Think you know the offside rule in football?

Football offside explained

Offside ref? Here's a simple explantion of football's offside rule so that you know exactly how and why the official's flag goes up so frequently in football.

By Simon Doyle

The offside rule in football 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. Despite this, we'll attempt to clear up the offside rule so you know exactly what it is that makes offside such a controversial issue in football.

It always seems to be the case that people can’t leave simple things alone – and this is certainly the case with the offside rule. Having been changed many times over the years since it was introduced, the offside rule has become a hugely complicated issue.

Even the most ardent football fan would have to do a bit of thinking before explaining what the term ‘offside’ refers to – and would probably have to use the salt and pepper pots or draw a diagram to visually explain the rule to a novice.

And now the offside rule is more complicated than it has ever been, what with the most recent change to the rule – which allows a player to be in an offside position and not be penalised,provided he or she is not ‘actively involved in play’. (We’ll come to what this phrase actually means a bit later.)

So, what is the offside rule in football?

The basic offside rule can be explained as follows:

A player is considered offside if, at the time the ball is played by a team-mate,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.)

An example of offside in football

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’.

An example of not offside in football

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 team-mate 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 football 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. Indeed, for this reason many professional players and managers are calling for a return to the simple rule whereby a player in an offside position is given offside regardless of whether they are in active play or not.

Certainly, while the offside rule remains open to interpretation, it will remain a contentious issue for the foreseeable future.

Comments (1)

  • Ross_M 'Good article. I remember having this explained to me by my dad when I was young and just getting into football, he used all my toys as a demonstration and it worked perfectly!'

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