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.