The Offside Law in Soccer

The Offside Rule in Soccer - An Explanation
By John Maurer
We like to watch soccer because it is simple.

Two teams. One ball. Put the ball in the other team’s goal without using your hands.

Of course the tactics and strategies of soccer can be complex, but we developed an appreciation for the sport based, in part, on its simplicity. When we watched a match for the first time it was accessible. No one had to explain the object or the basic rules…they were obvious. We existed for a time in this state of confident and somewhat ignorant bliss and then…a whistle was blown for no obvious reason. A linesman had his flag raised…what’s that about?

The offside rule had just invaded our consciousness.

It took a little explaining, but we figured out the basics of the offside rule: an attacking player must be behind the ball or be no closer to the goal than the second to last defender when the ball is played to him.

And now, as card-carrying soccer parents, we stand on the sidelines confident of our interpretation of the rule and generally feeling more than a little superior to the poor, confused assistant referee (regardless of his superior line of sight on any particular play).

Alright then, how about a little quiz to test our knowledge of the offside rule?

Designate each statement as TRUE or FALSE:

  1. An offside offense can be committed without moving and without touching the ball.
  2. A player can be ruled offside on a penalty kick
  3. A defender becomes injured during open play near his own goal. He crawls off the field behind his goal line, near his goal. This player counts as one of the last two defenders when determining off-side positions.
  4. A player can be ruled offside on a goal kick
  5. After a shot by the attacking team, the ball deflects off a defender to an attacking player who was in an offside position at the time of the shot…the player should be penalized for offside.
  6. A through ball is played to an attacking player in an offside position. The player sprints 25 yards to the ball and touches it. He is flagged for offside. The correct position for the indirect kick restart is where he touched the ball.

Let’s walk through each of these:

  1. A player in an offside position has committed an infraction if he a) interferes with play b) interferes with an opponent or c) gains an advantage by being in that position. In the situation described, a player might neither move nor touch the ball but could still be called for an infraction if he, for example, interfered with the goalie’s ability to see or play the ball. Answer: True
  2. For a penalty kick, all players must be positioned behind the penalty mark, therefore it is not possible to be in an offside position because all attacking players are behind the ball. Answer: False
  3. From FIFA’s interpretation of the Offside Rule: “Any defending player leaving the field of play for any reason without the referee’s permission shall be considered to be on his own goal line or touch line for the purposes of the offside rule until the next stoppage in play. Answer: True
  4. There is no offside offense if a player receives the ball directly from a goal kick. Answer: False
  5. A deflection off a defender to a player in an offside position is interpreted to be an offside infraction. Answer: True (Note: if the defender is interpreted to have “deliberately” played the ball, yet the ball went to the player in the offside position, that would not be an infraction.)
  6. Though play may not have been stopped until the attacking player touched the ball (in order to definitively conclude that the player interfered with play), the infringement is interpreted to have occurred upon the initial pass to the player. The restart should occur at the spot where the player was when the ball was played. Answer: False

No need to be discouraged if you missed a few of those. I am sure you are not alone.

Since we are thoroughly dissecting the offside rule, let’s mention a couple more intricacies.

– In addition to goal kicks, players cannot be offside on either a throw-in or a corner kick

– When determining whether a player is in an offside position, all parts of the body which can be used to play the ball are to be considered. In other words, if an attacking player’s arm is behind the second to last defender: not offside. If any other part of his body is: offside.

So try to keep all of these dimensions to the offside rule in mind the next time you are confused/frustrated/outraged when the assistant referee raises his flag. Offside infractions are often the least obvious to spectators. Give that referee the benefit of the doubt.

And whatever you do, don’t curse the offside rule, it is a valuable bit of complexity in an otherwise simple and beautiful game.