The offside rule in soccer continues to baffle fans, players, managers and referees alike on a regular basis, and changes in the interpretation of the rules have made this even more confusing. Having been changed many times over the years since it was introduced, the offside rule has become a hugely complicated issue.
So, what is the offside rule in soccer?
The basic offside rule can be explained as follows: A player is considered offside if, at the time the ball is played by a teammate,they are further advanced up the field than both the ball and the second-to-last opponent. (The last opponent will usually be the goalkeeper and the second-to-last will usually be a defender.)
This example is offside because the red number 10 attacker is in front of all of the defenders, leaving only the goalkeeper back – which isn’t enough players to play red 10 onside. This position may have been forced by the defenders moving forward in what is called ‘the offside trap’.
Here we can see that the blue number three defender has failed to move up the field with rest of his defence, and so has played the red number nine attacker onside. This is a classic example of where the offside trap fails.
When a player is not offside
However, there are certain exceptions to the rule, where you cannot be penalised for being offside. These include situations where a player:
- Receives the ball directly from a throw in, corner or goal kick.
- Is in their own half of the pitch.
- Is level with the second-to-last opponent (usually a defender).
- Is level with or behind a teammate who plays them the ball.
- Is deemed to be ‘not active in play’.
So, when is a player considered to be active in play?
According to the world’s official football governing body, FIFA, a player is actively interfering with play if they touch the ball after it has been passed to them by a teammate. However, a player can also influence play without touching the ball, and so should be given offside if the referee feels that their offside position has interfered with an opponent – for example by preventing the opponent from playing the ball or by obstructing a goalkeeper’s line of vision.
Players can also be given offside if the referee feels they have gained an advantage from being in an offside position – such as when the ball has fallen to them after hitting a post or rebounding off another player.
These changes are intended to promote attacking play so that players who are nowhere near the ball were not penalised. Unfortunately, though, the changes have only succeeded in creating a situation that puts too much pressure on the match officials, who now have the difficult task of making a split-second decision about not only whether a player is in an offside position, but also whether they are ‘actively interfering’ in play.
Judging whether a player is ‘actively interfering’ in play will always be down to the referee’s own opinion, and therefore the rule is essentially flawed because it relies too much on interpretation.