What Is a Free Kick in Soccer? And When They’re Given

Soccer player in orange and red takes a free kick.

As someone who has played soccer their whole life, there are few things more disheartening than a teammate sailing a shot over the crossbar. This is especially true when it comes to free kicks in soccer, as they can be great goal-scoring opportunities. But before I ramble on too long we need to answer the question…

What is a free kick in soccer?

A free kick is how soccer games restart play after a foul occurs on the field. The type and severity of each foul determine whether the free kick is direct or indirect. Any player on the field can take a free kick and defenders must be 10 yards away from the spot of the ball.

The concept of free kicks may seem simple at first, but calling them isn’t always straightforward and there are several rules that govern how they can be taken. We’re going to cover both of these aspects in the rest of this article, as well as much more, so we encourage you to read on.

What Is a Free Kick in Soccer?

As mentioned earlier, free kicks are set pieces that restart play after a foul occurs in soccer. There are direct and indirect free kicks, with defenders setting up no closer than 10 yards away from the spot of the foul.

Depending on the speed of play and position of the offense, some offensive attacks quickly re-start the game without waiting for the allotted ten-yard distance by the defense, bypassing the need for a whistled restart by the referee.

This is a viable strategy as it can catch the defense off guard and out of position. Since the purpose of a free kick is to award an advantage to the offended team, both strategies are acceptable forms of play.

Several types of player-to-player contact fouls occur throughout a competitive soccer game that lead to free kicks, including pushing, tripping, and others.

The referee gauges the severity of each foul and interprets whether those fouls were committed intentionally or unintentionally and awards direct or indirect free kicks based on their perspective. 

Intentional fouls always result in direct kicks, while unintentional fouls result in indirect free kicks.  Foul calls on the field cannot be overturned by coaches or players.

Too much vocal disagreement from coaches and players can lead to penalty cards and their possible removal from the game.

What Is a Direct Kick in Soccer?

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Direct kicks in soccer are awarded when a player intentionally fouls another player or when any player other than the goalie touches the ball with their hands.

At the onset of a foul, the referee blows the whistle to stop the play of the game, points their arm directly at the goal, and instructs the offensive team where the ball should be placed. Players taking direct kicks can kick the ball directly into the goal, without the ball touching another player.

Common situations that result in a direct kick include the following:

  • A player is tripped from behind
  • A player throws their arm in the air to block a kick and the ball touches their hand/arm
  • A player is pushed with extended arms
  • A player sweeps the legs of a player on the opposing team while he/she is heading the ball
  • A player uses excessive force in battle for the ball

A handball, intentional or not, will always result in a direct kick. A handball occurs when the ball touches the hand or arm of any player on the field from either team. 

Depending on where the foul occurs and the distance from the goal, most offensive players will take direct aim at the goal in an attempt to score.

If the foul occurs in the backfield, players taking the direct kick will work to position the ball across the midfield line or as close to the opposing goal as possible for a potential scoring opportunity

If a foul is committed within the penalty box, whether it is intentional or unintentional, the referee will award a penalty kick. A penalty kick is a direct kick where the offensive player is awarded a shot on goal from 12 yards away from the center of the goal line.

No other player from either team can be inside the penalty box during a penalty kick, except for the defending goalie.

A penalty kick is a 1-on-1 match up of a single player versus the defending goalie. The player taking the penalty kick attempts to kick the ball into the net, while the goalie works to save the shot by blocking, catching, or deflecting the ball.

Referees often make a point to call intentional fouls early on in games to set the stage for unacceptable behavior, as well as to maintain safety among the players. 

What Is an Indirect Kick in Soccer?

Indirect free kicks in soccer are awarded when a player unintentionally commits a foul against a player on the opposing team.

Once the foul takes place, the referee blows their whistle to stop the play of the game, points their arm straight into the air to signal that it is an indirect kick, and instructs the offensive team where the ball should be placed. 

Indirect kicks can be shot directly at the goal with the intent to score but must touch another player on the field before crossing the goal line.

More often than not, the second touch comes from a player of the same team through an intentional pass or play. 

Although technically the ball can be touched by an opposing player off the indirect kick, enter the goal, and still be within the rules to count as a goal. A ball hitting off a defender’s foot and landing in the net would be an example of that. 

Common situations that result in an indirect kick include the following:

  • A player is slide tackled from the front by an opposing team player
  • A defender obstructs someone from getting the ball without playing the ball
  • A player battles for the ball against an opposing player with his/her cleated foot at a dangerous height
  • The goalkeeper picks up the ball with his/her hands after it’s directly kicked to them by a teammate

Offensive players need to be aware of the positions of their teammates and defenders when setting up for an indirect kick. Most teams develop plays and strategies to capitalize on indirect kicks.

Likewise, it is just as important to develop defensive tactics to use against indirect kicks, which could include high pressure pressing or pulling back from the first pass. 

Rules for Free Kicks

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Free kicks are signaled by the main referee on the field. A free kick does not have to be taken by the player to which the foul occurred.

Therefore, it pays to know the accuracy and leg strength of each player on the team, especially when direct kicks are awarded on the field. 

Once a foul is called, the ball must be placed in a stationary position for a direct or indirect kick. The offensive team cannot continue with the play of the game, without the ball coming to a complete stop.

If a team continues to play without the ball coming to a complete stop, the referee will blow his whistle and direct the offensive team where the ball should be placed, before blowing his whistle once again to resume play.

Opposing players must be 10 yards away from where the ball is placed until play resumes at the touch of the ball. If the player taking the kick doesn’t think the defenders are 10 yards away from the spot of the ball, they can ask the referee to measure out the distance.

The defensive team is allowed to form a wall, where players stand shoulder-to-shoulder, in an attempt to block the ball from reaching the goal.

With free kicks, the ball must be played within a reasonable amount of time. The offensive team can immediately take a free kick and play on, as well as wait for the opposing team to retreat 10 yards to give them space and time to plot where and how they want to place the ball.

While there is not an exact time limit specified for playing the ball, too long of a wait can result in a penalty card for delay of game. If that happens, possession of the ball shifts back to the other team.

No player substitutions are allowed during free kicks. As mentioned, the purpose of awarding a free kick is to give an advantage to the team that was fouled.

Therefore, further stalling the forward progression on the field with substitutions is not allowed. Substitutions in a game are only allowed when the ball goes out of bounds on the sidelines or is kicked beyond the goals lines on a shot attempt.

A quick reference for free kick rules:

  • The referee calls a foul by blowing their whistle and signals a direct or indirect kick with their arm
  • The ball must be stationary on the ground before restarting play
  • Any member of the offensive team can take a direct or indirect kick
  • Defenders must be 10 yards away from the ball unless the offensive team restarts quickly
  • No player substitutions are allowed during a direct or indirect kick
  • Direct kicks can go directly in goal, while indirect kicks must touch another player before crossing the goal line

Free kicks are a common occurrence throughout competitive soccer. It is important to understand the types of free kicks, direct and indirect, as well as the accompanying rules.

Once both are understood, further player development and strategy can be developed on the offensive and defensive side of the ball.

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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