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Scoring in association football

A goal being scored

In games of association football teams compete to score the most goals during the match. A goal is scored when the ball passes completely over a goal line at each end of the field of play between two centrally positioned upright goal posts 24 feet (7.32 m) apart and underneath a horizontal crossbar at a height of 8 feet (2.44 m) — this frame is also referred to as a goal. Each team aims to score at one end of the pitch, while also preventing their opponents scoring at the other. Nets are usually attached to the goal frame to catch goalscoring balls, but the ball is not required to touch the net.


If the line in this diagram is the goal line between the goal posts, the only case in which a goal has been scored is position D.

Rules concerning goal scoring are described in Law 10 of the Laws of the Game:

A goal is scored when the whole of the ball passes over the goal line, between the goalposts and under the crossbar, provided that no offence has been committed by the team scoring the goal.

— Law 10: Determining the Outcome of a Match[1]

As with other cases of the ball travelling out of the field of play, all of the ball must cross all of the line, otherwise play continues.[2] A goal is credited to the team attacking the goal scored upon, regardless of which team actually caused the ball to enter the goal. A ball entering a goal from the action of a player defending that goal is called an own goal.

Even if serious foul play unambiguously prevents scoring a goal (a professional foul), a referee cannot award a goal if it does not enter the goal as described above; i.e., there is no provision for awarding a goal akin to the penalty try in rugby football or the goaltending offence in basketball (although such a provision did once exist, as described below).

A goal cannot be scored directly from a dropped ball, indirect free kick or a throw-in. Should the ball go into the goal from these without first being touched by another player, play is restarted with a goal kick. A player cannot score an own goal directly from any restart of play (other than a penalty kick); in that case a corner kick would be awarded. Both of these situations, especially the latter, are exceedingly rare.

If there is time remaining in the session of play, after a goal has been scored play is restarted with a kick-off by the side which conceded the goal.

Deciding if a goal has been scored

Most goals are relatively unambiguous, as the ball will usually strike the net attached to the goal structure indicating that it passed the goal line as described above. Occasionally, however, situations occur where it is difficult for officials to tell if the ball completely crossed the goal line before a rebound, save, or clearance from the goal area. Additionally, even if the ball crosses the goal line as required, a goal may be disallowed if the attacking team commits an infringement of the Laws of the Game, such as the offside offence or a foul.

As with all other decisions on the Laws of the Game, the referee is the final authority as to whether a goal is scored or disallowed. The match referee is advised by assistant referees, whose view across the pitch from the sidelines may in some cases be more useful in determining whether the ball crossed the goal line or whether the attacking team committed an infringement.

The goal net was one of the earliest tools employed to aid match officials in determining whether a goal was scored. Introduced in the 1890s, the goal net provides a simple way to determine whether the ball passed on the correct side of the goal posts and crossbar. Although not mandated by the Laws of the Game, goal nets are now ubiquitous across most levels of organised football. Since 2012, goal-line technology has been used at the highest levels of professional football; it employs a system of cameras and sensors to provide the referee with a discreet signal when the ball has crossed the goal line.[3] The video assistant referee was added in 2018 after years of trials; this is an additional assistant referee who constantly monitors video footage of the match and is empowered to advise the referee if he/she may have made a clear error in awarding a goal.

Attribution of goals

The Laws make no mention of attributing goals to individual players. Nevertheless, goals are almost always attributed to individual players, that player being the one who provided the final action causing the goal to be scored. Generally, this is the last player to touch the ball, notwithstanding inconsequential deflections such as failed attempts at a save. Should a player cause a goal to be scored against their own team, the goal is recorded as an own goal.

The authority on attributing goals varies between competitions. The Premier League in England has a dedicated Dubious Goals Committee for resolving attribution disputes.[4]

For an individual player, scoring multiple goals in a game is considered a notable achievement. In association football, a hat-trick refers to the uncommon feat of scoring three goals in a single game. Awards exist for individual players who score the most goals in some competitions, such awards are often called the "Golden Boot".

Goal celebrations

Atlético Madrid players celebrate a goal with a group hug

Players will typically celebrate scoring a goal with team mates, occasionally putting on elaborate displays for the crowd. The Laws allow this, but mandate that celebration must not be "excessive".[5]

Quantity of goals

On average, only a few scores occur per game in association football.

Scoring rate in major competitions
Competition Average number of goals per game
2015–16 Premier League 2.70[6]
2015–16 Bundesliga 2.83[7]
2015–16 La Liga 2.74[8]
2014 FIFA World Cup 2.67[9]
2015 FIFA Women's World Cup 2.81[10]

An analysis of several years' results from several English leagues found that 1–0 was the most common result, occurring in approximately 20% of games.[11]


Illustration of the goals used at Rugby School (1858)

Before 1863

In English traditional football, the object of the game was typically to convey a ball by any means possible into a specified area, or to touch a specific object (the area or object often being called the "goal")[12][13] defended by the opposing team. This feat might itself be called a "goal";[14] alternative names such as "inn"[12] were also in use. The game might be decided by a fixed number of goals (e.g. first goal scored wins or best of three)[15] or be played for a fixed period of time.

In the more formalized football games of English public schools and universities, the object was typically to kick the ball between goal-posts guarded by the opposition. This might be required to be above a crossbar (as in the game of football played at Rugby School)[16], below a bar or other object (as in the Sheffield Rules of 1862)[17] or at any height (as at Shrewsbury School).[18]

Comparison of goals in some early football codes, ca. 1863
Code Year Width Height Notes
Ball must go between posts above specified height
Rugby School 1862 10 feet Must go above crossbar. Goal is void if ball is touched by opposition. Posts are 18 feet high.[19] The width of the goal is not specified in the laws, but the novel Tom Brown's School-Days reports it as approximately 14 feet.[20]
Marlborough College 1863 24 feet 9 feet [21]
Ball must go between posts below specified height
Uppingham School 1857 "six paces" Ball must go below cross-bar. Later version (1871) of rules specifies a goal 40 feet wide and 7 feet high.[22]
Eton Field Game 1862 11 feet 7 feet No crossbar; ball must not go above height of the posts.[23]
Sheffield FC 1862 12 feet 9 feet Must go below crossbar.[24]
The Simplest Game 1862 Ball must go below crossbar. Goal disallowed "if thrown by hand".[25]
Charterhouse School 1863 Ball must go below "cord". Goal void if ball "hit or otherwise impelled through by the hands of any one of the side who are not defending the goal".[26]
Ball must go between posts at any height
Harrow School 1858 12 feet N/A Goals (both the physical target and the method of scoring) are called "bases".[27]
Melbourne FC 1860 N/A Width of the goal is agreed between captains. Goal is void if ball touches a post or a defending player.[28]
Blackheath FC 1862 N/A Goal is void if ball touches a defending player.[29]
Shrewsbury School 1863 40 feet N/A [30]
Cambridge Rules 1863 15 feet N/A Earlier version of Cambridge Rules (1856) required ball to go under a "string".[31]
Football Association 1863 24 feet N/A Goal void if the ball is handled.
Ball must cross line (at any height)
Surrey FC 1849 N/A N/A Ball must cross "goal rope".[32]
Winchester College 1863 N/A N/A Ball must cross goal-line. Earlier version of the game used "goal-sticks" (posts). Goal is void if "an opposing player can touch it as it passes, and then, leaping up, alight with one foot beyond the goal-line.".[33]

The 1863 FA Rules

When the nascent Football Association met on the 10th November 1863 to consider its first set of rules, the draft created by its secretary E. C. Morley allowed a goal to be scored at any height between two goal-posts 8 yards apart.[34] Morley's proposal met with objections expressed in correspondence from J. C. Thring of Uppingham School, and also from William Chesterman of Sheffield F. C.,[35] principally on the grounds that it would be difficult to judge whether a ball that went above the height of the posts should count as a goal; Thring correctly predicted that a crossbar "w[ould] be adopted in the end".[36] Nevertheless, this feature of the game was preserved in the Association's first published set of laws, which read:[37]

A goal shall be won when the ball passes between the goal posts or over the space between the goal posts (at whatever height), not being thrown, knocked on, or carried

Subsequent developments

Introduction of tape / crossbar

From 1866 to 1883, the laws provided for a tape between the goalposts

At the first revision of the FA rules, in 1866, a tape was introduced between the posts at a height of 8 feet, with a goal counting only if the ball went below this tape.[38] According to a contemporary newspaper report of the meeting:[39]

The chairman urged some strong reasons why a goal should not be won so long as the ball was between the posts at no matter what height, and quoted an instance which occurred at Reigate, where one of the opposite side raised the ball quite 90 feet in the air between the goal posts. A dispute arose as to whether the goal was won or not, and the bystanders decided that the ball was kicked between the posts, but he thought it was a most unsatisfactory goal, and was therefore decidedly in favour of goals being kicked under the tape

In 1875, after a proposal by Queen's Park FC, the laws allowed the option of using either a crossbar or tape.[40] In December 1882 an "international conference", held to address discrepancies between the laws used by the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish football associations, recommended requiring the use of a crossbar;[41] this change was introduced into the Football Association's laws in 1883.[42]

The dimensions of the goal (8 yards wide and 8 feet high) have remained unchanged since 1866.

Use of hands to score a goal

The original FA laws of 1863 disallowed a goal when the ball was "thrown, knocked on, or carried",[37] even if the handling was otherwise legal.[43] In 1882, a change in the laws, introduced by N. Lane Jackson of Finchley FC and Morton Betts of Old Harrovians FC, made it possible to score an own goal by use of the hands.[44]

In 1962, a change introduced by the Scottish Football Association permitted a goal-keeper to score a goal by throwing the ball into the opposing goal from his own penalty area.[45] This innovation was heavily criticized in some quarters.[46] In 1974, a further change to the laws allowed a goal to be scored when the ball was handled unintentionally by an attacker.[47] In 2019 both of these changes were reversed.[48]

Goal awarded for handball by opposition

The original laws of the game, in 1863, had no punishments for infringements of the rules.[49] In 1872, the indirect free kick was introduced as a punishment for handball, and later for other offences.[50] This indirect free-kick was thought to be an inadequate remedy for a handball which prevented an otherwise-certain goal. From a meeting of the Sheffield Football Association in February 1879, we have the following report:[51][52]

It was proposed by Mr. T. Banks, on behalf of the Norfolk Club, to add to law 8 — "If any player of the defending side, except the goalkeeper, stop the ball with his hands within three yards of the goal, when it is going in goal, it shall count a goal to the opponents."[53]

After a "long and noisy discussion", the change was rejected. At the 1881 meeting of the Football Association, a similar proposal was introduced by J. Arnall and J. B. Clayton of the Birmingham Football Association, but it was likewise rejected.[54] Such a law was finally approved the next year, to become part of the FA's laws for the 1882-83 season:

When any player, other than the goal-keeper, wilfully stops a ball in the vicinity of his own goal by using his hands when, in the opinion of the umpires or referee, the ball would have passed through the goal, a goal shall be scored to his opponents.[55]

This goal, which was similar to today's penalty try in rugby, survived as part of the game for only one season. In December 1882, an "international conference" was held to address discrepancies between the laws used by the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish football associations.[56] One of the results of this conference was that this law was removed from the laws for the 1883-4 season. [57] One commentator wrote that the rule "was the means of causing the referee a very awkward point to decide at times, and we all know the duties of the referee are heavy enough without this; and, further, the penalty, in my opinion, is too great [...] A free kick [...] is quite sufficient".[58]

Goal scored from set-piece

The laws have at various times restricted the ability to score from a set-piece situation (such as a free kick or corner-kick).


A goal may be scored directly from:
Year Handling Set-pieces
in own
Other Kick-off Dropped
Free kick awarded for Penalty
Intentional Fair
1863 N/A No No Yes N/A Yes N/A N/A N/A No Yes N/A
1866 N/A
1872 No Yes
1874 No
1875 No No
1882 Own
1888 Yes
1890 No
1891 Yes
1896 Yes[62]
1898 No
1902 Own
1903 Yes
1924 Yes
1927 Attacking
1962 Yes
1974 Yes
1997 Yes[62] Attacking
2012 No
2016 Attacking
2019 Own


  1. ^ "Laws of the Game 2018/19" (PDF). IFAB. p. 91. Retrieved 2019-01-24.
  2. ^ Bray, Ken. "When is a goal not a goal?". Retrieved 16 February 2018.
  3. ^ "IFAB makes three unanimous historic decisions". FIFA. Retrieved 23 April 2015.
  4. ^ Ingle, Sean; Glendenning, Barry; Dart, James (23 August 2006). "Is there really a Dubious Goals Committee?". The Knowledge. The Guardian. Retrieved 2010-05-28.
  5. ^ "Laws of the Game 2018/19" (PDF). IFAB. p. 106. Retrieved 2019-01-24.
  6. ^ "Premier League » Statistics » Goals per season". Retrieved 15 December 2016.
  7. ^ "Bundesliga » Statistics » Goals per season". Retrieved 15 December 2016.
  8. ^ "Spain » Primera División » Statistics » Goals per season". Retrieved 15 December 2016.
  9. ^ "World Cup » Statistics » Goals per season". Retrieved 15 December 2016.
  10. ^ "Women World Cup » Statistics » Goals per season". Retrieved 15 December 2016.
  11. ^ "Most soccer matches are within one goal of 1-0". Decision Science News. Retrieved 15 December 2016.
  12. ^ a b The Cobler of Walbrooke (1766-09-04). "To The Printer". Public Advertiser. London: 4. The Gole being fixed, and Two Inns out of Three being to determine who were Conquerors.
  13. ^ "The Foot Ball". Derby Mercury. 96 (4938): 3. 1827-02-28. Having touched with the Ball the appointed Gate Post, the champion who held the ball was immediately hoisted on the necks of his exulting companions [...]
  14. ^ E.g. "London". Kentish Gazette. Canterbury (258): 4. 1771-10-26. After they had played two full hours [...] the gentlemen of Sharlston got the first goal
  15. ^ "Football". Bell's Life in London: 3. 1842-10-23.
  16. ^ Laws of Football as played at Rugby School (1845)  – via Wikisource. it must go over the bar and between the posts without having touched the dress or person of any player
  17. ^ Sheffield Rules (1862)  – via Wikisource.
  18. ^ Description of the Rules of Football as played at Shrewsbury School (1855)  – via Wikisource. A goal could be kicked at any height.
  19. ^ Laws of Football as played at Rugby School (1862)  – via Wikisource. It shall be a goal if the ball goes over the bar (whether it touches or not) without having touched the dress or person of any player; but no player may stand on the goal bar to interrupt it going over.
  20. ^ "An Old Boy" [Thomas Hughes] (1857). Tom Brown's School Days. Cambridge: Macmillan. p. 108. [T]hey came to a sort of gigantic gallows of two poles eighteen feet high, fixed upright in the ground some fourteen feet apart, with a cross-bar running from one to the other at the height of ten feet or thereabouts
  21. ^ Description of the Rules of Football as played at Marlborough College (1863)  – via Wikisource.
  22. ^ Rules for Football at Uppingham School (1857)  – via Wikisource.
  23. ^ Laws of the Eton Field Game (1862)  – via Wikisource.
  24. ^ Sheffield Rules (1862)  – via Wikisource.
  25. ^ The Simplest Game (1862)  – via Wikisource.
  26. ^ Description of the Rules of Football as played at Charterhouse School (1863)  – via Wikisource.
  27. ^ Rules of Harrow Football (1858)  – via Wikisource.
  28. ^ Rules of Melbourne Football Club (1860)  – via Wikisource.
  29. ^ Rules of Blackheath Football Club (1862)  – via Wikisource. A goal must be a kick through or over and between the poles, and if touched by the hands of one of the opposite side before or whilst going through is no goal.
  30. ^ Description of the Rules of Football as played at Shrewsbury School (1863)  – via Wikisource.
  31. ^ Cambridge Rules (1863)  – via Wikisource.
  32. ^ Rules of Surrey Football Club (1849)  – via Wikisource.
  33. ^ Description of the Rules of Football as played at Winchester College (1863)  – via Wikisource.
  34. ^ "The Football Association". Sporting Life (386): 3. 1863-11-11.
  35. ^ "The Football Association". Supplement to Bell's Life in London: 1. 1863-12-05.
  36. ^ "The Football Association". Bell's Life in London: 3. 1863-12-12.
  37. ^ a b Laws of the Game (1863)  – via Wikisource.
  38. ^ Laws of the Game (1866)  – via Wikisource. A goal shall be won when the ball passes between the goal posts under the tape, not being thrown, knocked on, or carried.
  39. ^ "The Football Association". Bell's Life in London (2288): 7. 1866-02-24.
  40. ^ Laws of the Game (1875)  – via Wikisource.
  41. ^ "National Football Conference in Manchester". Glasgow Herald. 100 (292): 5. 1882-12-07.
  42. ^ Laws of the Game (1883)  – via Wikisource.
  43. ^ "Knocking on" was not banned from general play until 1867 -- see Laws of the Game (1867)  – via Wikisource.
  44. ^ Laws of the Game (1882)  – via Wikisource. A goal shall be won when the ball has passed between the goal-posts under the tape or bar, not being thrown, knocked on nor carried by anyone of the attacking side [emphasis added]
  45. ^ "International Football Association Board: 1962 Minutes of the Annual General Meeting" (PDF). p. 3. Retrieved 2019-01-24. provided [the ball] has not been thrown, carried, or propelled by hand or arm, by a player of the attacking side, except in the case of a goal-keeper, who is within his own penalty area [emphasis added]
  46. ^ e.g. Gee, Harry (1962-07-07). "Now Goalkeepers May Turn into Goalthrowers!". Coventry Evening Telegraph (22107): 32.
  47. ^ "International Football Association Board: 1974 Minutes of the Annual General Meeting" (PDF). p. 6. Retrieved 2019-01-24. provided [the ball] has not been thrown, carried, or intentionally propelled by hand or arm, by a player of the attacking side [emphasis added]
  48. ^ "Handball rules among those changed by Ifab for next season". BBC. 2 March 2019. Retrieved 3 March 2019.
  49. ^ Laws of the Game (1863)  – via Wikisource.
  50. ^ Laws of the Game (1872)  – via Wikisource.
  51. ^ Murphy, Brendan (2007). From Sheffield with Love. Sports Book Limited. p. 107. ISBN 978-1-899807-56-7.
  52. ^ Note: although the Sheffield Association had adopted the FA laws in 1877, it continued to independently consider proposals for new changes to the laws until 1883
  53. ^ "Sheffield Football Association". Sheffield Daily Telegraph (7386): 7. 1879-02-18.
  54. ^ "The Football Association". Bell's Life in London (3162): 10. 1881-02-05.
  55. ^ Laws of the Game (1882)  – via Wikisource.
  56. ^ "National Football Conference in Manchester". Glasgow Herald. 100 (292): 5. 1882-12-07.
  57. ^ Laws of the Game (1883)  – via Wikisource.
  58. ^ "Lancastrian" (1882-12-13). "The Football Association Conference". Athletic News and Cyclist's Journal. vii (38.3): 5.
  59. ^ Including the predecessors of the dropped-ball: throwing the ball up (1888-1905) and throwing the ball down (1905-1914): see Dropped-ball#History
  60. ^ Handball and most cases of illegal physical contact with another player. From 1938 onwards, described in the laws as a "direct" free-kick
  61. ^ From 1938 onwards, described in the laws as an "indirect" free-kick
  62. ^ a b Both attacking goal and own goal permitted by the laws, but the ball is required to be kicked in a forward direction, making an own goal extremely unlikely.