By Paul Gardner
In the 38th minute of Saturday’s Manchester United-Queens Park Rangers game QPR thought it had scored a goal. It certainly looked like it ... but the assistant referee's flag had gone up quickly. Jamie Mackie, who thought he had scored with a header, was ruled offside. No goal.
Replays quickly followed, and the TV commentators agreed that the AR was “spot on” -- that he had got a difficult call correct. OK, technically, he had. I’m looking now at a freeze frame of the moment when Djibril Cisse delivered the forward pass, and yes, Mackie is offside. That is to say, part of him is offside. I can’t tell how much of Mackie’s body is offside, and how much is still in line with the last defender. Let’s say it’s 50-50.
Which is where the problems -- or my problems -- begin. I am not complaining about the AR’s call. He did his job and got the call right. What I find problematical is the rule itself, or at any rate, its interpretation.
Rule 11 says “A player is not in an offside position if he is level with the second last opponent ... or the last two opponents.” Which is clear as far as it goes. But it leaves the definition of “level with” a rather iffy matter. Aware of this, the rulemakers have provided an interpretation -- not of “level with,” which is a legitimate position, but of “nearer to his opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second last opponent,” which is an offside position. Thus --
“Nearer to his opponents’ goal line” means that any part of a player’s head, body or feet is nearer to his opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent. The arms are not included in this definition.
So forget the arms. But we are left with the situation where, if the tip of a player’s nose, or his knee, or the toes of his shoe, are “nearer to his opponents’ goal line etc,” the player is offside. In other words, 90%, maybe even 99% of a player’s body can be onside, but his nose demands that the AR raise his flag.
Of course that is absurd. So absurd, that ARs could never make a judgment call that fine. To make a close call, the AR will have to see something more than a nose ... but how much more? Something unmistakably visible. I would assume that an entire head would do the trick. But even that leaves unanswered what is my central complaint about this interpretation.
We have here a situation that is common enough in soccer -- one where the referee will have to use his judgment. One where -- given the fine margins involved -- there must inevitably be some doubt in the AR’s mind. This is a “benefit of the doubt” situation.
The AR must give the benefit of the doubt either to the attacker or to the defenders. But the decision is not really his. That interpretation makes the decision for him. Heavily in favor of the defenders.
Why? Why is the defense being favored here? Why is a player being penalized because of an offside nose? Why should he not be judged by the position of the other 99% of his body, and be ruled onside? At least that would be a common-sense decision, and not one based on almost imperceptible measurements. But the official interpretation means that virtually all the close calls will be given in favor of defenders.
When the offside rule was modified in 1990 to state that a player in line was onside (and not, as had previously been the case, offside), it was widely believed that the linesmen (as they then were called) had been instructed to keep their flags down if they had any doubts. That is, to favor the attackers.
Whether or not that was an official instruction to referees, it made sense, because the whole idea of the rule change was to favor offensive play. It wasn’t long before another more radical belief was circulating, in England, that the linesmen had been told not to call offside unless they “saw daylight” between the attacker and the defender. The English FA jumped in quickly to put an end to such thoughts: "This idea must be killed off immediately,” said the head of English referees, John Baker, adding in jocular vein “defenders can breathe easily again.”
In 2005 came the very pro-defense definition of “nearer to his opponents’ goal line” quoted above.
It is unclear to me what submerged forces are at work here, seemingly with the aim of undoing any offensive advantages that the 1990 offside rule change may have introduced. But there does appear to be a deeply rooted bias in favor of defensive play.
Something that is, or should be, of interest to MLS. It is generally agreed that MLS, to excite the American sports community, needs to be an offense-minded, exciting and entertaining game. It has less chance of being that if its referees adhere to the idea that defenders should always get the benefit of the doubt.
I haven’t seen any obvious evidence of that. But a recent statement from Peter Walton, the new Super-Ref in charge of MLS referees, is worrying. Referring to the offense of “denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity,” Walton told MLSsoccer.com that “the benefit of the doubt would go to the defending team” in such a situation.
A policy that is not in the rules, but may be included in one or more of the supplementary instructions that are issued to referees from time to time -- from FIFA, or, for example, from UEFA or national associations. I’ll admit I’m not aware of this policy and -- because I would be strongly opposed to its adoption in this country -- would be grateful if Peter Walton would reveal its provenance.