The Purpose of 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 camps in front of the other team’s goal. 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.
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:
— No one is “offside” in his own half of the field.
— No one is “offside” if even with, or behind the ball.
— No one is “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”
Contrary to some popular misconceptions, it does not violate 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 even if everyone can see a player well beyond the offside line is probably not missing anything. Rather, they are applying the rule correctly, by letting play continue until the player in the “offside position” becomes “offside” by getting involved in the 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.” 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 touches, or is played, by a teammate…”
The Offside rule is the source of more controversy than any other rule in soccer. Partly, this is because 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.
Players touch the ball a lot during a soccer game, often in quick 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….and the official often has less than a heartbeat to make the decision.
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 Steve is onside when Tom kicks the ball forward, it doesn’t matter if he’s twenty yards behind the defense when he collects the ball. The play will be onside…because he was onside at the moment her teammate passed the ball. And if Steve is onside…but Frank is offside…then an alert official will wait to see which one of them moves after the ball — because if Frank takes himself out of the play, and lets Steve 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, sparking arguments and controversies since its inception. But its purpose is simple: to prevent “cherry-picking.” Since it is an important part of the game, the referees will enforce the rule to the best of their ability. But when they 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.