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How Many Players Do You Need For A Football Match?

sports cancelledFootball is a global sport, so there are numerous different variations of the game depending on where you find yourself. Futsal is extremely popular in South America, for example, but it only requires five players on each team. The same is true for five-a-side, which feels quite self-explanatory. What we’re looking at here, though, is professional football matches that are played in the likes of the Premier League or the Championship. It might seem silly to ask how many players you need when everyone knows a football team has 11 players.

What we’re talking about here, though, is when players leave the field for one reason or another. The most obviously example is thanks to sending offs, which reduce the number of players that are in a side for the rest of the match. Injuries can also occur after all substitutions have been made, leaving a team with fewer than 11 players. If it gets to the point that there are fewer than seven players on either side in a game then the referee has no choice but to abandon it, with the manner in which the result is handled differing in each competition.

What The Laws Of The Game Say

rulesIn football, each team starts the match with 11 players. That is how things are decreed in the Laws Of The Game, which are the codified rules of association football. These rules look at every aspect of the game, including things such as the size of the pitch, the length of the game and how referees should penalise various fouls. These rules are maintained by the International Football Association Board and have been since 1886, so if there is a desire to change them then it is IFAB that will make such a decision.

Law 3 is the one that deals with the players. The first thing that is says is as follows:

A match is played by two teams, each with a maximum of eleven players; one must be the goalkeeper. A match may not start or continue if either team has fewer than seven players.

The interesting thing is that the referee has the choice of playing the advantage if a team’s numbers drop below seven, only needing to call a halt to proceedings when the ball next goes out of play. In other words, if a team has had four players sent off and a fifth decides to just walk off in the hope of getting the match abandoned, the referee can ignore them and the other team can try to score during the period, theoretically winning the match during the time that the opposition is down to just six players.

All of the players taking part in a match as well as the substitutes must be named ahead of kick-off. If a team doesn’t have 11 players when the match gets underway, the only people allowed to join the team after kick-off are those that were named as either a starter or a substitute. How many substitutes may be named, and indeed brought on during a match, differs from competition to competition. It had been three for years, but was increased to five in the Premier League ahead of the 2022-2023 season, with other competitions having already made that jump before then.

Why 11 Players?

football formation general image showing 11 players

The most obvious question that will be asked by some is why it is that the number of players selected to take part in football matches was 11. Part of the reason why is about the history of the sport, with football finding its origins in a game called Calcio Fiorentino that started life in Italy. That was a chaotic sport that was only tangentially linked to the game that we know today, with 27 players on each side that included four goalkeepers. Yet why it was moved from 27 players to 11 players isn’t exactly all that clear.

When the Laws Of The Game were codified, the decision was to have 11 players and to ensure that the goalkeeper was one of them. Why 11 isn’t something that we can say for sure, but it is likely to be because the sport was closely tied to cricket at the time and cricket teams have 11 players on them. Indeed, during its formative years, many football clubs were formed by members of cricket teams in order to give them something to do during the winter months, when it was impossible to play cricket because of the weather.

How Teams Can See Their Numbers Reduced

referee showing a red card footballOnce a match gets underway, there are a couple of ways in which a team can see its numbers reduced to such a point that a referee has to look at abandoning the match. The most obvious way is thanks to disciplinary decisions by the person in the middle. Officials can issue players with yellow cards and red cards, with two yellows equating to a red. These are usually given out for things such as dissent and dangerous play, with dangerous play being the thing that is most likely to lead to a red card being shown to dismiss the player from the pitch.

The other thing that can happen to a team is that they suffer a serious injury or two after they have used their last substitution. This isn’t as likely to happen since the move to five substitutes instead of three, but isn’t impossible. A team might have had a couple of sendings off, for example, used their substitutes in order to try to rebalance their team and then seen a few of their players suffer injuries. As they can no longer be replaced with a sub, the team simply has to play on with the limited number of players available to them.

Examples Of Matches Abandoned

It goes without saying that a match that is abandoned because there aren’t enough players to carry on will make the headlines. It has happened a few times over the years, so we’ll have a look at them in more detail here:

The Battle Of Bramall Lane

If you’re a football fan of a certain age then there is a very good chance that you’ll remember what became known as the Battle Of Bramall Lane. It took place on the 16th of March in 2002 and was a second-tier game between Sheffield United and West Brom that was expected to go ahead as normal. Things took a turn for the miserable in the ninth minute as far as the Blades were concerned, thanks to the fact that their goalkeeper was sent off for handling the ball outside of the area. That required the manager, Neil Warnock, to make a change in order to get the reserve goalkeeper onto the pitch.

When West Brom went 2-0 up in the second-half, Warnock threw on his remaining two substitutes to try to get back into the game. One of those subs was sent off virtually immediately for a heavy challenge on a player that he had previous with. A melee ensued, during which the other Blades sub was also sent off for a headbutt. United began to lose the plot, with fights breaking out all over the pitch. It went to 3-0, with two more Sheffield United players leaving the pitch thanks to injury.

That meant that the Blades had just six players left on the pitch, forcing the match referee to abandon the game. The opposition manager, Gary Megson, called it ‘scandalous’, but Warnock was his typically abrasive self. Indeed, there was an accusation that the two players who were injured didn’t actually suffer an injury. Three days after the final whistle, the league confirmed that West Brom’s 3-0 win stood, whilst Sheffield United were fined £10,000 and the two substitutes were given six match bans. Warnock, however, was cleared of engineering the match abandoned.

Belenese v Benfica

If what happened at Bramall Lane was unusual, it is nothing compared to the bizarre circumstances that forced the Portuguese league match between Belenese and Benfica to be abandoned. The home team had to start the match with just nine players after an outbreak of Covid had decimated the side. That meant that they had to start an outfield player in goal, with the score hitting the 7-0 mark before the half-time whistle was blown by the match referee.

There was a delayed break, but when the teams came out for the second period Belenese only had seven players. This was due to two injuries being discovered during the half-time break. Almost immediately after the restart, another player for the home team went down with an injury. That left them with just six men, meaning that the referee had no choice but to abandon the game. The President of Benfica referred to it as a ‘dark chapter for Portuguese football’ in the wake of the match’s abandonment.

What Happens To Bets On Abandoned Matches?

void led yellow on black

While matches are rarely abandoned for a lack of players they are abandoned for many other reasons, such as floodlight failure, weather conditions, crowd / stadium issues, etc.  All bookies outline in their terms their specific conditions around abandoned matches but as a rule you can expect all bets to settle where the outcome is already defined and all bets to be refunded for those where the outcome is not defined.

Let’s say a match is abandoned after 60 minutes and the scoreline is 1-1.  First goalscorer bets and any other market where the outcome is already known (e.g. both teams to score in this instance or bets placed on the half time result) will stand but other bets that are only finalised after 90 minutes will be voided.  Things like match result, correct score (in 90 mins), number of corners, bookings, etc., will all be voided.

If there is an instance where a match is abandoned in extra time then all 90-minute bets will still stand, only bets that settle in extra time would be refunded.

If a match is abandoned but resumed, usually within 48 hours, then any bets will continue to remain active.  If the match is replayed in full from the start of the game (clock starting at 00:00) this original fixture will be treated as an abandoned game and all bets refunded.

In basic terms if your bet has already settled at the time a game is abandoned then it will stand and if not the stake will be returned to you.

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