The anti-goalscoring bias of the soccer rulebook

By Paul Gardner

I've been trying to come to terms with this for decades -- but I think understanding is further away than ever. Why is it that, when there is doubt in crucial situations -- scoring a goal, or an offside decision, for instance -- soccer’s rulebook comes down firmly on the side of defense?

To say that this attitude is nonsensical really doesn’t come close to spelling out the magnitude of the nonsense. Euro 2012 has given us an excellent -- exemplary, really -- demonstration of one such absurdity. Poor Greece! That awful diving call against its captain Giorgos Karagounis in the Greece-Russia game had been preceded by a very dodgy offside call that annulled a Greek goal in their 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic. This was a header by Giorgos Fotakis, and the replays showed that the eagle-eyed assistant referee had managed to reduce the art of flagging for offside to a matter of centimeters.

Yes, a sliver of Fotakis did appear to be ever so slightly offside as Vassilis Torossidis delivered his cross. Maybe some 15% of his body. So -- when 85% of Fotakis is onside, why is it that soccer opts to go with the 15%, and approve an offside call?

There was, a couple of decades back, a notion going the rounds that offside calls should be made only when the linesman could see daylight between the attacker and the last defender. An idea that soon disappeared -- probably because it was too radical, and would likely have the opposite effect to that required -- i.e. would result in a more defensive game by making defenders even more cautious.

Getting back to Giorgos Fotakis and the various parts of his body. There was a further complication with the call against him because it was quite likely that most, if not all, of the offside part of Fotakis’s anatomy consisted of his arm. And the rulebook is quite clear about that, specifying that “any part of a player’s head, body or feet” can be called offside, but emphasizing that “The arms are not included in this definition.”

But my objection is not so much to anatomical matters, as to the fact that a good attacking play can be obliterated because of a call based on assessing movement over a few centimeters. Given the low level of scoring in the modern game, that is not helpful.

You can see the same mean-spirited anti-offense mentality at work, at its most objectionable, in the clearest of all examples -- that of scoring goals. From the rulebook point of view, it is made as difficult as possible, by the insistence that all of the ball must have crossed all of the goal line.

This again comes down to measuring centimeters. Why must goalscoring be made so difficult? Why could it not be that a goal is scored when any part of the ball crosses any part of the goal line? I suppose it can be argued that the strict requirement is simply a continuation of what is required for a ball to go out of play over the side- or goal lines. Though, as the two situations are hardly similar in their impact, there is no reason why they have to be governed by the same rule.

Anyway, I’ll stress again -- we’re talking about centimeters here -- maybe even millimeters, and we’re trying to make out that we can measure these microscopic distances accurately? We can’t -- and nor, incidentally, will the much vaunted goal-line technology be able to do that. The best that can be hoped for is that GLT will measure the millimeters reasonably accurately, will do so without bias, and will have exactly the same margin of error for every decision that it makes. And we shall accept that if GLT says no-goal, then, it is not a goal -- even if our eyes are sure it was.

We’ve had one such incident in the Euro during the Italy-Ireland game, when Antonio Cassano’s header was correctly judged to have crossed the goal line before Damien Duff hooked it clear.

The goal followed a corner kick -- which meant that the AR was in good position, on the goal line, to see what was going on. Even better, the Euro is using additional ARs -- so this episode had both the AR and the AAR looking along the goal line.

Back home in MLS, the Chicago Fire was less fortunate than Italy. Dominic Oduro’s shot crossed the goal line before being “cleared” by the New York Red Bulls' Wilman Conde. The goal developed from open-play, which meant that neither the referee nor the AR was in a position (i.e. on the goal line) to make the call. No blame attaches to either official -- they were where they should be. But the result was that no call was made, so play went on, and the Fire, and Oduro, were deprived of a goal.

I think it’s pretty certain that the officials could honestly say to themselves that they had not seen all the ball cross all the line. But if the rules simply said that any part of the ball crossing the line was enough, it is much more likely that they would have made the call.

If you object that I am merely replacing pro-defense errors with pro-offense errors, I will happily plead guilty to that. Error-free decisions would, of course, be ideal. But until that happy day arrives, the game itself would be much better off without the Scrooge mentality that can’t seem to stand the idea of goals, and is prepared to rule against them on the basis of impossible-to-measure centimetric distances.

17 comments about "The anti-goalscoring bias of the soccer rulebook".
  1. Jack vrankovic, June 18, 2012 at 11:28 p.m.

    How about when Fabregas passes a ball to Iniesta who is inches offside and then controls the ball with his shoulder. He then passes the same ball to Naves who was 0.5 meters offside from the original Fabregas pass. Naves then scores on an open net. How does that benefit the defense? And the ESPN announcers don't even make a mention of a hint of offsides. I boycotted watching the Croatian league,because I thought it was corrupt. I upon further consideration FIFA/UEFA is not much better.

  2. Jack vrankovic, June 18, 2012 at 11:32 p.m.

    The goal in question. A passively offside player who then receives the ball after gaining an advantage from being passively offsides.

  3. Carlos Thys, June 19, 2012 at 6:25 a.m.

    Maybe the linesmen need to be reminded that even means play proceeds, i.e. "even" means advantage to the attacker(s)? Perhaps someone in high UEFA management has decreed & drummed into match officiating teams that there will be no chances of an offside goal occuring during UEFA 2012? I've stopped counting the number of twitchy linesmen flag decisions made. (In one match, I believe the "offender" who was called offside actually was still in his own half at the time the ball was passed to him -- sorry, my memory is not what it should be -- this is 4, 5 matches ago but I cannot say which one.) I agree that the Spain goal versus Croatia should be whistled dead / offside. If not on Andreas Iniesta, then certainly on Jesus Navas. I am "old school" on this. Jesus Navas is seeking advantage where he is on the pitch. Matters not to me whether Fabregas is more directing or perfectly placing that lob pass to Iniesta. A goalkeeper hasn't the capacity or luxury of time & space to ignore what Navas is doing and where he is standing/running. Let's go back to offside as we all understood it prior to 1990 - with the caveat that "even" means play on/attacker is onside. As for goal line decisions, the science, consistency, and technology has been there for 15-17 years to have the chip in ball relay the proper signal. Why we don't see "chip in ball" for big leagues and big tournaments is a huge mystery to me. Mr. Gardner, please, you cannot be serious if you are suggesting that we need to change 'ball all the way over the line' for goals, out of play, over the end line, now are you? Ball all the way over the line is the BEST & EASIEST standard to keep the game standard for all - same everywhere and same for goals. You cannot be serious about having goals count if a sliver of the ball tips over a sliver of the goal line. I despise American gridiron football touchdowns for this reason. Please keep this aspect simple and straightforward: ALL of ball over a line / the line / every line. You'd make competent match refereeing impossible with the standard you suggest above. The "Scrooge mentality" has nothing to do with lines or balls crossing them or the millimeter decisions that linesmen must make within 1/4 a second. The modern game is far more athletic and dynamic than the black and white film footage days of the Swiss World Cup in 1954 with 7.5 goals scored per game. The much improved footwork equipment, goalkeeper equipment, full time, all-the-time pro athlete status, much better sports medicine. much better training facilities, much better pitches means these guys can run for 90+ minutes (and the drug use enhancements and blood doping ensure this) For me there are only three solutions to achieving consistently more goalscoring per match / per season: Either increase the size of the field, increase the size of the goal (width and/or height), or reduce the number of maximum allowed players to 10 (9 field, 1 GK). I am for the latter as the best recommendation.

  4. charles dyson, June 19, 2012 at 7:44 a.m.

    I doN'T see your problem about the offside. When the rule was changed, is was clear that any part of the player that was beyond the second to last defended was offside. You sound like a child's player's parent who doesn't know soccer. Any other rules youl don't like? Offside is offside.

  5. beautiful game, June 19, 2012 at 9:02 a.m.

    Off-sides by a whisker, shoulder or hip stiffles the offense. NJ high school rules had the 'daylight' between the opposing players as the barometer to call an off-sides and it worked very well. I agree with the 'old' rule, It is easily interpreted and will make the game more offensive. Talking about more 'caution' with defenders, they'll always be cautious.

  6. Charles O'Cain, June 19, 2012 at 9:17 a.m.

    What nonsense. If Mr Gardner wants to see "goals", have him switch over to the NBA finals. The world finds football ("soccer" for Mr Gardner) so appealing in great part because it IS such a struggle to score goals, and to keep goals from being scored. I've seen a number of very exciting nil-nil draws, and quite a few boring 4-1, 5-0 matches as well. What really matters is the contest between two teams, ideally matched in either skill or purpose, or some combination of these two factors. The match officials are there to facilitate the contest. Perfection and infallibility do not enter into the equation. We ask only for honest effort on the part of the human participants, and hope for respect between them. Dishonesty or disrespect on the part of players (diving, feigning injury, fouling with the intent to injure), officials (match-fixing or other bias), or fans (racism, missile-throwing, hooliganism) have much more potential to damage the beautiful game than Mr Gardner's goal drought.

  7. Kent James, June 19, 2012 at 10:09 a.m.

    PG is right about the current offside rule for the same reason he is wrong about the in/out of goal rule. Refereeing can be a very difficult task, and anytime it can be simplified without hurting the game, it should be. Daylight between the players would make the exceptionally difficult offside call a tad easier. For the same reason, whole ball over the whole line should stay (as PG recognized, it is also consistent with the ball in and out of play). Neither will have a dramatic impact on the offensive/defensive trend of the game. That should be addressed by other measures.

  8. David Mont, June 19, 2012 at 11:17 a.m.

    To Jack Vrankovic: I don't know what video you were watching, but neither Iniesta, nor Navas were offside. That's absolutely clear. Navas was passively offside on the pass to Iniesta, but that's how the rule is today (which, btw, I don't like myself). You can argue that Iniesta controlled the ball with his shoulder, but I'm not so sure about that. The replay doesn't conclusively prove anything.

  9. Doug Broadie, June 19, 2012 at 11:51 a.m.

    I have suggested in the past that the best way to change the offside rule would be to state "If any part of the attackers body is in line with the defender, then he is onsides". It would add several goals to the game which is what we all want, except for maybe the coaches.

  10. Doug Broadie, June 19, 2012 at 11:54 a.m.

    Ric - what I suggested above is similar to offside in hockey - if the players skate is on the blue line, when the puck passes the blue line, then he is onside. Very similar to what I have suggested for years.

  11. John Soares, June 19, 2012 at 12:39 p.m.

    I have no problem with "changing" the rule. Until then don't criticize the AR for doing his job, "applying" the rules. I much rather see him make a close, but correct call than miss it. Imagine the complaints then!?
    And no, the offside rule does not ruin good plays. Rules are a needed and a critical part of the game (any game). In this case it is the forward's responsibility to stay onside.... follow the rules.

  12. Ramon Creager, June 19, 2012 at 3:32 p.m.

    There has to be some way of deciding whether a goal is cored, ball in-out of play, etc. and the current system is no less effective than the one being proposed here, and is consistent with the rest of the rules. If you hate judgements by millimeters, why propose this new way, which is what American Football uses? And believe me, why, if you can't see the ball cross the line by a good foot or more (as has happened at the last WC) do you think an AR will see if the ball touches the line? (or "breaks the plane" as they say in American Football.) This is just a bad bad idea. MLS should just add the two additional ARs and be done with it. Easy, and no new rules. There are currently 4 officials per game. This would raise it to 6. This is still on a par or under what other major sports use for a game on a field this large. Baseball uses 4 umpires, 6 in playoffs. Football uses 7 officials.

  13. Ramon Creager, June 19, 2012 at 3:43 p.m.

    As for the offside rule, no matter how you define it, there will be close calls. Daylight? Daylight where? Head? Chest? How much daylight? And will it actually lead to more goals, or more cautious defending? The biggest problem with current offside rulings isn't the rule. No one wants to be the one who blew the call that led to a goal that decided a game. So too many ARs play it very tight. That's human nature, and this is a human game. Which is a good thing. Keep the damn technology out.

  14. ROBERT BOND, June 19, 2012 at 3:56 p.m.

    Ramon, we agree! After all, the Badstuber thing was nowhere near the biggest mistake I ever saw a ref make, but it's a tough job without room for self-doubt......I never argued with a ref when I played, & I never give a ref a hard time from the sidelines unless it's too rough or too obviously a bad call, & never then after they point their finger at me the first is part of what makes fussball unique, no typical little league parents tolerated.....leave the funny shirts alone....

  15. beautiful game, June 19, 2012 at 5:35 p.m.

    RC, daylight means just that, OFF-SIDES,

  16. Mike Crump, June 19, 2012 at 7:25 p.m.

    As we saw with the England - Ukraine game today daylight may not help a call be made. While Paul will argue this supports his any part of the line argument it tends to discredit the position that daylight will make the call easier. The conepts are interesting but I'm just not buying that his suggestion will do anything but move the close call. It won't eliminate them it just changes them. In the end you just create a potentially similar number of questionable calls. Calling them pro-offense is a bit of a stretch.....perhaps offensively sympathetic is more accurate. Current advice to referees is to call offsides only if you are sure - that seems offensively sympathetic. Current advice to referees is to only call offsides if you are absolutely sure. I think the only people who seem to think that ARs are calling it very tight are the talking heads on TV. My personal belief is that the difficulty in calling offsides properly isn't a result of how tight the player is but more of a factor of where the ball is sourced from. The greater the distance, angle, and traffic the harder it is to make the call especially at games with a higher rate of speed.

  17. Jack vrankovic, June 19, 2012 at 10:46 p.m.

    Navas' passive offsides provided advantage by affecting keeper position. I agree that the new interpretation of the rule leaves a lot to be desired. Offside is like evil, you know it when you see it. Navas gained an advantage by being passively offsides.

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