a goalkeeper, with four players you now have a two versus two game, and so on.
We could continue until there are a whole crowd of people all playing a mass game of soccer, where anyone who wants to join in can do so. You can have as many people as you want to play although it is highly unlikely to get to the point where the world record number of players is challenged.
This was an incredible two thousand, three hundred and fifty-seven players (2,357) who took part in a sponsored challenge soccer match in Santiago, Chile, in 2016. The game was played continuously for 5 days, lasting 120 hours and the final score was a victory for the white team by 505 goals to 504 goals. There is no truth in the rumor that the shirt swapping after the game took a further 3 days to complete.
Eleven vs Eleven
For all properly organized soccer games, whether at an amateur or professional level, the number of players in each team should be eleven. Of those eleven players, ten will be outfield players and one player will be designated as the goalkeeper, who wears a different colored top from their teammates. Goalkeepers are also the only players on the soccer field who can legally handle the ball.
For the ten outfield players, their positions will generally be in one of three areas, namely defense, midfield or attack, and within each of those there are specific roles. The formation of each team may also differ depending on the tactics employed and philosophy of the team's coach.
Well-known formations include 4-3-3, 4-4-2, and 4-5-1, although there are others, with most teams also coached on how to alter their formation depending on whether the score line is in their favor or not.
Not Having Eleven Players Available
While at the professional level it would be highly unlikely for a team to fail to have eleven players available for a match, it is not impossible. Smaller clubs with limited squads have been known to ask for a postponement due to flu or other viral illnesses outbreaks which have rendered most of the players unwell.
Another reason is when a club has had players called up to play for their international team, and this has left the team with a limited number of players. In most countries, the top tiers of the league have no fixtures when international games are due to be played, but this doesn't apply to lower tiers. If a lower tier club has three or more players called up for international duty, the rules do allow for their match to be postponed.
It may surprise you to know that there was a time when there no substitutes in soccer, so if a player got badly injured, it was tough luck on their team who had to play on minus a player. This changed in the 1950s when one substitute was allowed for injuries. Progression led to two substitutions, and then in the late 1960s coaches were allowed to make tactical substitutions, as well as for injuries.
In recent years the number of substitutions has risen to three, with a fourth allowed if the game goes to extra time. The number of named substitutes that are available has also risen, with as many twelve in some tournaments, which means there is effectively enough players for four teams to play instead of two.
Going Down to Ten or Fewer Players
There are two main reasons why a team might go down to ten or fewer players, and neither of them is desirable. The first is when a team has used all its allowed substitutes, and one of their players gets an injury which requires them to leave the field of play.
The second reason is for discipline where a player receives a straight red card, or a red card following a second yellow card. In this scenario even if a team has substitutes available it cannot simply put one on to replace the player sent off. However, they can make tactical changes and replace another player. This is normally the case if a goalkeeper is sent off, whereby an outfield player is taken off to be replaced by the substitute goalkeeper.
There are several examples where teams have been so undisciplined that they have had more than one player sent off, and been required to play with nine, eight or even seven players. The laws of soccer state that a match should be abandoned if either team has fewer than seven players on the field. In the rare cases where this occurs, the relevant soccer association imposes their own sanctions, which normally includes the team who did not have enough players on the field, forfeiting the match, and points.