The soccer offside rule explained

When you are new to football, one of the most difficult things to wrap your head around is the offside rule. Even some experienced players and watchers do not completely understand all of the nuances that there are to this highly controversial rule.

It is without a doubt one of the leading causes for debate within the sport of football. There will hardly be a few days that go by without there being some controversy in a game of football about a goal that was scored when it should have been ruled as offside or vice versa.

You may be wondering to yourself, if these expert football referees and linesmen get the offside rule wrong so often, how is there any chance that I can do any better?

Well, by looking into the intricacies of the rule and checking out the various examples that we have provided, you will have the relevant information and skillset to be able to maximise the chances of you making a correct call when it comes to the offside rule, whether you are a player, coach or match official.

The importance of leaning about it cannot be understated, so it is worth the time taken to go through this article and to digest the information that has been given to you and assimilate it by checking out the various samples that are provided.

From now on when watching or playing in a game of football, you will be able to decide quickly and effectively for yourself whether a player was offside or not.

What exactly is the offside rule?

In basic terms, the offside rule is when a player is nearer to the opposition’s goal than both the ball and the last outfield opponent when the ball has been played to them by their teammate.

This means that for you to be able to receive a ball from a teammate there needs to be at least one opposition outfield player level with you or closer to the goal. The exception is when the teammate is ahead of you and passes the ball backwards to you.

Being in an offside position is not an immediate foul. It only turns into a foul and a free kick if the offending player is involved in the active play. This means that a player will only be penalised for being offside when they are;

  • In the opponent’s half
  • Interfering with the active play (i.e. a member of the attacking move).
  • Interfering with one of their opponents (stopping them from running or defending).
  • Having an advantage by being in this position.

When there is a goal kick, corner or throw in, there is no way that a player can be offside.

Why does the offside rule exist?

Without the offside rule, a game of football would be pure chaos and would not be as entertaining to watch or play. There would be a lot of “goal hanging” whereby players would simply station themselves near to the opposition goalkeeper and attempt to have the ball played to him by a teammate and be in very close proximity to the goal. This would lead to a lot of crowding around the goalmouths of both defenders and attackers, even when the ball was up the orher end of the pitch.

This would lead there to be large swathes of the pitch that are open. The offside rule adds a more balanced and skilful side to the game, as teams would otherwise rely on hoofing the ball into the opponent’s box and having big players in there to try get the ball into the net.

It would take out of the equation a lot of the skilful players that are a joy to watch today, such as Lionel Messi and others.

How is the offside rule enforced?

As the referee is largely involved all over the pitch, they are not often in the best position to see whether a player is offside or not. This is why the linesmen are so important, as they run up and down the side-lines in line with the play and have a great view a lot of the time to determine if the offside rule needs to be implemented.

If the offside rule needs to be enforced, the linesman will alert the referee by raising their flag in the air. In order to show the referee where the foul occurred, they will change the angle that they are pointing the flag.

If it is pointed towards the ground at a 45 degree angle, the foul took place in the third of the pitch nearest to the linesman, if it is parallel to the ground it happened in the middle third of the pitch and if it is pointed upwards at a 45 degree angle it occurred in the far third of the pitch to the linesman,

History of the offside rule

In the early days of football, the offside rule was often different depending on where you we replaying or watching the game. A lot of the time, a player was offside if they were standing in front of the ball. It was in 1866 that the rule came into universal effect.

The rule has bene tweaked over the years. Up until 1925, there would have to be two outfield players closer to their goals than the attacker for a player not to be deemed offside.

From there on, the rule was changed to the modern iteration of one outfield player having to be in closer to their goals than the attacking player. When this new tweak was introduced, the number of goals rose substantially.

In the 1924-25 season there were 4,700 goals scored during 1,848 games, while the following year after the rule change there were 6,373 goals scored during the exact same number of matches.

It was in 1990 that the rule was tweaked so the attacker could be in line with the last outfield player rather than behind them. This was aimed to make the game run more smoothly and freely.

What is the offside trap?

As the offside rule is such a controversial and often subjective thing, many teams will try to flirt with danger and force opposition players to get into offside positions by pushing past them.

It is important that the defending team communicates efficiently and effectively with one another, as a botched offside trap could very easily lead to a goal being conceded, the opposite of what their aim was when starting the trap.

Every defender needs to be on the same page and push past the opposition player at the same time. This automatically puts the attacking player into an offside position, even if they were not in one a few seconds previously.

The offside trap does need to be used very carefully, as officials make mistakes so often with the offside rule that a team could spring the trap effectively, but the referee and linesman does not see that the attacker is offside and they could score a goal that is not disallowed.

Why do officials get the offside rule wrong so often?

When it comes to the offside rule, it is very easy to make a judgement when you are looking at the game objectively from the stands or on the television, as you have a good viewpoint of the incident from an elevated view.

The linesmen and the referee are at ground level with what is happening on the pitch and often their lines of sight will be blocked by different players, making it hard to see whether someone is offside or not.

There are angles in which it can be very hard to determine if an attacker is in an offside position when the ball has been played. Linesmen and referees do get a lot of unnecessary blame for falsely calling or not calling offside fouls.

Every one of these officials is human and is bound to make mistakes. If you were out there officiating, you would be bound to make a mistake from time to time.

The real solution to this problem is the development of some form of technology or video review that can be used in real time to determine whether someone is offside or not and be able to alert the referee.

For example, football could follow the way of many sports, such as rugby by using a television match official. If a goal was scored but there exists a doubt that a player actively involved in the attack was offside, the referee and television match official can re-watch the incident straight away to determine whether the player was offside or not.

They can then make a decision on the field then and there on whether the goal should stand or not. While this wouldn’t completely eliminate offside rule controversies, it would go a long way to drastically cutting back on them.


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