Soccer substitution rules have changed significantly in recent years, from the number of players that can be introduced to the periods of the game in which extra subs can be made. At times, it can be hard to keep track, particularly given the numerous competitions being shown on TV each week — Premier League, Champions League, La Liga, plus international competitions and tournaments.
That's why in this article, we'll be focusing on providing you with all the information you need to know about the soccer rules on substitutions. We'll cover how many substitutions teams are allowed to make in soccer, the times these changes can be made, plus any additional rules that make a difference to a substitute's ability to impact a soccer game.
In association football, a substitute is a player who is brought onto the field of play by the manager to replace a teammate during the match.
Substitutions can occur at half time, but many will also occur during the first or second half, causing a stoppage in play as the referee permits a substitution to be made when the ball is off the field.
Substitutes can be brought on for a variety of reasons; sometimes, it will be a tactical switch, while on other occasions it will be to replace an injured player. Sometimes, it's a simple matter of stamina, with a certain player needing to leave the field for a rest.
Substitutions were first added to the Laws of the Game in 1958; before this point, players would simply play through injuries, or teams would be forced to go down to ten men if a player had to leave the pitch.
A number of rules have been introduced over the years in different competitions to manage and regulate the use of substitutions in matches. Below, we'll dive into the key things you need to know.
The Covid-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the world of soccer. First of all, when the virus caused enforced government lockdowns all over the world in 2020, every major league in the world was suspended. However, in the aftermath, there have been a variety of more long-term consequences, not least the serious loss of revenue most clubs were forced to contend with.
One other change to the sport related to a coach's ability to make substitutions during a game. Fixture congestion caused by lockdowns and match cancellations have put a serious burden on players in recent years, and as a result there has been increased pressure for extra substitutions to be allowed in soccer competitions.
As a result, in most elite soccer competitions you are now allowed to make five substitutions during a game.
Previously, certain leagues and tournaments adopted a three-substitute rule, and the shift has split opinion, with some people believing that permitting more substitutes favours the bigger clubs, who have far more squad depth. Regardless, five subs is now the standard in most top leagues.
In soccer, substitutes can be made at any time during the game. Professional matches are 90 minutes long, and a coach can decide to bring on a player at any point during this period; however, what's crucial is that they are only allowed three windows in which to do so.
For example, if a substitution is made at halftime after 45 minutes, and a second substitution is made after 75 minutes, a coach will only be able to ask for one more substitution window during the match, even though the five subs rule would allow them to bring on up to three players at this point.
If a match goes to extra time, certain competitions will allow coaches to have an additional opportunity to make changes, due to the fact that otherwise, each player on the field would have to complete an extra 30 minutes of high-intensity football, increasing the risk of injury and fatigue. These are the official Laws of the Game when it comes to extra time subs:
In amateur and youth level soccer, it's common for referees and leagues to permit a "rolling substitutes" rule that means players are allowed to be substituted freely throughout the game to keep things fresh and offer plenty of playing time to each individual.
At professional level, this is not permitted. Once professional soccer players are substituted, it's the end of their day and they are not allowed to be brought back onto the field of play.
Instead, they'll join their teammates and club coaching staff on the bench, where any members of the matchday squad who aren't in the first XI will observe the game.
The impact of the 2022 Qatar World Cup on the European playing schedule — as the first-ever winter World Cup, it forced European leagues to implement a mid-season break during November and December — meant that a major substitution rule change was made at the start of the 2022/23 season.
The number of permitted subs in a game increased at this point from three (the number allowed throughout most of the league's history) to five. This mirrored the temporary change to the rules made during Project Restart, when after the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the Premier League allowed clubs to make five substitutions per match due to the impact of the extended break on player fitness and stamina (as well as the heat, with the season being played far later into the summer than normal).
After this strange spell in recent Premier League history, things went back to normal, but since the start of the 2022/23 campaign we've been back to being allowed five subs per game in the English top flight. One caveat, however, is this: all substitutions must still be made in three windows, or substitution opportunities. This use of blocks means that theoretically, no additional time is wasted by five subs being allowed to come on instead of three.
The World Cup Trophy is the most prestigious prize in football, so any significant rule change implemented in the competition is likely to create headlines. That was the case in 2022, when for the first time, teams were permitted to make five substitutions during World Cup matches.
This was thanks to a decision made in the summer of 2022 by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), who turned the temporary Covid-enforced measure that had allowed teams to make five substitutes rather than three into a permanent law. The change had an impact at the World Cup, where substitutes ended up scoring more regularly than in previous tournaments.
The World Cup is organised by FIFA, and each edition of the tournament is awarded by the world governing body of football, so the rules here are the same: each coach is allowed to make five substitutions in each game, and these must be made within three separate windows in a match.
If a game goes to extra time, one additional substitution can be made, meaning a total of six players out of 11 players can be changed over the course of 120 minutes.
During the group stages of the Champions League, coaches are permitted to make five subs in each match. There's freedom to swap in any position, from goalkeeper to striker, but five is the limit.
However, once the knockout stages of the competition begin, that substitution limit rises by one player, with teams then being allowed to make an additional substitution if a second-leg match goes into extra time.
In the NFL and various other US sports, coaches are allowed to make unlimited substitutions during a game. However, the States' top soccer league has a different approach, mimicking the rest of world football and using a five substitution rule in league matches.
According to MLS rules, "Each team can select a maximum of 20 players (11 starters and nine substitutes) for its official match roster.
Teams are allowed a maximum of five Normal Substitutions per game to be used over the course of three opportunities, excluding half-time and match delays, but including cooling and/or drink breaks."
Football has been criticised by many people for lagging behind other sports when it comes to responding to player head injuries. Many people have called for the introduction of concussion substitutions, which would mean allowing additional substitutes to be made for players who are suspected to have sustained concussion during a match.
Since 2021, concussion substitution trials have been ongoing, but the current protocols still state that if a player leaves the pitch for a concussion assessment the game continues, and the player may not be temporarily replaced but must instead be permanently replaced and unable to return, or reserved on the sidelines with their team playing at a numerical disadvantage.
With ongoing pressure from individuals and campaign groups, we may see concussion substitutes introduced widely in the professional game soon. Meanwhile, if you'd like to find out more about the major injuries typically seen in professional football, check out our article on 11 of the most common soccer injuries.