Free kicks are an important aspect of football, but the rules surrounding them can be complex. Watching the sport, many of us are so used to the nuances of refereeing that we take certain decisions for granted. However, for anyone hoping to fully understand each element of association football, it can be useful to know exactly what the rules are regarding direct and indirect free kicks.
That's why in this article, we'll be explaining what the laws of the game are when it comes to free kicks. We'll explore when a direct free kick is awarded and when an indirect free kick is awarded in a match, going through the key differences and the factors behind this distinction in officiating. We'll also offer a little more context on the job of the referee in soccer and some of the other important rules they uphold on the soccer field.
Thanks to his excellent ball striking technique and extremely hard work on the training ground, James Ward-Prowse is well on the way to breaking David Beckham's record of scoring 18 free kicks in the Premier League. It's a remarkable tally, and one that shows how useful free kicks in soccer can be.
However, a number of conditions must fall into place for technically gifted players to get themselves in a position to convert a free kick. Firstly, the initial foul has to occur in a beneficial location. But even more importantly, the free kick itself has to be direct.
A direct free kick is a free kick from which an attacking goal can be scored directly. For example, when a direct free kick is taken, a player like David Beckham will be able to strike the ball on goal from a stationary position, and any direct goal will be legally allowed. This might sound basic, but in fact, it's a fairly common occurrence in football for free kicks to be awarded that players aren't allowed to shoot directly from.
In opposition to a direct free kick, an indirect free kick is a set piece from which the attacking team is not allowed to shoot on goal directly. Instead, they must play a pass first before a player takes a shot.
That being said, there is a slight loophole that means you don't necessarily have to play a pinpoint pass from an indirect free kick. For a goal to be scored from an indirect free kick, a player from either side must touch the ball before it goes into the back of the net. So theoretically, a kick taker could smash the ball against a well-placed opponent to try and get a dangerous deflection that helps the ball over the line — as it's touched another player, the goal would count.
When a goal is scored directly from an indirect free kick and no touch has been applied by another player, a goal kick is awarded to the opposing team as punishment.
Besides the manner in which the kick itself is taken, the main difference between direct and indirect free kicks is the type of foul that ends up getting the free kick awarded.
A direct free kick is awarded for more serious offences within football; for example, handball offences will lead to a direct free kick, as will various examples of foul play. If a player commits any of the following offences, a direct free kick will be given:
The final offence worth diving into in detail that leads to a direct kick is a handball offence. The handball rule can be a complicated one, sparking many debates amongst fans, players, and pundits (check out our guide to the handball law for more information), but what is clear is that a direct free kick will be given when a handball is called by the referee.
Kicks are always taken from where the foul occurred, with the ball being placed stationary at that spot. Referees will call the foul by pointing their arm forward in the direction the team that has won the free kick is shooting toward.
We've covered how direct free kicks can legally be scored straight away; however, it's also worth noting that if, for whatever reason (this is extremely rare), a direct free kick is kicked directly into your team's own goal, the opposing team will be awarded a corner kick.
While direct kicks are given for serious fouls, indirect free kicks are typically awarded for fouls that aren't quite as serious. A number of offences fall into this bracket, including the following:
Just like direct kicks, indirect free kicks are indicated by the referee's arm and taken from the place where the foul occurs.
Goalkeepers also have a special set of rules relating to their conduct that it's important to note here. Indirect free kicks are given against goalkeepers if they touch the ball with their hands after having released it from possession, or before it has touched another player. They are also penalised if they touch the ball after it has been deliberately kicked to them by a teammate, or if they have used their hands after receiving it directly from a throw-in by a teammate.
This brings us to an important point regarding the implementation of the free kick rules in football.
A direct free kick cannot be awarded in the penalty area of the offending team. If a player commits an offence warranting a direct free kick in their own defensive penalty area, a penalty kick will be awarded instead.
However, not all fouls in the box lead to penalties. It's also possible for an indirect free kick in the box to be awarded by the referee. This awarding of an indirect free kick in the box can create some pretty chaotic situations, and it's always an exciting moment for fans when it happens.
Any type of serious foul in the penalty area (eg an aggressive, badly timed tackle or a deliberate handball) will result in a penalty kick, but if a less serious offence without any player-to-player contact happens, an indirect free kick can be awarded.
Let's say, for example, that the goalkeeper picks up the ball after it is passed to them by an outfield teammate (this is referred to as a backpass) — this is a classic situation that would lead to an indirect kick inside the penalty area. Other offences could be a goalkeeper taking more than four steps while controlling the ball with their hands, or as mentioned, a goalkeeper catching the ball after receiving it directly from a throw-in.
Managing direct and indirect free kicks in soccer is an important part of the referee's job, and given that the rules can get a little complex at times (as explored in this article), it's important that they are firm and clear about the fouls they've given and the decisions they have made.
But this aspect of the referee's job is just one part of their game; match officials in soccer need to have a wide variety of skills and a vast amount of knowledge regarding the governance of the beautiful game. From handball rules to the laws surrounding backpasses, as well as the nuances of the offside law and the intricate timings of each match, those in charge of officiating football matches need to be seriously switched on.
If you'd like to find out more about the role of the referee and their assistants, check out our in-depth guide to the game officials needed to run a soccer match. Or if you'd like to dive into a relatively recent addition to the world of officiating, read our article on the role of video assistant refereeing (VAR) and whether it improves soccer.