In the early 19th century, when soccer rules were primitive and lacked consistency, some clubs would leave strikers deep, beyond the last defender, attempting to send enormous through-balls. If properly placed, the long through-balls put the striker in immediate attacking position one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
As the game has evolved, governing bodies have sought to prevent such strategies by implementing the rules pertaining to offside. Understanding the sentiment and technicalities behind this rule can offer a greater appreciation of the game for players and fans alike.
There are two parts to the rule of playing offside, one is about positioning which is not in itself a cause for trouble. The second is about engaging in active play from the offside position, called an offside offense. Learning the ins and outs of this rule provide greater understanding of offensive and defensive strategy of the game. Lets jump right into it!
Positioned Offside: A Player is considered in offside position when they are across midfield closer to their opponents’ goal, with less than two defending players even with or beyond them, while being behind the ball. The opposing goalkeeper does not have to be one of the two defenders. For example, if a goalkeeper came out of goal and you were past him, but equal with two defenders, you are considered onside.
The important thing to note here is that simply being positioned offside is no cause for problem. The rules get more complex as we move to the other facet of the rule, which is becoming active in play from an offside position.
Offside Offense: The rules get slightly tougher to interpret when applying them to the game, especially in the fast-paced setting of a match. Nevertheless, a player positioned offside becomes active in play by touching or playing the ball, interfering with an opponent (setting a pick or distraction), or gaining an unfair advantage like from a deflected ball off the crossbar.
Regardless of position though, a player can never commit an offside offense when receiving the ball directly from a corner kick, a throw-in, or a goal kick. They may however commit an offside offense from a direct free kick or an indirect free kick.
When an offside offense is committed, the defending team is awarded an indirect free kick from the area of the offside-positioned player.
A little hypothetical review: if a player dribbles the ball across midfield and down one side, beyond the last defenders, he or she may pass the ball back to a fellow teammate, even if they are also beyond the last defenders. Remember, being behind the ball eliminates the player from offside positioning, even though they may be beyond the last defenders. See image at left: where blue attacker near goalie box is not offside.
Part of the hardest job of the assistant referee is following attacks and counter attacks up and down the field, while still maintaining the visual field to accurately judge offside players. If that was not hard enough, the referee must also have the discretion to identify whether a player is in active play. FIFA has a difficult time defining that term in its rule book, and ensuring consistent interpretation across all matches.