Who says defenders deserve the benefit of the doubt?

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 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.

23 comments about "Who says defenders deserve the benefit of the doubt?".
  1. Jogo Bonito, November 25, 2012 at 8:01 a.m.

    Rarely do I see situations like Chicharito's goal against Chelsea a few weeks ago where he may have come from an offside position and it was missed by the linesman. We do, however, see all the time good goals or great scoring chances denied by linesmen that have raised the flag only to have gotten it wrong according to the replay. The answer to this problem is simple really. If linesmen were told simply, "if it's close keep the flag down" then things would work just fine. I'd bet that 9 times out of 10, after watchingvthe replay, an argument can be made to back up the non-offside call. Great stuff PG! I could not agree more.

  2. Millwall America, November 25, 2012 at 9:14 a.m.

    The entire premise of this column is faulty. Soccer doesn't need more goals to make it an exciting game.

  3. cheyenne davidson, November 25, 2012 at 9:31 a.m.

    i have to say soccer doesnt need more of anything its about have fun playing the sport you love and risking injuries. for me a fun game is when you give the game all you have. "the whole premise" is having fun to make it a good game.

  4. Charles O'Cain, November 25, 2012 at 9:36 a.m.

    So now Mr Gardner asks that AR's decide based on some percentage of the attacker's body whether or not the play is onside. Now there's a prescription for dispute: was it 5% or 7%, 48 or 52, 97 or 100? Impossible! It's a yes-no question, not a maybe. Is the "benefit of the doubt" also to apply to the actual goal itself too? Why not a goal when 51% of the ball is across? I'm with Milwall ... leave it alone.

  5. Thomas Hosier, November 25, 2012 at 9:44 a.m.

    It seems logical to me that should any part of the attackers body is even with the 2nd last defender he is not in an offside position. Why does it seem logical? The ball is not out of play so long as any part of it has not crossed the touch or end line. Also too often the AR is out of position to even make a proper call.

  6. Kent James, November 25, 2012 at 10:15 a.m.

    Offside is one of the most difficult calls in sports. To be made properly, the AR must be in line with the 2nd to last defender, which often means sprinting with world class athletes (in the pro ranks anyway) while keeping an imaginary line perpendicular to the touchline (like the line superimposed on the TV when they show the replay) even with the last defender, and taking a snapshot when the pass is made (which is best done by listening for the sound of the ball being kicked, because if you watch for when the ball is kicked, by the time you turn to see if players are on or offside, they have probably moved), and then determining if the player(s) who are offside are interfering with play. And of course, you're also supposed to be assisting the referee in calling regular fouls at the same time (but since the ref cannot make the offside call, that is the priority for the AR, which is why an AR can actually miss a foul that is quite close to him if it is not part of his vision while tracking offside). Anyway, the point is that calling offside is quite challenging. I think it would be made simpler if the standard were to be daylight between the defender and the attackers torsos, as PG suggested. It would clarify the rule, and allow a few more attacks on goal than does the current interpretation, and even though I'm a defender, I'd rather be a part of a game with more attacks on goal (and fewer stoppages).

  7. Saverio Colantonio, November 25, 2012 at 1:02 p.m.

    I keep on saying--in this day and age, why do we need an offside rule? I would like to see the players spread out more and have more room to use their skills. How ridiculous is it that a player can "have an advantage by being closer to the goal line at the corner flag from a ball played from the 6 yard box? With the higher fitness levels of players at all levels of play the offside rule encourages lazy defending. As a coach, referee and player (yes, I play up front for an over 50s team) I would love to see the offside law removed. It is an anachronism.Removing the offside law might not produce more goals but would make play more exciting.

  8. MLS AR, November 25, 2012 at 3:11 p.m.

    In response to the implicit request for "supplementary instructions that are issued to referees"..."from FIFA"..."or National Associations":

    Both FIFA and USSF provide supplemental instructions online.

    United States Soccer Federation: Advice To Referees on the Laws of the Game: Pages 40-45

    Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and
    Guidelines for Referees: Pages 106-112

  9. Vic Flegel, November 25, 2012 at 3:20 p.m.

    Traditionaly,disputed or questional fouls have been given in favor of the defence.Thus the frequent yellow cards for diving.

  10. R2 Dad, November 25, 2012 at 3:49 p.m.

    This argument about the offside rule is quibbling. The real discrepancy--as FIFA and FAs are well aware--is the red card for DOGSO that was referenced in the Walton link. That's a game-changing call that is controversial, and referees don't want to give it unless it's a Suarez-type event.

  11. Cathie Currie, ph.d., November 25, 2012 at 7:02 p.m.

    Advantage exists only if we are able to play ahead of the other player. We play from our center line -- the center line of the head or trunk, including the hips. So a reasonable rule would be: if a player's center line is ahead of another player's, then the offside rule should be called.

    And having experimented with non-offside games, the initial response of most players is to wreck all chance of good play by rushing onto the goal and keeper. Perhaps, over time, the non-advantage of poaching would become apparent -- but the immediate result is opportunistic chaos.

    But I'm a girl, so y'all should probably ignore my views. :-)

  12. uffe gustafsson, November 25, 2012 at 8:19 p.m.

    As a youth referre I always tell my AR to take a cpl of seconds before raising the flag too be absolutly sure you are right. A bit of day light between the attacker and defender a d you know they are offside. As a referee you better make the right call then the wrong so you as a ref don't decide the game it's up to the players to do it on the field. Always error on the safe side we are there to make sure it's a clean game.

  13. Roland Barral, November 25, 2012 at 11:04 p.m.

    Whatever the rule is now (most officials appear unsure) or becomes, there must be consistency in enforcement and knowledgeable officials who understand the rule.

  14. David Mont, November 25, 2012 at 11:17 p.m.

    Relieve the AR of the responsibility of calling offsides. Put an official in a booth with a TV monitor. Make that official responsible for offsides only, nothing else. With modern technology, he/she should be able to communicate the decision to the referee within seconds.

  15. Alvaro Bettucchi, November 25, 2012 at 11:35 p.m.

    Makeup games and young childrens games are for fun. Professional games are no longer for fun, and the rules must be precise. I agree that the offside rule should be in favor of the attacker. Another rule that needs to change. When a player gets a red card, (Sampdoria vs Bolognia after 6 minutes of play), it effect the whole game and the team. I think it would be better if a player gets two yellows, he is out of the game, plus the next game, and a substitute is allowed. If a player gets a direct red card (not two yellows) he is out for two games and a substute is allowed to take his place. I would like to hear Gardner's responce on this.

  16. Jogo Bonito, November 26, 2012 at 7:24 a.m.

    I still do not know what's so difficult. If its close - keep the flag down. The reply will back you up 95% of the time. After over 40 years of living this game, I really feel its that easy. Watch today's (11/25) epl highlights it will back me up on this.

  17. Kent James, November 26, 2012 at 8:50 a.m.

    As Cathie found out, the offside rule ensures a dynamic game, since without it, offensive players would remain in front of goal, so there'd be fewer (if any) flowing attacks, so (unfortunately) we can't eliminate the controversy by eliminating the rule. At the professional level, however, AR's could be instructed to let anything even close play on, and then if a goal were scored, it could be reviewed using TV cameras at the appropriate angle, and the goal negated if players who participated were found to be offside. It might lead to a few goals being called back, but you'd never have a case where a deserved goal was denied (and since the game would be stopped for a goal anyway, reviewing the goal should not add much time to the stoppage).

  18. Daniel Clifton, November 26, 2012 at 10:55 a.m.

    I don't agree with getting rid of the offsides rule. I believe it can be used by teams to enhance the offense. I would like to see the tie go to the offensive player, which rarely happens. Kent James analysis of what an AR has to do to make the call hits the nail on the head. When I was refereeing I always listened for the sound of the kick or looked out of the corner of my eye for when the ball was last played. The AR has to keep their eyes on the last defender (while drawing an imaginary line across the field). It is not an easy call to make. A split second makes the difference between offside or no offside.

  19. uffe gustafsson, November 26, 2012 at 7:36 p.m.

    Some referees are to eager to insert them self to the game and throw that flag up not Beeing 100% sure of the call. The prudent thing is to only raise the flag when you are sure really sure and a lot of this discussions would not be a question.
    But that is on the premises that AR is in line with the second to last defender which at times can be difficult with fast moving teams.

  20. soccer talk, November 27, 2012 at 8:45 p.m.

    I am a youth referee which often has no AR to aide in the OS decisions. I believe that too many X refs pull goals away from attackers that accoeding to rule are in fact offside, but from the intent of the rule have not gained physical advantage by having their "nose", head... fractionally off to to nulify often a great run. It is similar to the 3 sec. call in basketball where an experienced official will not blow his/her whistle if a post player has a foot inside the lane at the top where no advantage has been gained. I feel they should have the wording to the OS rule to only place the focal point to the player's foot/feet that are touching the field as this is where the power of the attack physically originates. This would make it easier for the AR in looking down the line w/out worrying about the head and down; just the foot/feet. Keeping in mind the many affore mentioned rule of keeping the flag down unless OS is w/out question. Even at this the head ref should make it clear that he can overide any offside infraction by communicating w/ his/her ARs by the lowering hand gesture to have the flag put down. This of course should be addressed in pregame discussions. You may get some greif from the players..., but it is better than allowing the flag from an ambitous AR.

  21. Kevin Sims, November 28, 2012 at 9:43 p.m.

    FACT: officials are schooled as follows ... "When in any doubt whatsoever, keep the flag down." Agreed we see far more good goals disallowed than bad goals allowed. The AR does not benefit from the birdseye view of spectators; the scope of vision is quite difficult. At a training done with high level officials, 20 video clips were shown at full speed from the birdseye view ... most officials judged "offside" incorrectly several times ... only seeing their error with frame by frame scrutiny ... good luck getting it right in real time. In many ways, the AR job is simply impossible to perform correctly.

  22. Andres Yturralde, November 29, 2012 at 11:23 a.m.

    Not bad, CC ph.d. Girl or no girl, your point is well taken.

  23. Ramon Creager, December 6, 2012 at 1:40 p.m.

    I think it is a mistake to believe that liberalizing the offside rule will lead to more offensive (or attractive) soccer. The opposite may well happen. Players adjust; if the rule is interpreted too liberally you will have defenders staying home, prioritizing defense rather than participating in the offense, as currently happens on good teams like Barcelona. This will lead not to the beautiful flowing game possession teams like Barcelona play, but to a more stretched-out (less compact) shape that leads to long balls. Beware what you wish for.

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