Offside: A Primer for Coaches, Fans, and Players

by Jeffrey Caminsky

For many, soccer’s offside rule is, as Churchill once described Russia, a “mystery, wrapped in a riddle, inside an enigma.” Therefore, in a modest, and probably misguided effort to make the rule understandable, I have tried to analyze the concept of “Offside” from the observer’s perspective, in order to correct some common misconceptions about the Rule’s purpose and application. We will deal with any new misconceptions this article creates at a later time.

The Purpose of the Offside Rule

Perception of Coaches, Fans, and Players:
The Main Purpose of the Offside Rule is to give the officials an excuse to take away any goal our team scores.

A Secondary Purpose of the rule is to let the officials give the other team a breakaway, and let them score whenever they pass the ball behind our defenders.

Reality Check:
Officials do not like to disallow goals. They realize how hard each team works for any goal it scores, and will only disallow a goal when a team scores by exploiting a violation of the rules. In addition, the Referee does not really care which team wins.

The Real Reason for the Offside Rule
The purpose of the Offside Rule is the same in Soccer as it is in hockey — to prevent “cherry-picking” by a player who is too lazy to participate in the actual game, and instead camps in front of the other team’s goal, hoping for a long pass so he doesn’t have to move around very much. Without the Offside Rule, Soccer would be a large field game of ping pong, filled with long kicks and alternating mad scrambles from one end of the field to the other. By preventing any “offside” player from participating in the game, the rule puts a premium on dribbling and passing, rather than long kicks. This promotes teamwork, which, in turn, encourages quick switching from one side of the field to the other, and compresses the action to a smaller area of the field — usually about 30 or 40 yards long. The end result is that all the players stay closer to the action, and everyone has a better chance of participating in the game.

The Offside Rule:

A player in an offside position is only penalized if, at the moment the ball touches or is played by one of his team, he is, in the opinion of the referee, involved in active play by interfering with play, or interfering with an opponent, or gaining an advantage by being in that position.

“Offside Position”

Perception of Coaches, Fans, and Players:
A player is “Offside” whenever he gets past our defenders. The officials will not notice this, however, unless we bring it to their attention by screaming at them.

Reality Check:
The rule is a bit more complicated than this...but there is at least one official watching the offside line at any given time. However, occasionally the Referee’s attention is on the contest for the ball, instead of the official watching the offside line, which sometimes results in a late whistle.

The “Offside Position”:
Law 11 states that a player is in an “offside position” whenever “he is nearer to his opponent’s goal than both the ball and the second last opponent,” unless “he is in his own half of the field of play.” Put more simply:

— Nobody can be “offside” in his own half of the field.
— Nobody can be “offside” if even with, or behind the ball.
— Nobody can be “offside” if even with, or behind two or more opponents.

In addition, there are three major exceptions to the offside rule. Anyone receiving a ball directly from a throw-in, a corner kick, or a goal kick, cannot be “offside.” So, if Sally receives the ball directly from her teammate’s throw-in, it doesn’t matter if she is in an offside position. The fact that it was a throw-in means that the play was not offside. However, if she flicks the ball along to Jane, who is even further downfield than Sally was, Jane can be offside, since she received the ball from Sally, rather than from the throw-in. The same holds true for corner kicks and goal kicks, as well. If the ball comes directly from the restart, the play cannot be offside; but once the first player receives the ball, the “offside” rule comes back into play.

“Involved in Active Play”

Perception of Coaches, Fans, and Players:
Referees often use the phrase “not involved in the play” as an excuse to avoid admitting they missed an offside call. If the players on the other team were not “involved in active play,” they would not be on the field, they would be on the sidelines.

Reality Check:
A good referee tries to stop the game only when necessary — usually, only for a serious injury, or when one team would otherwise gain an advantage by a violation of the rules.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, it is not a violation of the rules merely for a player to be in an offside position. The violation comes only when an “offside” player becomes involved in the play. So the referee — or the assistant referee on the sidelines — who allows play to continue despite the fact that everyone can see a player well beyond the offside line is probably not missing anything. Rather, they are probably applying the rule correctly, by allowing play to continue until such time as the player in the “offside position” becomes “offside” by getting involved in the play.

“Involved in Active Play”
There are three — and only three — situations where someone in an offside position is penalized for being “offside.” All of them, however, require participating in play from an offside position — or, in the wording of the rule, becoming “involved in active play”in one of three ways:

— Interfering with play
— Interfering with an opponent, or
— Gaining an advantage by being in an offside position.

The easiest example of “offside” comes when an offside player receives a pass from a teammate. In this case, he is directly “interfering with play” because he got the ball. Other examples of the same principle apply this same logic, but seek to spare the players a few steps, or the coaches and fans a few heart attacks. So, if one or more attackers is trapped offside and running to play the ball, the play will be “offside.” (Some sadistic or mischievous assistant referees may prefer to wait until the player actually touches the ball in order to raise the flag. This is not, strictly speaking, necessary; but it is not incorrect for them to do so, either...providing some incentive, however meager, to be nice to them). On the other hand, if an offside player removes himself from the play — pulling up, for example, in order to let an onside teammate collect the ball — an alert official will allow play to continue. And if the ball is going directly to the keeper, the officials will usually let the players keep playing.

While it is not an offense to be in an offside position, a player who never touches the ball may nevertheless affect play in such a way as to be penalized for being offside. The offside player who runs between an opponent and the ball, for example — or one who screens the goalkeeper from a shot, or interferes with the keeper’s ability to jump for, or collect the ball — violates the offside rule by participating in the play. But this sort of participation does not come from touching the ball. Rather, it comes from interfering with an opponent’s chance to play the ball. In this case, once the assistant referee sees the participation, the appropriate response is to raise the flag. But, if the offside player pulls up, steps to the side, or clearly indicates that he is removing himself from the moment’s active play, the alert official will simply allow play to continue.

Among the trickiest things to spot — either as a spectator or an official — is the player who exploits an offside position to gain an unfair advantage. This does not mean that the player is “gaining an advantage” by avoiding some extra running on a hot day, however. Instead, it means that the player is taking advantage of his positioning to exploit a lucky deflection, or a defensive mistake. So, if an offside player is standing to the side of the goal when his teammate takes a shot — but does not otherwise interfere with play or inhibit the keeper’s chance to make the save — then he is not offside...and the officials will count the goal. But if the ball rebounds, either from the keeper or the goalpost, and the offside player bangs the rebound home — the play is offside, and the goal will not count, because the player is now gaining an advantage from the offside position.

“The Moment the Ball is Played....”

Perception of Coaches, Fans, and Players:
The referees never get the offside call right, and have a hard time making up their minds. That’s why their flags are often late. And that’s why they sometimes raise the offside flag even when the players are clearly onside.

Reality Check
The Offside rule is the source of more controversy than any other rule in soccer, and for good reason: it’s pretty complicated. In addition, there are at least two critical moments of judgment in every offside call, or no-call. The second of these, the moment of participation, is often easy to see: that’s usually where the ball lands and the players are playing, and that’s where everybody is looking. But the first “moment of truth” is usually away from everyone’s attention, because what determines the “offside position” is the relative position of each player at the moment the ball is struck.

“The moment the ball touches, or is played, by a teammate....”
Players touch the ball a lot during a soccer game, sometimes in very rapid succession. And soccer being a fluid game, on a good team each player is constantly in motion. This means that the first moment of judgment — determining whether any players are in an offside position — is constantly changing, and the relative position of the players will often be very different from one moment to the next. Yet the officials have to keep it all straight, and have a heartbeat or less to take a mental snapshot of the players’ positioning at one frozen moment in time — the moment the ball is played by a member of one team — in order to judge whether an offside member of that team subsequently moves to play the ball, interferes with an opponent, or gains an advantage from being offside. From the official’s perspective, the game is an endless series of these snapshots, because each new touch of the ball redetermines the offside line.

Part of the difficulty in this is simple physics. Imagine that you are watching cars pass one another on the highway. It may seem easy to tell when one car is passing another in the two northbound lanes of traffic; but try telling the precise moment that a car traveling north is exactly even with a car traveling south. Now, combine this with the need make your decision at the precise moment that some other northbound car flashes its brights, and you get a pretty good idea of what the officials have to do, dozens of times in every game. If the cars are even, or the northbound car has not quite passed the one heading south at the moment the third car flashes its brights, the play is onside; if the northbound car has nosed ahead of the southbound car, the play is offside. Now, widen the highway to twenty lanes...increase the number of cars to twenty-two...set them all moving in different directions and at varying speeds...tell the assistant referee to stay even with the “next to last car”... and if you can keep track of it all, you’re doing what the referees are doing every moment of the game. Just remember — the official has to make each decision in a heartbeat.

But what really seems to confuse everyone is more a matter of psychology and perception. Suppose everyone is watching the car with the lights. When its brights flash, everyone turns to see the northbound car racing ahead, and by the time they turn their heads, it’s well past the southbound car, racing north as fast as the speed limit allows. In a soccer game, substitute players for cars, and the ball for the lights, and whichever way the call goes, this is the moment that half the crowd will often start screaming at the officials. But in fact, nobody but the assistant referee has any idea what the call should be, because nobody, except the one, lonely official, was watching the right players at the critical moment.

The important thing to remember is that the moment of judging “offside position” is different than the moment of judging participation. And this is true whichever direction the players are moving. An offside player who comes back onside to receive the ball is still offside; to avoid the call, he cannot participate until another teammate touches the ball, or his opponents manage to collect it. On the other hand, a player who is onside will remain onside, no matter how far she runs to retrieve it, and no matter where the other team’s players move in the meantime. So, if Judy is onside when Stacey kicks the ball forward, it doesn’t matter if she’s twenty yards behind the defense when she collects the ball. The play will be onside...because she was onside at the moment her teammate passed the ball. And if Judy is onside...but Mary is offside...then an alert official will wait to see which one of them moves after the ball — because if Mary takes herself out of the play, and lets Judy collect it, then play can continue because there is no offside violation.

Soccer Officials and Offside
The offside rule has been part of Soccer for a long time, and has generated arguments and controversies since its inception. But its purpose is simple: to prevent “cherry-picking.” And since it is an important part of the game, the match officials will enforce the rule to the best of their ability. So when the officials rule a play offside — or let play continue, because they saw no infraction — they are not doing it out of spite, or to hurt one team or the other. Rather, they are doing so regardless of which team it hurts or benefits, simply because the rules require it.

Officials have a difficult and sometimes thankless job. They have to enforce the rules, even if nobody else understands them, in order for the players to have a fair contest of skill. But the officials are there because they have no interest in the outcome, only a deep respect for the sport, and a willingness to run about the field, occasionally enduring unkind or uninformed remarks so that others can play a game they all love.

Knowing the rules can help coaches, players, and spectators understand the decisions the officials hand down during the match, as they try to keep the game fair, safe, and enjoyable for everybody. And occasionally, understanding the rules may spare everyone some needless grief, when a call goes against your favorite team.

©2007 by Jeffrey Caminsky
Website ©2006-2007 by Jeffrey Caminsky