One of the more complicated rules in soccer involves offensive players being ruled offside. The rules–and, following them, tactics–surrounding offside play have evolved over the years. Despite this, calls are frequently contested, resulting in controversy, especially when goals are overruled.
What is Offsides in Soccer?
A player in a soccer game is considered to be in an offside position when a part of their body they are permitted to manipulate the ball with is positioned closer to the goal line than the ball and the second-last player of the opposing team. Interfering in play at this stage results in a foul.
In this article, I’ll go over the offside rules, explain how they come into play in a match, and tell you a little bit about its history.
How Does the Offside Rule Work in Soccer?
To gain a better understanding of why the offside rule is structured the way it is, it is helpful to consider why such a rule was introduced in the first place. Using this knowledge, you will be able to break down the different components of the rule and grasp its “logic.”
What Purpose Do Offside Rules Serve
Offside rules were introduced to discourage players from loitering about near the opposing team’s goal, from where they could more easily score goals. The Football Association, which drew up the rules of the game, felt that this would lead to a glut of goals and make scoring less challenging and exciting.
Offside rules still allowed players to attack; they would just have to do it from in front of the defenders, and by breaking through them, creating more opportunities for offensive and defensive players to take each other on in the play.
The game’s early administrators thought that this created a fairer balance between attacking and defensive players, giving defenders a fair chance to protect the goal and attackers a sufficient window to score.
When Is a Player Offside?
Seen in this light, the rules make perfect sense. According to them, a player is considered to be in an offside position when:
- A part of the player’s feet, head, or body (excluding the player’s hand and arms) is in the opposing team’s half of the field, and
- The player’s feet, head, or body (excluding the player’s hand and arms) is closer to the opposing team’s goal line than either the ball or their second-last opponent.
Note that the feet, head, and body are parts of the player that are legally permitted to manipulate the ball. Moreover, these restrictions still allow attackers to get behind all but two of their opponents without a ball. Finally, it is only applicable in the opponent’s half.
A player is not considered to be in an offside position if they are level with one or both of their last two opponents in their opponent’s half. Additionally, being offside is not an offense; it is only when a player takes advantage of their offside position to influence play that they commit an offense.
When Does a Player’s Offside Position Become an Offense?
If a player is in an offside position at the moment the ball is played by their teammate, they will be deemed to have committed an offense if they go on to:
- Touch the ball before any of the opposing team’s players.
- Challenge an opponent for control over the ball.
- Obstruct an opponent from controlling the ball.
- Block an opponent’s line of sight to the ball.
- Play the ball after it has bounced off the goalpost, crossbar, opponents, or match officials.
- Obstruct opponents from playing the ball after it strikes a goalpost, crossbar, or official.
At this point, the only way for a player to legitimately interfere with play is for them to wait for an opponent to play the ball and then intercept it. However, a player can receive a ball in an offside position from a corner kick, a throw-in, or a goal kick.
What is the Penalty for an Offside Offense?
When a match official deems a player to have committed an offside offense, he usually awards the opposing team a free kick from the spot where the offense was committed. Of course, any goal scored from an offside position will also be overruled. This final penalty is the cause of the greatest controversies as it can dramatically affect outcomes.
The Origins and Evolution of the Offside Rule
As I’ve already mentioned, the offside rule was introduced to check players from parking themselves near their opponent’s goal, giving them an unfair advantage over defenders, who would then have little chance of challenging them for the ball.
However, the best way to tackle this problem has evolved significantly over the years. And as laws have changed, both attacking players and defenders have developed mechanisms to cope.
Changes To Offside Rules Over the Years
Offside rules were introduced when the Football Association first codified the laws of the game in 1863. At the time, the rule prevented players from being in front of the ball at the point it was kicked from.
If you’re aware of offside rules in rugby, you’ll notice that they’re identical. This is because soccer and rugby weren’t always separate sports. In fact, the invention of soccer involved cleaving the two sports apart by establishing different sets of rules for the two games.
In 1866 offside rules were changed to give attacking players a better chance to score while still giving defenders a fair chance to protect their goal. Under the new rules, a player would only be considered offside if they were ahead of the ball and had fewer than three opponents between them and the goal.
A change in rule in 1873 established the importance of the player’s position at the moment the ball is played by a teammate. Another change in 1903 added the qualification of “interfering with play,” meaning a player needn’t play the ball for an offside offense; merely interfering with the play was sufficient.
No doubt, most of these changes resulted in adjustments by players, necessitating more changes by the game’s administrators. In 1925, they reduced the requirement from a player needing at least three opponents between them and the goal to two, subtly moving to favor attackers.
These changes seemed to have worked, and since then, tweaks to rules have been minor and rare. In the 1990s, an attacker being level with the last two defenders began being considered onside. And only in 2005 were regulations of specific parts of a body being offside introduced.
Making Offside Calls During a Game
While the rules regarding offside calls are relatively straightforward, making them in the middle of a fast-flowing series of runs or a scrappy crowded game can be highly challenging. Assistant referees who patrol the sidelines have the best view of who is where on the pitch, which is why they make the offside call by raising their flags.
Moreover, professional referees are highly trained, and referees who officiate the most important matches, such as the top-tier European national leagues and international tournaments like the World Cup, have years of match experience. Despite this, errors do occur. They can even make the difference between winning and losing in the most competitive matches.
After recurring controversies over offside rules, the sport’s governing body, FIFA, introduced Video Assistant Referee or VAR technology to help referees make more accurate offside calls. Of course, replaying footage in slow motion only led to more controversies.
At the 2022 world cup, FIFA will introduce ball sensors that can pick up a ball’s precise location 500 times a second to help improve referee calls. Despite this, I have a feeling controversies surrounding offside calls will refuse to die.
Of course, some people have made a case for getting rid of the rule altogether. They argue that removing the offside rule will lead to more dynamic, attacking play and make games more exciting. For justification, they point to field hockey, where the removal of offside rules has had just such an effect.
The Infamous Offside Trap
An offside trap is precisely what it sounds like, a tactic designed to use offside rules in favor of the defending team.
The strategy is pretty old, going back to the early 20th century. It involves the defensive players of a team moving up simultaneously, placing an attacking opponent in an offside position just as a teammate is about to pass them the ball.
For obvious reasons, the tactic is fraught with risk. Poorly timed, it can leave a dangerous opponent lots of room to make an attacking foray and have disastrous consequences. Moreover, playing fields are usually noisy, and hearing a teammate’s calls may be difficult.
Opponents can also pick up on calls, so they need to be subtle or constantly evolving to be successful. Finally, for an offside trap to work effectively, defensive players need to be perfectly aligned and move as one. A quick attacking player will ruthlessly expose flaws in the strategy.
Recent developments in rules – such as allowing players in line with the second-last opponent to be considered onside – have only made the strategy riskier. However, playing tactics have changed too, and teams use through balls less frequently, making the trap less effective, to begin with.
Offside rules in soccer intend to create a fair balance between attacking and defensive play. They stipulate the degree of advantage an attacking player may take by positioning himself close to the opposing goal and behind their opponents when the ball is not in the area. Being offside is not an offense; however, influencing play from an offside position is.
- IFAB: Laws of the Game 20/21
- The Conversation: Euro 2020: the history of the offside rule and the debates that have raged to abolish it
- ESPN: The VAR Review: What happens next after controversy for Newcastle and West Ham, Martinelli’s goal, Villa offside
- Starter Soccer: Is There a Sensor in Soccer Balls and What Are They Used for?
- Coachingamericansoccer.com: THE OFFSIDE TRAP