Are men’s and women’s Olympic soccer rules the same?

Despite the age limit requirement for the men's tournament, all other rules of the sport remain the same for men's and women's soccer.

Both tournaments have a standard match consisting of two halves of 45 minutes each. Each half runs continuously, meaning the clock is not stopped when the ball is out of play. There is a 15-minute "half-time" break between halves. The end of the match is known as full-time. 

Although there is a visible running clock, it's the referee who is the official timekeeper for the match and will be responsible for adding any stoppage time. This is when the referee makes allowances for time lost through substitutions, delays of play due to injury or other stoppages. Toward the end of each half, the referee signals to an official on the sideline how many minutes of stoppage time he/she intends to add. That official then informs the players and spectators by holding up a board showing this number. The referee alone whistles the end of stoppage time. 

Rules for both tournaments are also the same in the group stage. Games may end in a draw in the group stage, but in the knockout round, a match tied at the end of regulation time goes into extra time, which consists of two 15-minute periods.  Before the second 15-minute period, both teams switch sides, similar to how they do in before the second half of a game. There is no "sudden death" in soccer, either in the form of a "golden goal" (first goal) or "silver goal" (leader at the end of the first overtime period).


What is the size of the Olympic soccer rosters? Is there an age limit?

An Olympic soccer team roster consists of 18 players, of which 11 participate in the match at a given time. Seven players can be made available as substitutes.

The Olympic men’s competition is considered a U-23 tournament, meaning players must be born on or after January 1, 2001. However, each team is allowed three exceptions to that rule. There are no player age restrictions in the women’s tournament. 

How many substitutions are teams allowed to make in Olympic soccer?

Five substitutions are allowed during the course of a game. To replace a player with a substitute, the following conditions must be observed: 

  • A substitute only enters the field of play at the halfway line and during a stoppage in the match 
  • A substitution is completed when the player being replaced has left the field of play, and a substitute enters the field of play 
  • A player who has been replaced takes no further part in the match 

Any of the other players may change places with the goalkeeper, provided that: 

  • The referee is informed before the change is made 
  • The change is made during a stoppage in the match 

A sixth substitution will be given to each team if a game goes into extra time. 

What awards a free kick in Olympic soccer?

Free kicks are awarded for intentional offenses, such as dangerous play, charging when the ball is not within playing distance or intentionally obstructing an opponent while not attempting to play the ball. Free kicks are either direct or indirect. For both direct and indirect free kicks, the ball must be stationary when the kick is taken and the kicker does not touch the ball a second time until it has touched another player (on either team). 

The direct free kick gives the player taking the kick the opportunity to score a goal "directly" off the free kick being awarded. A direct free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a player commits any of the following offenses in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force: 

  • Kicks or attempts to kick an opponent 
  • Trips or attempts to trip an opponent 
  • Jumps at an opponent 
  • Charges an opponent 
  • Strikes or attempts to strike an opponent 
  • Pushes an opponent 

A direct free kick is also awarded to the opposing team if a player commits any of the following offenses: 

  • Tackles an opponent to gain possession of the ball, making contact with the opponent before touching the ball 
  • Holds an opponent 
  • Spits at an opponent 
  • Handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area) 

In order for a goal to be scored off an indirect free kick, the ball must first touch another player other than the player taking the kick before it enters the goal. An indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a player, in the opinion of the referee: 

  • Plays in a dangerous manner 
  • Impedes the progress of an opponent 
  • Prevents the goalkeeper from releasing the ball from his hands 

An indirect free kick is also awarded to the opposing team if a goalkeeper, inside his own penalty area, commits any of the following four offenses: 

  • Takes more than six seconds while controlling the ball with his hands before releasing it from his possession 
  • Touches the ball again with his hands after it has been released from his possession and has not touched any other player 
  • Touches the ball with his hands after it has been deliberately kicked to him by a teammate 
  • Touches the ball with his hands after he has received it directly from a throw-in taken by a teammate

How does offside work in Olympic soccer?

A player is offside when positioned in the opponents' half of the field in front of the ball and there are less than two defenders between him/her and the opponents' goal line. If the ball is touched by a teammate and the player is in an offside position -- and by doing so gains an advantage or hinders an opponent -- the player is penalized for an offside offense and the opposing team is awarded an indirect free kick from the spot where the infraction occurred. Therefore, it is not an infraction to be in an offside position, but if a player is in active play and gains an advantage by being in an offside position, an infraction has occurred. An offside offense is not called if the player receives the ball from a throw-in, goal kick or corner kick.

How is a handball called in Olympic soccer?

Except for throw-ins, only goalkeepers may play the ball with their hands or arms, and they may do so only within their own penalty areas. In order to draw a handball foul, a player must deliberately handle the ball. Ball handling is very much a judgment call, so the interpretation will vary from incident to incident, and from referee to referee. 

The essence of soccer ensures that hands and arms are not deliberately used to play the ball. Therefore, some leeway is usually given as long as the player seems to be making a fair attempt to avoid using the hands and arms to play the ball. If the ball is inadvertently handled or touched by a player and no obvious advantage is gained, the referee can choose to ignore the occurrence and let play continue. 

If it is determined by the referee that deliberate ball handling has occurred, or a player has simply mishandled the ball resulting in an advantageous situation (for example, the ball deflects off a player's leg and unintentionally hits the hand, dropping right at the feet), play is stopped and the opposing team is awarded a direct free kick from the spot of the infraction. If it is the judgment of the referee that the deliberate handling of the ball denies the opposing team a legitimate scoring chance, a red or yellow card may be given.

How is a soccer game restarted at the Olympics?

There are three ways a game is restarted in soccer; a throw-in, corner kick and goal kick. 

A throw-in is awarded to the opponents of the player who last touched the ball when the whole of the ball passes over the touch line (sideline), either on the ground or in the air. It is taken from the point where it crossed the touch line and, to properly execute a throw-in, the player faces the field of play with a part of each foot either on the touch line or on the ground outside the touch line, and uses both hands to deliver the ball from behind and over his/her head. The thrower may not touch the ball again until it has touched another player. The ball is in play immediately when it enters the field of play. 

A corner kick occurs when the defending team touches the ball last before it crosses the goal line and goes out of bounds, then, the attacking team is awarded a kick that is not defended. The attacking team takes the corner kick from inside a small arc painted at either corner of the playing field, corresponding to whichever side of the goal the ball went out of bounds. 

And finally, a goal kick is given when the attacking team touches the ball last before it crosses the goal line out of bounds. The defending team is then awarded a goal kick from the goal area, to be taken by a player or goalie. 

How do penalty kicks work in Olympic soccer?

Penalty kicks are awarded when "direct kick" infractions occur within the penalty area. The ball is placed on the 12-yard mark and a player has a free shot against the goalkeeper with all other players located outside of the penalty area, at least 10 yards from the penalty mark (located outside of the arc located on the top of the box). The defending goalkeeper remains on his/her goal line, facing the kicker between the goalposts until the ball has been kicked. Once the ball moves forward, it is considered in play and cannot be touched by the kicker again until touched by another player (on either side). This prevents the shooter from drawing the keeper off of his line with a quick dribble before shooting the ball toward the net. 

Teams will also come across more penalty kicks if the score is still tied after extra time in a knockout game. The match goes to a penalty shootout and a coin toss decides which team shoots first.  Only the kicker and opposing goalkeeper may stand in the penalty box, creating a one-on-one situation.  The other players must remain in the center circle.  Each kick is taken in the manner of a penalty kick (i.e. from the penalty mark). 

Teams take turns to kick from the penalty mark in an attempt to score, until each has taken five kicks. If one team gains an insurmountable lead (example: 4-2 lead with one kick left), the shootout ends. If the two teams are still tied after five kicks, sudden-death rounds ensue, until one team scores and the other team does not. 

How do yellow and red cards work in Olympic soccer?

A yellow or red card is given to a player who commits a foul or offense toward another player, coach or referee. The color of the card is up to the judgment of the referee depending on how serious any offense or foul is. 

For example, a player receives a yellow card and is "cautioned" for committing any of the following offenses: 

  • Unsportsmanlike behavior 
  • Dissent by word or action 
  • Persistent infringing on the rules of the game 
  • Delaying the restart of play 
  • Failing to respect the required distance when play is restarted with a corner kick or free kick 
  • Entering or re-entering the game without the referee's permission 
  • Deliberately leaving the field of play without the referee's permission 

A red card is shown to a player if he or she commits any of the following offenses: 

  • Two yellow-card infractions 
  • Serious foul play 
  • Violent conduct 
  • Spits at an opponent or any other person 
  • Denies the opposing team a goal or an obvious scoring opportunity by handling the ball in a deliberate manner (does not apply to goalkeeper) 
  • Uses offensive, insulting or abusive language 

A player who has been issued a red card during the game is ejected and may not be replaced. The team must play at a player disadvantage for the remainder of the match. 

Is VAR used for soccer at the Olympics?

After debuting at the Tokyo Games, video assistant refereeing (VAR) will be used again in Paris. In cases of goals, penalty decisions, red card incidents and mistaken identity, the match referee can consult with the VAR who has access to video replay. During a VAR review, the match pauses until a decision is made by the match referee, who can choose to view the incident personally or accept the advice of VAR to come to a decision.

What is the difference between soccer at the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup?

Both sporting events bring countries from across the world to compete in a single tournament. However, the two have plenty of differences. 

The World Cup and Olympics occur every four years, but take place two years apart from each other. A specific city is chosen to host Olympic events, while the World Cup selects a country to host its matches.

Another difference is the number of teams competing in each event. The Olympics features 16 teams for its men's tournament and 12 teams for the women's tournament. Starting in 2026, the World Cup will contain 48 teams in the men's competition, and since 2023, there are 32 teams who play in the women's competition. 

Teams in the men's World Cup do not have an age limit for their rosters. Also, since the Olympics is not an official FIFA competition, clubs have the right to deny a player who was selected by their respective nation from playing in the Olympics.

Gold medals are awarded to athletes who win the Olympic soccer tournament. In the World Cup, the winning team receives a gold trophy.