Substitute (association football)

In association football, a substitute is a player who is brought on to the pitch during a match in exchange for an existing player. Substitutions are generally made to replace a player who has become tired or injured, or who is performing poorly, or for tactical reasons (such as bringing a striker on in place of a defender). Unlike some sports (such as American football, ice hockey or kabaddi), but like in baseball, a player who has been substituted during a match takes no further part in it.

The substitute bench of the national team of Argentina.

Most competitions only allow each team to make a maximum of three substitutions during a game and a fourth substitute during extra time, although more substitutions are often permitted in non-competitive fixtures such as friendlies. A fourth substitution in extra time was first implemented in recent tournaments, including the 2016 Summer Olympics, the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup final.[1][2][3][4] A fourth substitute in extra time has been approved for use in the elimination rounds at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League.[5][6] Each team nominates a number of players (typically between five and seven, depending on the competition) who may be used as substitutes; these players typically sit in the technical area with the coaches, and are said to be "on the bench". When the substitute enters the field of play it is said they have come on or have been brought on, while the player they are substituting for is coming off, or being brought off or substituted.

A player who is noted for frequently making appearances, or scoring important goals, as a substitute is often informally known as a "super sub".


The origin of football substitutes goes back to at least the early 1860s as part of English public school football games. The original use of the term substitute in football was to describe the replacement of players who failed to turn up for matches. For example, in 1863, a match reports states: "The Charterhouse eleven played a match in cloisters against some old Carthusians but in consequence of the non-appearance of some of those who were expected it was necessary to provide three substitutes.[7]" The substitution of absent players happened as early as the 1850s, for example from Eton College where the term emergencies is used.[8] Numerous references to players acting as a "substitute" occur in matches in the mid-1860s[9] where it is not indicated whether these were replacements of absent players or of players injured during the match.

The first use of a substitute in international football was on 15 April 1889, in the match between Wales and Scotland at Wrexham. Wales's original goalkeeper, Jim Trainer, failed to arrive; local amateur player Alf Pugh started the match and played for some 20 minutes until the arrival of Sam Gillam, who took over from him.[10]

While substitution during games was first permitted in 1958,[11] there have been instances of substitution prior. In 1940, in a match between Mandatory Palestine and Lebanon, Mandatory Palestine centre-half Zvi Fuchs was replaced at half-time by Lonia Dvorin following an injury.[12][13] Also during the qualifying phase for the 1954 World Cup, Horst Eckel of Germany is recorded as having been replaced by Richard Gottinger in their match with the Saarland on 11 October 1953.[14] The use of substitutes in World Cup Finals matches was not allowed until the 1970 tournament.[15]

The number of substitutes usable in a competitive match has increased from zero—meaning teams were reduced if players' injuries could not allow them to play on—to one (plus another for an injured goalkeeper) in 1958; to two out of a possible five in 1988. With the later increases in substitutions allowed, the number of potential substitute players increased to seven.[16] The number of substitutes increased to two plus one (injured goalkeeper) in 1994,[17] to three in 1995;[18][19] and most recently to a fourth substitute in certain competitions (starting from UEFA Euro 2016) in extra time.[20]

In 2020, following a proposal from FIFA, the International Football Association Board allowed for competition organisers to temporarily allow for a maximum of five substitutions (with an additional allowed in extra time, where applicable) to be made in official matches for the remainder of the year in order to lessen the impact of fixture congestion caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there will only be three opportunities to make substitutions (with an additional allowed in extra time, where applicable), excluding those made at half-time, before the start of extra time and at half-time in extra time.[21]

English and Scottish leaguesEdit

On 7 November 1885, Lockwood Brothers used a substitute in an FA Cup first round replay against Notts Rangers, after midfielder F. Brears suffered a broken leg.[22]

Substitutions during matches in the English Football League were first officially permitted in the 1965–66 season. During the first two seasons after the law was introduced, each side was permitted only one substitution during a game. Moreover, the substitute could only replace an injured player. From the 1967–68 season, this rule was relaxed to allow substitutions for tactical reasons.[23]

On 21 August 1965, Keith Peacock of Charlton Athletic became the first substitute used in the Football League when he replaced injured goalkeeper Mike Rose eleven minutes into their away match against Bolton Wanderers.[24] On the same day, Bobby Knox became the first ever substitute to score a goal when he scored for Barrow against Wrexham.[25]

Archie Gemmill of St Mirren was the first substitute to come on in a Scottish first-class match, on 13 August 1966 in a League Cup tie against Clyde when he replaced Jim Clunie after 23 minutes.[23]

The first official substitute in a Scottish League match was Paul Conn for Queen's Park vs Albion Rovers in a Division 2 match on 24 August 1966. Previously, on 20 January 1917, a player called Morgan came on for the injured Morrison of Partick Thistle after 5 minutes against Rangers at Firhill, but this was an isolated case and the Scottish League did not authorise substitutes until 1966.[23]

In later years, the number of substitutes permitted in Football League matches has gradually increased. In 1987, each team was permitted two substitutes in one match. This increased to three in 1994–95 season, though one of them had to be goalkeeper. One season later, the three substitutes can be used for whatever reasons. At present each team is permitted to name either five or seven substitutes depending on the country and competition, of which a maximum of three may be used. In England, the Premier League increased the number of players on the bench to five in 1996, and to seven for the 2008–09 season.[26]

Relevant lawsEdit

The assistant referee indicating a substitution
Fourth official notifying the referee of the details of the substitution

Substitutions are governed under Law 3 of the Laws of the Game in the (3) Substitution Procedure section.[27]

A player can only be substituted during a stoppage in play and with the permission of the referee. The player to be substituted (outgoing player) must have left the field of play before the substitute (incoming player) may enter the field of play; at that point the substitute becomes a player and the person substituted ceases to be a player. The incoming player may only enter the field at the halfway line. Failure to comply with these provisions may be punished by a caution (yellow card).

A player who has been substituted takes no further part in a match.

Unused substitutes still on the bench, as well as players who have been already substituted, remain under the authority of the referee. These are liable for misconduct, though cannot be said to have committed a foul. For example, in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, Claudio Caniggia was shown the red card for cursing at the referee from the bench.

Under the Laws of the Game, the referee has no specific power to force a player to be substituted, even if the team manager or captain has ordered their player to be substituted. As Law 3 (3) Substitution Procedure simply states that: "if a player who is to be replaced refuses to leave, play continues." However, in some situations players may still be liable to punishment with a caution (yellow card) if they are perceived to be time wasting or unsporting behaviour by refusing to leave the field of play.

A player who has been sent off (red card) cannot be substituted; the team will have to make do with the remaining players. In the case of a goalkeeper who is sent off, the coach will usually (but is not required to) substitute an outfield player so that the backup goalkeeper can enter the game. For example, in the 2006 UEFA Champions League Final, Arsenal midfielder Robert Pires was replaced by second-choice goalkeeper Manuel Almunia to replace Jens Lehmann, who was sent off less than 20 minutes into the match. If all substitutions have been used, or if no goalkeeper is available, an outfield player will take up the role of the goalkeeper. A famous example of this is when Chelsea goalkeepers Petr Čech and Carlo Cudicini were both injured in the same game, which led to defender John Terry spending the remainder of the match in goal wearing third-choice goalkeeper Hilário's shirt.[28]

According to the Laws of the Game, "up to a maximum of three substitutes may be used in any match played in an official competition organised under the auspices of FIFA, the confederations or the member associations." Also:

  • In national A team matches, up to a maximum of six substitutes may be used.
  • In all other matches, a greater number of substitutes may be used provided that:
    • the teams concerned reach agreement on a maximum number;
    • the referee is informed before the match.
  • If the referee is not informed, or if no agreement is reached before the match, no more than six substitutes are allowed.

Concussion substituteEdit

In October 2019, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) began discussing the use of additional substitutions for players who are suspected to have sustained a concussion during a match.[29] Earlier in the year, the chairman of FIFA's medical committee, Michel D'Hooghe, said the body was open to discussing concussion substitutions.[30] UEFA had also called for FIFA and IFAB to allow for temporary substitutes for suspected head injuries.[31][32] The idea had been previously discussed by the FIFA Executive Committee five years earlier. However, the prevailing view was that the rule would hurt football's "universality", as it would be difficult to replicate on a grassroots level, and could be exploited to waste time and/or gain an additional substitution.[33]

In 2014, UEFA introduced a rule to allow referees to stop matches for up to three minutes to assess head injuries, with players only allowed to return after the team doctor could confirm the player's fitness to carry on.[34] The three-minute rule was similarly adopted at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.[35] The change came following high-profile head injuries at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and calls by FIFPro for FIFA to review its concussion protocol.[36][37]

Initially, IFAB had considered a ten-minute assessment period for players suspected of a concussion, with a substitute replacing them in the interim.[33] In December 2019, IFAB agreed to appoint an expert group, composed of sports medical specialists and football experts, to identify options for the assessment and management of suspected concussions during matches.[38] Following feedback from the Concussion Expert Group, IFAB announced in February 2020 that it would draw up concussion substitute protocols to be used in trials.[39] In October 2020, the expert group announced that an "additional permanent substitution" protocol would be used to protect the health of players using an "if in doubt, take them out" philosophy, and that trials would start in 2021.[40][41] The protocol and trial was formally approved by IFAB on 16 December 2020. Under the protocol, players suspected of a concussion will be permanently removed from the match and replaced by a substitute. This prevents a player from sustaining multiple head injuries in a match, prevents teams from suffering a numerical or tactical disadvantage, reduces the pressure on medical personnel to make a quick assessment and can be applied on all levels of the game.[42] Competition organisers must be approved by FIFA and IFAB to participate in the trial period, which will last from January 2021 to March 2022.[43]

In January 2021, FIFA announced that it would trial concussion substitutes in the following month at the 2020 FIFA Club World Cup.[44] Later that month, it was announced that the Premier League, FA Women's Super League, FA Women's Championship and FA Cup would begin the trial in February 2021.[45][46] On 9 February 2021, West Ham United made the first concussion substitution in English football during an FA Cup match against Manchester United, when Issa Diop was replaced by Ryan Fredericks at half-time following a head injury.[47] The trial is also taking place in the Eredivisie, Eerste Divisie and KNVB Cup.[48]

Trial protocolEdit

IFAB announced two protocols for concussion substitutes, with competition organisers able to choose which to use. The use of concussion substitutes will operate in conjunction with other protocols used, including the three-minute break for an on-field concussion assessment.[49]

Both protocols use the following general principles and procedures:[49]

  • A concussion substitution can be made regardless of the number of substitutes already used.
  • In competitions where the number of named substitutes is the same as the maximum number of substitutes allowed, the concussion substitute can be a player who has previously been substituted out of the match.
  • A concussion substitution may be made:
    • Immediately after a concussion occurs or is suspected
    • After an initial three-minute on-field assessment, and/or after an off-field assessment
    • At any other time when a concussion occurs or is suspected (including when a player has previously been assessed and has returned to the field of play)
  • If a team decides to make a concussion substitution, the match officials must be informed (ideally by using a substitution card/form of a different colour).
  • The injured player is not permitted to take any further part in the match, including a penalty shoot-out.
  • Making a concussion substitution is separate from any limit on the number of "normal" substitution opportunities.

The following principles are specific to each protocol:[49]

  • Protocol A
    • Each team is permitted to use a maximum of one concussion substitute during a match.
    • When a concussion substitute is used, no change will be made to the maximum number of substitutions permitted by the opposing team.
  • Protocol B
    • Each team is permitted to use a maximum of two concussion substitutes during a match.
    • When a concussion substitute is used, the opposing team has the option of using an additional substitute for any reason.
      • The opposing team is informed of their additional substitution opportunity by the match officials.
      • The additional substitution may be used concurrently with the concussion substitution or at any time thereafter.


The term "super-sub" refers to a player who is not a regular in the starting line-up but who is noted for often coming on a substitute and making a significant impact on the game. Players regarded as "super-subs" include David Fairclough and Divock Origi for Liverpool,[50][51] John Hewitt for Aberdeen,[51][52][53] Adam Le Fondre for Reading,[54] Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Javier Hernández for Manchester United,[55][56][51] Mikael Forssell for Chelsea,[57] Edin Džeko for Manchester City,[58] Brendon Santalab for Western Sydney Wanderers,[59] Henrique for Brisbane Roar,[60] Stevie Kirk for Motherwell,[61] Archie Thompson, Joshua Kennedy and Tim Cahill for Australia,[62][63][64][65][66][67] Fernando Llorente for Tottenham Hotspur,[68][69] Roger Milla for Cameroon,[51] Oliver Bierhoff for Germany,[51] Ilsinho for Philadelphia Union,[70] and Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd for the United States women's team.[71][72]


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