referree holding a substitution sogn

When Can You Substitute in Soccer

Published date: December 10, 2021

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Soccer is the world's most popular sport. Having most of the world play the game has had its rules standardized to make sure all who participate in the game are playing on an equal footing. An unfortunate consequence of this is that the rules can sometimes feel overwhelming for a lot of fans, particularly newer ones.

An example of this is the rules around substitutions. If you are a fan of soccer, read on to understand more about how substitution is done.

When Can a Player Be Substituted in Soccer?

Generally, substitutions are only permitted as long as the ball is not in play. They can occur any time during the game, but not when it is still ongoing; it has to be stopped first. The referee has to be notified of the substitution for it to be valid.

This rule applies to all the major soccer leagues worldwide, including La Liga, the World Cup, and the Premier League. However, the rules may vary for some leagues.

A substitution can only happen if a team hasn’t already used up all the three allowable substitutions. Most leagues allow only three substitutions during a game, with five being allowed in 2020/2021 as a special provision due to the pandemic.

Some of the scenarios that warrant substitutions include the following.

The ball is not in play

If the ball goes out of the field, or the game is stopped due to a foul, or another reason, the referee could allow a coach to make a substitution. However, the coaches should have informed the assistant referees in advance that they would like to substitute a player.

The first half comes to an end

Substitutions are permissible during the halftime of the game. A soccer match is typically 90 minutes long when not considering the extra time afforded. After the first half, the match comes to a stop and a break is issued. This is typically an opportunity for the teams to issue a player substitution.

When the second half ends

The second half is typically the last end of the match. Should the game close at a draw, extra time is warranted to give the match a chance to determine a winner. When the second half of the match is ending, the teams have the chance to make substitutions.

Coaches also get an additional opportunity for substitution when the extra time comes to a draw. They could also make substitutions before the beginning of the penalty kicks.

Referee shows players substitution during soccer match.

How do Substitutions Work?

Now that we have a good handle on when substitutions are permissible, we can answer the question of how they take place.

The coach notifies the assistant referee they would like to do a substitution

After the player warms up outside the field, the coach will let the assistant referee know that they need to substitute a player. The coach details the player who will be substituted and who on the bench will replace them.

The assistant referee notifies the main referee

The assistant referee informs the main referee about the coach's intent to make a substitution. The main referee will then alert the assistant referee to permit the substitution to take place unimpeded when they get a chance to.

The assistant can only permit the substitution to take place when the game is not in play. Substitutions are not allowed to happen when the game is still on; they have to wait until the ball is no longer in play.

The referee issues permission for the player to leave the soccer field

When the assistant referee decides to permit the substitution to take place, that is a signal to the player on the field that they have permission to leave the soccer field. Nevertheless, the player cannot be forced to leave. Should the player reason decide they want to stay in the field they have permission to do so.

However, it’s rare for a substituted player to remain on the field. 

The substitute gets in the field

The substituted player is only permitted to enter the soccer field after the other player has exited. When the outgoing player exits the field, the incoming player is issued a signal to get into the field. Upon entering the field, the player is treated in the same fashion as the last one was.

The rules on substitutions are outlined in Law 3 of soccer as ascribed by FIFA.

Can Return Substitutes Rejoin the Game?

Return substitutes are players that have left the field in favor of another player that has been chosen to replace them on the field. The rules are clear that in a regular soccer match with eleven players, return substitutes can’t be allowed back into the game.

However, they are permitted in special instances, for example in the case of youth games or games involving people with disabilities.

Players that had been substituted and joined a match can at a later time be substituted out under some conditions. This provision is allowed in case the substituted player is injured or suffers any problem. In this case, they can be removed and replaced with other players.

Why Do Substitutions Happen in the Late Game?

The number of substitutions allowed is few, typically three substitutions per game. Coaches typically make the substitutions in the late game in a bid to sway the outcome. A well-timed substitute could be the difference between a win and a loss.


Soccer coaches can make substitutions at any time in the game. However, they have to wait until the ball is not in play to make a valid substitution. The referees have to be informed of the substitution before it takes place. If the referee is not informed of the substitution then it cannot happen.

Each team is typically allowed three substitutions. Players that have been substituted are not allowed to return to the game unless under some conditions. For example, a player is only allowed back in if another player has been injured or another special case has occurred. The beauty of soccer comes from its restrictions; the more we learn about them, the more interesting the game is to play and watch.

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