The notorious offside rule in soccer is one of the harder rules to understand in sport in general. As soccer continues to grow in popularity around the US, with the success of Major League Soccer and the new found American audience for European soccer, the rules can sometimes seem more complicated than American football.
Moreover, with the application of Video Assisted Referees (VAR) across all of soccer, both at home and across the pond) the offside rule has become more debated than ever.
So you don’t look like a schmuck on the next game day, we have laid out the offside rule in all its glory so next game day you can be the one to explain it.
What is the offside rule?
The offside rule is the 11th Law in the IFAB Laws of the Game 2021-22, and was first introduced in the English game by the Football Association of England (the FA) in 1883 when they formalised the rules of soccer, or what the Brits refer to as ‘football’.
The offside law is implemented to stop what some people refer to as ‘poachers’ or ‘snipers’ in soccer. The offside law discourages players from simply hanging around the goal all match and waiting for someone to pass them the ball so they can simply score from hanging around the goal all game.
The offside rule decrees that a player cannot be in front of the last defender, this excludes the goalkeeper. You are only ruled offside if you touch the ball or the player becomes involved in play.
Even if you don’t touch the ball in an offside position, if you are in an offside position and you block the goalkeepers line of sight, or affect the game in any way, you will be ruled offside. You will also be ruled offside, without touching the ball, if you interfere with an opponent by impeding their ability to score.
An easy way to grasp the offside rule is to understand that the ‘field of play’ or the ‘boundaries of the game’ start at the defending goal and ends at the point the last defender holds the line.
So if you pass to someone who is in an offside position it is treated the same as passing the ball to someone who is off the pitch, which is equally an offence.
This is the most basic explanation of the offside rule. If you want to get more in depth, we can. With the introduction of VAR the exact point a player becomes offside has become disputed.
Modern ruling posits that even head and body as well as feet can decree an offside offence. This means that even if your feet are behind the offside line, but your head or shoulder is beyond the offside line, then this will be ruled an offside offence.
As the human eyes of the physical assistant linesman cannot catch such tiny movements, VAR was introduced to calculate to a tee where the offside line is and where the potential point of the body that is offside, is.
Can you be offside during a goal kick?
No, there is no offence if the player receives the ball directly from a goal kick, a throw-in, a corner kick, or penalty. To be offside, this has to be during open play. Although, you can be offside during a freekick as they are a direct form of passing.
You also will not be considered offside if you are in your own half, or if you are level with the last defender.
It’s important to clarify that your position does not matter, excluding a goal keeper,who is not bound by an offside rule, unless in a goal scoring situation themselves. So even if the striker is the last ‘defender’ then you will still be offside if you are beyond them.
What if you are behind the goalkeeper?
Usually, the goalkeeper is the player that will be furthest back as his job is to protect the goal and is allowed to use his hands to achieve this.
Occasionally, the goalkeeper comes out of his net and the last player back is potentially an outfield player such as a defender. What if the goalkeeper is the second to last opponent and an outfield player has become the last opponent?
This rule essentially decrees that there must be at least two players between you and the goal, one is usually the goalkeeper but the goalkeeper does not decide the offside line.
If the goalkeeper has two of their defenders behind them, the goalkeeper becomes the third to last opponent and is no longer counted in the rule. It is in fact the second to last player who will form the reference for where the offside line is.
What if the ball comes off an opposition player?
The offside only comes into play when the ball is played to someone within the same team. In other words, your teammate must pass the ball to you in order to infringe the offside rule.
If you are in a technically offside position but the ball comes to you via miscontrol from an opposition player then the offside rule does not count.
In the same vein, if the opposition goalkeeper accidentally passes you the ball then you are also not considered to be offside, even in an offside position.
What happens when you are offside?
An offside offence is not a bookable offence, so you won’t receive a red or yellow card for being offside, no matter how many times you, or your teammates, are offside.
If a player is offside the referee will immediately blow his whistle to stop play and an indirect freekick will be awarded to the opposing team.
What is an indirect free kick?
There are two types of free kick in soccer, an indirect free kick, and a direct free kick. The easiest difference between the two is that a direct free kick can be taken as a direct shot on goal. In an indirect free kick a touch must first be taken before a shot on goal can happen.
Some common issues with the offside rule
The offside rule, while one of the oldest, and most complex, isn’t always supported by fans.
With the introduction of modern rulings, which include not only your feet but your head and arms as being potentially offside, some people find that this offside rule can infringe play too often.
Some fans find it unfair on the attacking player that their hand, which you can’t even score with legally, can be ruled offside.
Moreover, with the introduction of VAR some find the technology too accurate and believe that the attacker should be given the benefit of the doubt, as there have been some offside decisions that rely on inches of a player’s shoulder being the point that is offside.
Some find that the defender’s advantage of causing the opposing attacker to be offside is a phenomena of chance rather than one of purposeful skill. Although holding a high offside line is often used as a tactic in soccer.
Some fans find that the assistant and lead referee take too long to make a decision about offside in the modern game as they have to wait for VAR. For instance, if a player is in an offside position and, as the referee hasn’t blown the whistle yet, scores a goal.
The player, in some situations, might have celebrated the goal before it has even been chalked off for being offside. This is because the referees often have to wait for the VAR to rule the goal as being offside, which can take the technology sometime to process.
Some feel that in these situations where VAR is relying on inches to disallow the goal, that the attacker should be given the benefit of the doubt purely in the name of entertainment.
Some goals have been scored in some, usually, high stakes games where a player has scored a great goal but has to wait 5 minutes before he, and the fans both at home and in the stadium, can celebrate once the goal has gone through a VAR check. This can often take the life out of these celebrations and, some say, the entertainment out of football.
Some find that the VAR has actually made the offside rule even more confusing as well as being overly harsh on players who are merely a finger offside. On the other hand, some fans think that law is law and even if a player is inches offside then he is still offside and should be infringed.