DOHA, Qatar — The use of extra substitutes in matches, a change to longstanding soccer tradition brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, was formally written into the sport’s rules on Monday, only five months before the start of this year’s World Cup in Qatar.
Under the revision to soccer’s purposely brief rulebook, the Laws of the Game, approved by its rule-making body, the International Football Association Board, coaches at this year’s tournament — and in any other competition — will be allowed to use as many as five substitutes per game instead of three.
The expansion already had been in place on a temporary basis, introduced in 2020 and framed as an effort to protect the physical and mental health of players. But it had been widely adopted in domestic leagues around the world and by top competitions like the Champions League, and praised by coaches who welcomed the tactical flexibility it offered. Chelsea Coach Thomas Tuchel, for example, called the change “brilliant” for big teams and small ones alike.
Making it permanent sets the stage for another change: FIFA now can expand rosters for the tournament, to 26 players instead of the former limit of 23.
Both of Monday’s decisions mean that, for the third straight cycle, the World Cup will kick off with a major rules change: Goal-line technology made its debut at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and the replay system known as video-assistant review was approved in time for the 2018 tournament in Russia.
The use of five substitutes was approved by IFAB as a temporary measure in 2020. At the time, leagues were rushing back into a compressed schedules of matches — sometimes in the heat of midsummer, and without their customary preseasons — as they scrambled to make up games and fulfill multimillion-dollar television contracts.
But the temporary measure has been retained in many of the world’s top leagues, and like their club colleagues, national team coaches — welcoming the flexibility and options the extra subs and bigger rosters will offer in the biggest event on the soccer calendar — are expected to agree with the change being made permanent.
Club coaches may favor it, too, especially if it eases the strain on their top players even in modest ways: To accommodate the scorching summer heat in Qatar, this year’s World Cup was moved to the winter months, meaning it will arrive in the midst of most club seasons, and put an added hardship on elite players already weary from soccer’s nearly nonstop schedule since the game’s pandemic pause in 2020.
Added substitutes are now common from Europe to leagues like Major League Soccer in the United States. The Premier League — which used five subs initially and then reverted to three subs the past two seasons, will make the change back to five beginning with its coming season.
Expanded rosters are also not new. Europe’s governing body allowed teams to name 26-player rosters for last summer’s European Championship, and South American officials approved 28-man teams for last summer’s Copa América in Brazil. In those cases, coaches were still allowed to name only 23 players to their active rosters for each game. But the decision to allow gameday rosters to include 15 subs instead of 12 will give coaches wiggle room at the time when the coronavirus could still decimate a team in a matter of days.