What Is a Foul in Football? (Full Explanation)

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Football was seen as a gentleman’s game during its more formative years. Therefore, the idea of needing to create a system in order to stop players from fouling each other seemed alien to the members of the Football Association when they were creating the rules of the game hundreds of years ago. It was something that was developed after years of the game being played and the real-world scenarios that it threw up. So what is a foul in football? Check out this post to find your answer.

What is a foul in football?

A foul in football is seen as an unfair act by a player or players that the referee deems to break the laws of the game. A professional foul is a phrase given to an action in the world of professional football.

Essentially, it involves a player on the defending team fouling a player on the opposition side in order to stop them from scoring or having a clear goal-scoring opportunity. Equally, defending team players can’t handle the ball in a manner that will deny a clear goal-scoring chance.

A foul is punished by the awarding of a free-kick against the team that has committed the foul. Or they will have a penalty if the foul happens inside the offending team’s box.

The resulting free-kick or penalty may provide the attacking team with less of an opportunity to score than they had originally. Therefore, there is a clear incentive for the defending player to weigh up whether to foul or not.


Referees are then faced with a choice of whether the offense is worth issuing a caution for. Yellow and red cards are the choices that they are faced with being able to issue. Punishing fouls is one of the cornerstones of football, with fouls stopping the game from descending into madness.

Many football supporters will refer to a player being the “last man”, but in actuality, that is irrelevant when it comes to the referee’s decision-making. In fact, the phrase “last man” has been part of the Laws Of The Game.

Supporters might well feel that a player should definitely be sent off because of a foul if they’re the last man. However, that isn’t automatically the case and the phrase “last man” can be misleading.

The History of Fouls in Football

There had been controversial examples of professional fouls being committed almost since the advent of football. However, there was no real call to change rules until the 1980 FA Cup final. Paul Allen of West Ham United had a clear run at goal. It resulted in Arsenal’s Willie Young deliberately fouling him in order to prevent him from scoring. The Laws at the time meant that the referee had little choice in what to do.

He was permitted to do according to the Laws Of The Game at the time. The match referee, George Courtney was only allowed to issue a caution to Young and give West Ham a free-kick. The result in the wake of the match was a national debate about what should actually happen in such an instance.

At the start of the 1980s, there was something of a downturn for the Football League in terms of match attendance. Chairmen of the Football League clubs met to decide how the game could be made more exciting.

The panel recommended that an offense that denies the attacking player the opportunity of scoring a goal then it should be deemed “serious foul play”. And it receives a red card as punishment. The idea was submitted to the International Football Association Board but was initially defeated. Indeed, it didn’t become one of the official rules in the Laws Of The Game until 1990. And it was used for the first time in the 1990 World Cup.

The Laws were amended once again in 2016. A professional foul that resulted in a penalty being awarded shouldn’t also be given a red card in cases where the defending player was making a genuine attempt to play the ball.

Why Are Fouls Important?

The tactics of certain teams are conducive to a more physical side of the game that does not always play by the rules. We are thinking of Atletico Madrid or old-school Stoke City when we mention this.

Taking Atletico as an example, they were incredibly physical in their match against Manchester City in their Champions League quarter-final clash. The city was the better team by far. However, they had to weather some exceptionally heavy-handed treatment from their opponents who seemed more contented with flying into challenges than they were with playing football.

Without fouls in the game, teams that want to play football and score goals would likely be at a disadvantage. Indeed, a skillful player like Neymar would be up-ended more than he would get on the ball.

A lack of punishment for fouling would see stunning pieces of individual brilliance or great team moves constantly curtailed early due to a lack of relevant punishment.

Referees will weigh up the likes of the distance from the goal that the offense took place, and the likelihood of the player keeping the ball under their control before the foul happened. They also consider the direction of the play, and both the number of defenders and their locations.

As a result, they will decide the punishment that should be given in addition to the awarding of the foul. It is informally known as a DOGSO, or Denial of an Obvious Goal-Scoring Opportunity.

What Acts Will See a Foul in Football Given?

A free kick can be given for any of the following reasons if a player:

  • Charges or jumps at another player
  • Kicks or attempts to kick another player
  • Pushes
  • Strikes
  • Recklessly tackles
  • Trips
  • Handles the ball
  • Holds an opponent
  • Impedes an opponent
  • Bites or spits at an opponent

This list is not exhaustive. Indeed, the act of biting was probably not something the makers of the laws of the game would have assumed they would need to put in, but the exploits of Luis Suarez in particular will have seen this part of the game in need of further clarification.

What Is Given for a Foul?

If a foul in football is awarded, then the referee will allow the game to restart with a free kick. If a player from Team A is judged to have fouled a player from Team B, then Team B will restart the game with a free-kick. A free-kick is a kick of the ball where the opposing team is unable to interfere. If a team is fouled in their own half, the free-kick will usually be a pass to a teammate or a long pass into the opposition’s half depending on the state of the game.

If a team is taking a shot at a goal from a free-kick, the defending team can make a wall that is 10 yards away from the ball. They are able to block the shot by jumping or staying still in the wall. However, they are unable to encroach upon the free-kick taker when they are taking the kick.

Does the Punishment for a Foul Change in Different Parts of the Pitch?

Yes, if a player fouls another player, the punishment will be different depending on where on the pitch the foul took place and the state of play at that time. If an attacking player fouls a defensive player in the defender’s half, then a free-kick will usually be awarded.

The punishment can increase to a yellow card if necessary or if that player has committed a number of fouls. That means a yellow card is given due to a totting-up process. A red card can be awarded for a foul if the act is seen as particularly reckless.

If the attacking player is fouled in the opposition’s half, then a free kick will be awarded. If it is in the right area, a shot at goal could be on the cards. However, if the angle is not right or it is too far away from the goal, the attacking team could look to take a short free-kick.

If an attacking player is deemed to have been fouled in the penalty box of the opposition team, then a penalty is given. A penalty will see one player from the attacking team given the chance to shoot at the goal from the penalty spot.

The only player from the defensive team that can try to stop the attacking player from scoring is the goalkeeper. The keeper is allowed to move along or behind the goal line. However, they are unable to move in front of the line.

Every other player outside of the penalty taker and goalkeeper must stay outside of the penalty area. They are allowed to move into the penalty area once the ball has been struck. Attacking players look to follow up if the shot has been saved or hits the post.

What Fouls Are Red & Yellow Cards Given For?

Yellow and red cards are another way for the players on the pitch to be kept in check. After all, if there was no punishment for a particularly bad foul other than a free-kick, the best players from each and every team could expect to be fouled every single time they get on the ball. The system of giving yellow and the red card simply means that if a player commits enough fouls or they are particularly reckless, then they will be punished accordingly.


Yellow Cards

A yellow card is a caution given to a player when they break any of the rules below. Once a yellow card is given, it will see players walking a tightrope as they know that one more foul could end in a second yellow and a sending-off. A yellow card can be given for any offense that falls under one of these six banners:

  1. Unsportsmanlike behavior
  2. Dissent
  3. Repeated infringements
  4. Delaying the restart of the game
  5. Refusing to stay the correct distance from a free-kick or corner
  6. Entering or leaving the field of play without direct permission from the referee

Red Cards

A red card is given to tell a player that they must leave the field of play. It can be awarded as a second yellow when a player breaks the rules on a number of occasions. Besides, a straight red card can be issued for a more serious offense. A red card can be given for:

  • A second yellow card
  • A professional foul
  • Continued dissent
  • Violent conduct

Sum up

Besides a foul in football, you can read about the history of yellow and red cards elsewhere on this site, which we’ve covered in great detail. FootballTerms is more about the history of fouls and the manner in which a decision was taken to introduce disciplinary procedures to the game of football. Remember to follow us to learn more about soccer rules and terms.

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