Offside needs a creative and comprehensive overhaul

Offside needs a creative and comprehensive overhaul The good people of Manchester, and many in the world beyond, have spent the past week discussing one of the most important issues facing mankind right now. Was the offside-positioned Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford  interfering with play in the run-up to his team's equalizer in last Saturday's derby with Manchester City?

The answer to many of us: of course he was. Few referees would have hesitated to whistle and re-start play with an indirect free-kick to City, and few fans of United would have bothered to complain. On the other hand, many of us were happy that the goal, initially annulled by the assistant's flag, was reinstated after referee Stuart Atwell judged that Rashford, despite chasing the ball, had (somehow) not been interfering with play when he left it for teammate Bruno Fernandes to score instead.

Why would anyone aside from a Manchester United fan be happy at that call? Because Offside, like its sister offense Handball, has been mucked about with for so many years by the dithering wannabe technocrats of FIFA's rule-making International Football Association Board (IFAB) that no one's exactly sure any more what is offside and what isn't. Like handball, it needs radical re-simplification, and this kind of incident provides the perfect opportunity to do so. Though the IFAB at its annual meeting this week in London predictably opted to do nothing.

The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has turned offside into a pseudo-science, prompting studio pundits to agree that justice has been done when the VAR computer's very fine lines adjudge what looked like a perfectly decent goal to have been disallowed because a player's eyebrow or toenail were shown to be in an offside position. Never mind that in the pre-VAR days, no one really complained about assistants missing very close calls. "A touch of offside about the winning goal," a losing coach might mention, but not with much conviction. Such tiny margins of error were factored into the game, and that's where they should have stayed. Now, fans in the stadium are often made to feel like idiots for doing what they've paid good money to do — celebrating a goal. Or they refrain from all expressions of joy lest the electronic official chalks the goal off.

What about legitimate onside goals that are disallowed due to a wrong decision from the assistant referee (AR)? This is where VAR is actually useful. They don't happen much, but to allow for possible AR errors, give teams two appeals per game for the VAR to take a second look on close calls. If the technology becomes automated, this will in any case become moot.

Will not automated technology also render my complaints about disallowed goals irrelevant too? This is clearly what IFAB is relying upon, so then it won't have to bother changing the offside rule again. To me, however, this is a different issue.

Those who claim that precision technology brings justice need to remember why offside was introduced in the first place. It's not to penalize a clever forward run into space mistimed by a micro-second. Rather, it's a necessary evil to prevent a striker from camping in their opponent's six-yard box waiting for a long ball. I once wrote about how the German magazine 11 Freunde staged a game between two semipro teams to see how it would play out without the offside rule. The answer was as follows:

"As the two sides got used to the absent rule, the encounter evolved into something more resembling a handball game (a sport which abolished offside in 1953). As soon as a team lost possession it would hunker back and pack the defense — in the same way that under normal rules a weak opponent will try to eke out a draw against a much stronger team. Except in this game, it was end-to-end defense.

"The coaches of both teams were unimpressed by what they'd seen. One thought the game would regress to lazy forwards hanging around up front just waiting for the long ball. The other also bemoaned the surplus of long balls and said it would kill the short passing game that he preferred to coach." Meanwhile, the referee confessed that he'd been a bit bored and had missed the tension that goes with calling offside.

So, we need offside, but in what form? If VAR had stuck to its remit of only calling "clear and obvious errors," then we might not have needed this discussion. That is, the VAR should only intervene, say, if there's clear space between the attacker and the second to last man when the ball is played. Many have convincingly argued that this should in any case be the actual offside rule. No more knee-caps and calf muscles "interfering with play." With offside decisions now reached through semi-automated technology, as tested at last year's World Cup, it could be the perfect solution — quick and fair decisions.

That still wouldn't solve the problem of Rashford's 'interference.' After all, there was plenty of space between Rashford and the second to last defender when the ball was played through. To properly decide if Rashford was offside or not, you would have to read Clause 2 ('Offside Offense') of "Law 11," and then you'd have to read it again several times, and I can guarantee you still won't be much the wiser. Think of the poor ref who has to consider this entire verbiage when trying to reach a snap decision out on the field.

Perhaps the vaguely worded "Law 5" (The Referee) can be of more use. It states: "Decisions will be made to the best of the referee's ability according to the Laws of the Game and the ‘spirit of the game’ and will be based on the opinion of the referee, who has the discretion to take appropriate action within the framework of the Laws of the Game."

In the case of the Fernandes goal, a decision in 'the spirit of the game' should probably have ruled it out, if you take 'spirit' to mean fairness. Alternatively, you could argue that 'the spirit of the game' is intended to cover playfulness and entertainment (this is something I'm going to discuss further in the coming weeks). We should therefore have more goals. Never mind the struggle to interpret Law 11, just let the goal stand so the score now stands at 1-1 — it'll make for a more exciting finish (it the case of United-City, it certainly did).

Offside plays a far larger role in soccer than it needs to, and that role has been chiefly negative ever since teams started playing the abominable offside trap. It would be almost wholly avoidable if IFAB would open up and at the very least examine in a comprehensive and creative manner what needs to be done about offside. That will not happen now for at least another year, and likely much longer, because the people in charge of soccer simply do not understand what would benefit 'the spirit of the game.' Or what that phrase even means.

20 comments about "Offside needs a creative and comprehensive overhaul".
  1. R2 Dad, January 19, 2023 at 7:15 p.m.

    "by the dithering wannabe technocrats of FIFA's rule-making International Football Association Board (IFAB)". And here I thought I was the only one who was whining about this. I just had a referee webinar about Offside (Deflection Or Not), which appears to be adding complexity and not simplification, to the most recent interpretation of the LOTG. I think we've gone backwards adding back intent which I thought was stripped from the LOTG (and rightly so).

  2. R2 Dad replied, January 19, 2023 at 7:21 p.m.

    I still don't know why "Plays or Attempts To Play" is not sufficient anymore. I think that was the pre-Covid interpretation? Hard to keep track these days.

  3. frank schoon, January 20, 2023 at 8:27 a.m.

    Simple, you want to solve most of the problems the VAR has caused, take away the VAR on off-sides calls only. Go back and let the refs do their job. If you have to employ the VAR to see if a player is offsides then that should tell you there is such a minute difference between the players,that the refs and even fans don't notice in a split second, then its not worth calling it...A linesmen and the fieldref are adequate enough for the past 100years and Yes, there are going to be missers due to the linesman or field ref or both but at least we'll settle the agonizing game delays to look at offsides with a magnifying glass....

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, January 21, 2023 at 3:14 a.m.

    Agree, Frank. The lawyer in me thinks people should rely more on common sense. Rules merely set expectations. Somebody has to apply them.

  5. Tim Schum, January 20, 2023 at 12:53 p.m.

    The story alludes to the fact that if a player's body is completely beyond the last defender, that player is offsides. Simple. No toenails, eyelashes, etc. involved.

    Any sport seeks to rebalance when an element of it is in inbalance. In the case of soccer too stringent an interpretation of the offsides has long favored the defense side of the game. Even when level was ruled onsides years ago, linespersons still were ruling players offsides! They couldn't bring themselves to see a player legitimately break free!

    What soccer needs is more scoring opportunites, not less. Open up play, not restrict it.


  6. Erik Liekoski, January 20, 2023 at 1:12 p.m.

    They simply need to reverse the offside rule - if any part of the body (toenail, eyebrow) is onside, then it's good to go. The idea that a swinging arm can put you offside is ridiculous. 

  7. Santiago 1314 replied, January 23, 2023 at 11:14 a.m.


  8. James Madison, January 20, 2023 at 2:02 p.m.

    While I agree with the "silly millimeter" critique of VAR reviews of offside or not decisions, I question whether the Rashford case justifies further rehashing of the Law. A player who is off the player's side has not infringed on the law until te player plays or attempts to play the ball or (otherwise plays when the player is not eligible to play in that the player) interferes with an  opponent's attempt to play the ball. The MC defense could and should safely have ignored Rashford.  Too bad that it didn't.  The AR should have held his flag until Rashford played the ball. Reinstating the goal was both correct and justified.

  9. R2 Dad replied, January 20, 2023 at 6:24 p.m.

    "The AR should have held his flag until Rashford played the ball". i think he did, watching the replay. I think the AR should RAISE his flag to indicate he was off, with the final decision to be made by the center referee. However, ARs have been instructed to hold their flag and run with play, then indicate after. Maybe if the AR raised his flag earlier, the defense would have known to ignore Rashford and key on Fernandez, which they did not.

  10. cony konstin, January 20, 2023 at 2:12 p.m.

    It's simple eliminate the offside rule. Offsides doesn't exist in futsal so no reason it should exist in football. 

  11. Ian Plenderleith replied, January 20, 2023 at 4:35 p.m.

    That alternative is discussed in the article - it's only viable if you want a long ball game that by-passes the midfieled and has end-to-end defence, like handball or basketball.

  12. Santiago 1314 replied, January 22, 2023 at 5:53 p.m.

    Could work, if you "Redesigned" the 18yd Box into A "The Crease" like in Hockey, or "3 Second" Rule in Basketball...
    I still like the; if ANY Part of the Attacker, Is on "The Line" with the Last Part, of the Last Defender, (and NO Longer include the GK)

  13. beautiful game, January 20, 2023 at 5:33 p.m.

    Couldn't agree more with Ian. The Derby referee was wrong and FIFA remains comatose after the intro of VAR.

  14. Denny W, January 20, 2023 at 5:52 p.m.

    Please, just eliminate the rule or make it simple, if you are behind the last defender and the ball is directed toward the player, you are offside.  You ARE a distraction if you are touching the ball are not. If you are off side because your finger nail is reaching behind the defender then there is a problem. No wonder people are confused by the soccer(football) rules. 

  15. Doug Broadie, January 20, 2023 at 7:43 p.m.

    I happen to agree that the offside law should be as Ian said.  If no space is indicated between the last defender and the attacker, then no offsides.  Remember that the chnge came about so that PASSIVE offsides would not be called.  Rashford definately wasn't passive. I watch the game to see excitement created by goal scoring chances, not the referee and definately not VAR.
    I have been screaming about the hand ball calls to the point that my voice is sore.  We need to go back to the way the law was interpeted that if the player HANDLES the ball (usually hand to ball) then a free kick is awarded.  If it is an unintentional handball, then play on.  (DEAL WITH IT)  The original law, back in the old days when I was young enough to refereee, was open to the referees interpetation and low and behold, that is what is happening today.  Just enough VAR in there to really screw things up.

  16. Peter Bechtold, January 20, 2023 at 8:51 p.m.

    I have noticed for several years now that VAR is used/interpreted differently in different countries, e.g. England, Italy, Germany, USA/MLS  and Lord knows how mwny more. The EPL is the worst.

  17. R2 Dad replied, January 22, 2023 at 12:06 a.m.

    You're not supposed to notice!

  18. Robin Buss, January 22, 2023 at 5:01 p.m.

    Here's Dermot Gallagher's view - OFFSIDE!! (of course it was!!) 

    Well wort reading all the way thru. BTW - the VAR commentator over here in England went along with the view that it was a goal (Peter Walton).....

  19. Fajkus Rules, January 23, 2023 at 8:21 p.m.

    So, Ian is dissatisfied with the current state of offside, but doesn't really offer anything to improve the situation.  When I started reffing, a player in offside position could be flagged as soon as it was noticed that he was in the offside position, no checking for onside players also making a run, no waiting to see if the ball was actually going to go out of play or to the GK first.  All of the changes since then have been made with the goal of limiting the number of plays disallowed by offside.  Some, like keeping the flag down if an onside player can get to the ball first seem eminently fair, while those like wiping out offside because a defender misplayed a ball are much less fair.

    Here are a few things we could do to simplify the offside call, or make a number of close plays easier to not call off.

    1.  Make Offside strictly the position of the feet relative to the last defender (2nd), so wherever the line created by the 2nd last defender is, as long as the attacker's feet are not beyond that line, no offside.

    2. get rid of the deliberate/deflection decision on plays by the defense.  Defenders have to react to plays by the attackers; is was nearly criminal that IFAB created a rule that allowed another rule to be ignored because a player played poorly.

    3.  If you really want to liberalize offside, wipe it out once the ball enters the Penalty Area, or the areas between the PA and the sidelines.  Thus the edge of the PA becomes like a blue line in hockey, and defenders have to defend attackers as long as the ball remains in the PA.  Once the ball leaves the PA, all attackers inside the PA must clear the PA edge before they can participate in the next attack.

    Of couse, offside is only a small part of the game's tilt toward "anti-scoring".  Referees could foster pro-attack aspects of the game which are now ignored.  Enabling quick restarts when close to the goal, preventing excessive physical contact with attackers about to receive balls in a dangerous scoring position, even reviving obstruction/impeding -- all of these things will help tilt leagues towards pro-scoring.  Why soccer refs allow far more contact on attackers than basketball allows on shooters, or football allows on wide receivers about to catch a pass, I don't understand.

  20. Santiago 1314 replied, January 25, 2023 at 9:47 a.m.

    Sorry Fajkus, I think you missed this suggestion from Ian(with which I concur)
    "That is, the VAR should only intervene, say, if there's clear space between the attacker and the second to last man when the ball is played. Many have convincingly argued that this should in any case be the actual offside rule. No more knee-caps and calf muscles "interfering with play." With offside decisions now reached through semi-automated technology, as tested at last year's World Cup, it could be the perfect solution — quick and fair decisions."

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