If you were to ask soccer players, coaches, and fans which regulation causes them the most frustration and angst, the majority answer will undoubtedly be the offside rule. Apart from the technical aspect of what the offside rules actually is, there are also the countless instances where goals have or have not been allowed based on an offside decision which was later proven to be wrong.
In this article, we'll explain the rule in as simple language as we can, highlight how the rule has been tweaked and amended over the years, and highlight new technology which is changing the way in which the offside rule is implemented.
The Offside Law
The rule relating to offside in soccer states that a player is deemed to be in an offside position if the following circumstances exist:
- The ball is played or touched forward
- The ball is played by their teammate
- They are in the opponent’s half
- There are less than two opponents between them and the goal line.
On that last point, this relates to any part of their body which can legally touch the ball, so that would apply to their feet, legs, body, and head. If their arm or hand was closer to the goal than the applicable opponent, but the other parts were not, a forward player would not be deemed to be offside.
Other elements of the law state that to be deemed offside a forward must be what is termed, 'active'. In other words, simply standing in an offside position doesn't mean a player is offside. To be offside they must be one of the following
- Interfering with play: This means they touch the ball which has been passed to them
- Interfering with an opponent: While not touching the ball, they obstruct, block, or challenge an opponent for the ball or act in a way that impacts on the opponent.
- Gaining an advantage: This is when the forward who is in an offside position plays the ball or interferes with an opponent following a rebound from the goalposts, crossbar, opponent, or official.
History of Offside
Soccer evolved from previous versions of sports which came under the umbrella of 'football’. These came to the fore mainly during the 19th century in Britain, with the one which many soccer historians regard as a true forerunner of soccer being 'Cambridge Rules' football. In this game, three defending players had to be in front of a forward player when the forward played the ball.
When the first laws of soccer were published in 1863, the offside rule proved to be the one which caused the most disagreements, and in truth that’s still the case 150 years later. The specifics of the rule were a compromise and stated 'at least three players' had to be between the forward and the opponent's goal.
In 1925, the rule was changed to reduce the number to two players, with the biggest impact being a massive uplift in the number of goals. Within a year of the reduction, the number of goals scored in the English league rose by 36%.
The most recent change of any note was to change the law so that a forward would be deemed to be onside if they were level with the second to last defender instead of having to be behind them.
Standing Offside But Not Offside
There are many scenarios where a forward can be standing in an offside position as defined in the previous section, but they are not deemed to be offside. The first of these is when they receive the ball when played by one of their opponents. The most common example of this is where a defender tries to pass the ball back to their goalkeeper but in error gives it to a forward. Other situations where a forward can legally receive the ball while in an offside position is from a corner kick, a goal kick, a drop ball, or a throw-in.
Flagging For Offside
One principle which runs throughout soccer's laws is that the referee is deemed to be the sole arbiter and has full authority to make decisions in relation to those laws. While it’s he or she who will blow their whistle to indicate that offside has occurred, it not normally them who make the decision.
The decision as to whether a player is offside is taken by the assistant referee who is running the line for that half of the field. They do so by raising their flag and then pointing across the field in line to where the forward was when offside occurred.
With the advance of technology, Video Assistant Referees (VAR) is becoming more widespread, particularly in larger tournaments and leagues. With VAR, assistant referees are advised NOT to raise their flag if an offside decision is borderline, especially if an attack looks like it may lead to a goal.
If a goal is scored, it is then referred to the VAR and they use special technology to check whether any forward was in an offside position in the lead up to that goal. If so, the goal is disallowed, and an indirect free-kick is awarded to the defending team.
While VAR is also used to help the referee with decisions such as awarding penalties and red cards, it is with the offside rule that many believe it will have the biggest impact. Given that VAR can use technology to determine if a player is offside, while it may not lead to the replacement of assistant referees, it ensures that if they make an error, it can be rectified.
One of the first and most significant examples of where VAR has changed the result of a game was during the all-English Champions League quarter-final in April 2019 between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. With the match in stoppage time, Manchester City scored what looked like the goal that would take them through to the next round.
Their players, staff, and fans celebrated wildly while Tottenham's players sank to their knees in despair. These emotions were dramatically reversed when the VAR system showed a Manchester City player involved in the build-up to the goal was offside. The goal was subsequently disallowed, and Tottenham progressed to the next round.