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Soccer (or football to those of a more European persuasion) is a simple game.
It doesn’t need complex or expensive equipment. Just a ball (spherical) and something to use as goalposts and it can be played just about anywhere: in the street, on the beach, in a field, indeed on any scrap of land, with agreed boundaries and a handful of willing participants.
It is played predominantly with the feet, although the only parts of the body that you are not allowed to use are hands and arms. Unlike some other sports, you can move anywhere on the pitch, pass or keep the ball as you please and the only aim of the game is to get the ball between the opposition’s goalposts as often as possible.
But there is one rule of the game, particularly when it is being played correctly (on grass or artificial turf, on a regulation pitch, with real posts and with eleven players on each team) that tends to baffle even the most experienced of players, never mind those who are only just learning the game.
And that rule is called the “Off-side Rule.”
At its most basic the Off-side Rule states that a player cannot receive the ball if he* is the furthest player up the field, excluding the goalkeeper. To be more precise, a player is in an off-side position if he is nearer to the opposition’s goal-line than any two of his opponents.
The reason why there has to be two opponents between any player and the goal-line, is to try to discount the goalkeeper (who, you would assume, is always likely to be the last man). However, as the rule does not specify which two opposing players it has to be, then there are some (admittedly rare) occasions when two outfield players have to be counted, rather than one outfield player and the goalkeeper.
If you ignore such a rare situation, however, the Off-side Rule becomes very simple: a player is off-side if he is the furthest outfield player up the pitch. He is not off-side if he is level with the last opposing outfield player. He is not off-side if he is receiving the ball from a goal-kick, corner or throw-in. He is not off-side if he leaves the field of play. And in addition, he is not off-side if he is behind the ball.
Once that is understood, all that is left is to gain an understanding of when being off-side becomes an offence.
After all, it is not an offence for a player to be standing in an off-side position. It only becomes an offence if he is “interfering with play”, or “interfering with an opponent” or “gaining an advantage from his position”.
“Interfering with play” means that the off-side player receives or touches the ball. This is the most common example of when a player is penalised for being off-side. The key moment here is when the ball is played.
The receiving player has to be in an off-side position when the ball is played for an offence to have been committed. For example, it is possible for a player to be in an off-side position when he receives the ball, but not when the ball was played to him. In this case there is no offence and the game should continue.
“Interfering with an opponent” means that a player is either standing in an opponent’s line of sight or he is challenging an opponent for the ball. Again, this has to occur when the ball is played for an offence to have been committed. This particular aspect of the off-side rule can sometimes be open to interpretation.
Sometimes it is difficult to tell how much the action of another player has affected a move, particularly if he is standing in off-side position. In such circumstances, the referee needs to be fairly certain that there has been some deliberate interference, before blowing the whistle.
Finally, “gaining an advantage” is usually interpreted as a situation where the ball bounces fortuitously to a player in an off-side position. And, once again, they have to be standing in that off-side position as the original contact is made with the ball.
If that all seems fairly straightforward however, things start to get a little bit more complicated when you look at some of the recent guidance given to referees with regard to different “phases” of play.
It used to be the case that if the ball was played forwards in the general direction of an off-side player, the referee would penalise that player if he later became actively involved in the move. By being in an off-side position originally, he would have been deemed to have “gained an advantage” in the subsequent development of the move.
Nowadays, however, once someone else has touched the ball, the move is said to have entered a new “phase” and, as such, any players originally in an off-side position should be considered to be active again. In other words, a player might be in an off-side position when the first pass is made, but, providing they don’t touch the ball at this point, they can get back on-side and finish the move off, including scoring a goal, without being penalised.
As you can imagine, this more recent interpretation of the off-side rule can be confusing. Even some of the experts, commentators and ex-professional players find it confusing, not to mention the arguments that can be had over close decisions, such as trying to decide whether a player is level with the last man or not (a crucial distinction if the player is to be penalised).
So that’s it. The Off-side Rule in a nutshell.
Hopefully this article has made things a lot clearer for those of you confused by the application of soccer’s most misunderstood rule. But don’t worry too much if the concept is still a little perplexing.
Take comfort in the fact that, even the experts can’t always agree on whether a player is off-side or not!
*Please note that, in this article, I have used “he” and “him” to mean a football player (of either sex)
Written by Steve Martin
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