The offside rule used to be a tool used for misogynist jokes about a woman’s inability to understand a law that “real” men saw as child’s play. Nowadays, it is the rule itself that has become a bad joke.
The constant tweaking of the rule (Law 11 in association football’s, Laws of the Game) started with a desire to make football more exciting. As far back as 1925, it has been altered for this very purpose. In that year they modified the last defenders from three to two, this led to 1,673 more league goals being scored that the previous season.
There is clearly a precedent for the rule to slow the game down, with constant free kicks and breaks in play, or goals being ruled out. The modern variants of the law have centred around if players in offside positions are active. Or interfering with play. The problem is, the open to interpretation approach is what’s now interfering with play.
The rule is written as such:
It is not an offence in itself to be in an offside position.
A player is in an offside position if:
- he is nearer to his opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent
A player is not in an offside position if:
- he is in his own half of the field of play or
- he is level with the second-last opponent or
- he is level with the last two opponents
A player in an offside position is only penalised 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
There is no offside offence if a player receives the ball directly from:
- a goal kick
- a throw-in
- a corner kick
Most people that watch a game of football understand the basic principles of the offside law. The flaw with it lies in the opening line: It is not an offence in itself to be in an offside position.
This ambiguous statement evolved from former amendments that stated: obstructing the opponent’s line of movements or making a gesture or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent, before changing to: challenging an opponent for the ball.
Now we have first and second phases of play, being stood in front of goalkeepers on free kicks but officials making on-the-spot assumptions about where the ‘keeper should be looking, as if they are robots that ignore their peripheral vision.
As Brian Clough famously said: “If you’re not interfering with play, what are you doing on the pitch?”
We all want to see flowing football, but not to the detriment of the laws that govern the game. FIFA will never implement a rule change allowing dangerous tackles to be ignored if a goal comes from the subsequent attack.
So why are we being asked to ignore dubious application of an age old law to assist illegal goals?
The attitude to ignore the rule is becoming quite pandemic. Everton scored their first goal against Manchester City in the opening leg of the League Cup semi-final with Romelu Lukaku stood in front of the goalkeeper. The hazy understanding of the rule means it stands with little debate.
Juan Mata scored a beautiful free kick against Shrewsbury Town in their FA Cup clash. Unfortunately, a three-man wall, placed in front of the goalkeeper, never made it back onside before the ball was struck. However, the officials believed they weren’t interfering with play. If you’re not interfering with play when stood in front of the goalkeeper, you never will be.
This attitude to ignore now stretches to even simple decisions. Wayne Rooney scored against Derby County in the previous round, after being marginally offside before receiving the ball. BBC commentator Danny Murphy declared he’d rather enjoy such a good strike than focus on whether or not Rooney was offside. So the message is clear: It doesn’t matter about the rules if it looks good.
This ambiguity needs to end. It’s making the referee and linesmen’s jobs almost impossible. Sooner, rather than later, a major tournament will be decided by a dubious call that sits in the offside grey area.
Nobody wants to see the Champions League or World Cup decided with a goal that leads to an inconclusive debate about if a player was interfering with play.
It’s time to go back to basics. If a player is stood in an offside position when the ball is played, then he’s offside. Leaving it open to interpretation places an unnecessary spotlight on a sport already riddled with mistrust and bad calls.