The offside rule
The offside rule was introduced in 1883 to prevent players from hanging around the goal of the opponent. The rule was drawn up by the English Football Association (FA) and stipulated that a player would be offside if the player was in front of the ball:
“When a player has kicked the ball, any one of the same side who is nearer to the opponent’s goal line is out of play and may not touch the ball himself, nor in any way whatever prevent any other player from doing so, until he is in play.”
The specific moment of being offside is judged to be when the ball is last touched by the most recent teammate passing the ball. Being in an offside position is not an offense in itself, it becomes an offense when the player in the offside position at the moment the ball is last touched or played by a teammate is deemed to be involved in active play.
The referee decides
It is up to the referee to decide if the player is involved in the play or not. Being actively involved in the area of play is not the same as being in the area of active play and the referee has to take into account the following when making a decision. There are three things a player cannot do:
- Interfere with play
- Interfere with an opponent
- Gain an advantage by being in the offside position
“Interfering with play” means playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a team-mate.
The offside rule is now stipulated by the International Football Association Board of the FIFA in its rulebook called Laws of the Game. The most recent edition was updated in 2018/19 and the offside rule is discussed in chapter 11. Hence, the offside rule is also known as Law 11. Since the rule was introduced in 1883, the rule has gone through some changes.
When football was first played, the game was a cross between the game we know today and rugby. Originally, it was played by a different set of rules depending on where you went to school or where in the country you lived.
In 1883, when the Football Association drafted the first version of the Laws of The Game, it stated that no forward passes were allowed at all unless the ball was hit from behind the goal line. A football player was offside unless three players of the opposing team were in front of him or her, including the goalkeeper.
In 1925, the rule changed to ‘two opponents’ instead of three and a marked increase in the amount of goals scored occurred. Before this rule, passing was mostly done away from the opponent’s goal but when the offside rule was changed in 1925 passing became an integral part of football and, to many, the beauty of modern football was born.
The amount of goals being scored increased, aided by the 1912 rule preventing goalkeepers from handling the ball outside the penalty area and another rule from 1920 banning offsides from throw-ins.
In 1990, another amendment was made to the offside rule. Now, a player was onside if they were level with the last opponent that he faced. It was the lack of exciting play at World Cup Italia 90 that provided the impetus to change the rules in this way. In 1995 came a subtle change to the text of the Laws of the Game. From now on, a player was only deemed to be active if he was “gaining an advantage by being in that position”. These two alterations were an attempt to make the game more attractive and lead to more goals.
15 years later, it was time to update the rules once more. From now on, a player was only offside if he or she “touched the ball or was in the position to make physical contact with an opponent.” In 2005, the offside rule was slightly amended in its wording. It was this slight tweak that clarified what it meant for a player to be “interfering” with play.
From then on, there would be no more instances of a player collecting a pass and the flag going up because his teammate had wandered offside elsewhere. For example, if a defender steps up because he is aware he or she would force a forward into an offside position, that is no longer sufficient to render him active.
This new rule can be perceived to be a bit confusing for defenders because the other player who was in an “offside” position could now even continue to attack and even receive a pass to score, as long as it was not a pass played forward. This latest change to the rulebook means that defences can no longer be completely confident that a player behind them is out of the game, which in turn means that the offside trap as a general strategy is reduced in safety.
Though not a change to the rules itself, the latest innovation to have a seismic impact on the offside rule is the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee). VAR was introduced to the Premier League at the start of the 2019/20 season. There has been plenty of discussion, before, during and after the game, because of decisions related to the offside rule, even though the purpose of VAR was to remove controversy.
Marginal offsides before goals is one the scenarios that VAR was brought in to assist with should the referee be unable to initially give the decision on their own. Unlike decisions about potential fouls, yellow and red cards, the offside rule is not open to interpretation and, with the introduction of VAR, the decision can now be made in a completely objective manner.
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