Offside (association football)

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An assistant referee signals for offside by raising his flag

Offside (sometimes known as offsides) is a law in association football which states that if a player is in an offside position when the ball is touched or played by a team-mate, the player may not become actively involved in the play. A player is in an offside position when closer to the opponent's goal line than both the ball and the second-to-last defender (which is usually the last outfield player), and also in the opponent's half of the pitch. "Offside position" is a matter of fact, whereas committing an "offside offence" occurs when a player is "actively involved" and is subject to the interpretation of the referee. Goals scored after committing an offside offence are nullified if caught by the referee.


The application of the offside rule may be considered in three steps: offside position, offside offence and offside sanction.

Offside position[edit]

The blue forward on the left of the diagram is in an offside position as he is in front of both the second-to-last defender (marked by the dotted line) and the ball. Note that this does not necessarily mean he is committing an offside offence; it only becomes an offence if the ball were to be played to him at this moment, whether or not he is in an offside position when he receives the ball, as he could receive the ball in an onside position but he'd still have committed an offside offence.
The blue forward in the penalty box of the diagram is not in an offside position, as he is behind the ball, despite the fact that he is in front of all but one of his opponents.

A player is in an offside position if three conditions are met: first, the player must be in the opposing team's half of the field. Second, the player must be in front of the ball. And third, there must be fewer than two opposing players between him and the opposing goal line, with the goalkeeper counting as an opposing player for these purposes. It is not necessary that the goalkeeper be one of the last two opponents. Any attacker that is level with or behind the ball is not in an offside position and may never be sanctioned for an offside offence. IFAB has clarified in the 2009–2010 Laws of the Game that a player temporarily off the field of play is considered to be ON the boundary line at the point that he crossed over the boundary line.[1]

The 2005 edition of the Laws of the Game included a new International Football Association Board decision that stated being "nearer to an opponent's goal line" meant that "any part of his head, body or feet is nearer to his opponents' goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent (the last opponent typically being the goalkeeper)."[2] This is taken to mean that any part of the attacking player named in this decision has to be past the part of the second-last defender closest to his goal line and past the part of the ball closest to the defenders' goal line. (The hands are not part of the body).

Regardless of position, there is no offside offence if a player receives the ball directly from a corner kick, goal kick, or throw-in. However, an offside offence may occur if a player receives the ball directly from either a direct free kick or an indirect free kick.

Offside offence[edit]

A player in an offside position at the moment the ball is touched or played by a teammate is only committing an offside offence if, in the opinion of the referee, he becomes actively involved in play by:

Interfering with play
playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a team-mate
Interfering with an opponent
preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or movements or making a gesture or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent.
Gaining an advantage by being in an offside position
playing a ball that rebounds to him off a goalpost or the crossbar having been in an offside position or playing a ball that rebounds to him off an opponent having been in an offside position.[3]

Since offside is judged at the time the ball is touched or played by a teammate, not when the player receives the ball, it is possible for a player to receive the ball significantly past the second-to-last defender, or even the last defender (typically the goalkeeper).

Determining whether a player is in "active play" can be complex. FIFA issued new guidelines for interpreting the offside law in 2003 and these were incorporated in Law XI in July 2005. The new wording seeks to define the three cases more precisely, but controversy regarding offside decisions often arises from assessment of what movements a player in an offside position can make without interfering with an opponent.

Offside sanction[edit]

The restart for an offside sanction is an indirect free kick for the opponent at the place where the off-sided player was at the time the teammate passed or touched the ball. This is defined as where the infringement took place.


An assistant referee signals that the offside offence was in the middle of the pitch; on the far side the flag would be pointed up at 45 degrees, for near the assistant it would be pointed down.

In enforcing this rule, the referee depends greatly on an assistant referee, who generally keeps in line with the second-to-last defender, the ball, or the halfway line, whichever is closer to the goal line of their relevant end. An assistant referee signals that an offside offence has occurred by first raising their flag upright without movement and then, when acknowledged by the referee, by raising their flag in a manner that signifies the location of the offence:

  • Flag pointed at a 45-degree angle downwards: offence has occurred in the third of the pitch nearest to the assistant referee;
  • Flag parallel to the ground: offence has occurred in the middle third of the pitch;
  • Flag pointed at a 45-degree angle upwards: offence has occurred in the third of the pitch furthest from the assistant referee.

The assistant referees' task with regard to offside can be difficult, as they need to keep up with attacks and counter-attacks, consider which players are in an offside position when the ball is played, and then determine whether and when the offside-positioned players become involved in active play. The risk of false judgement is further increased by the foreshortening effect, which occurs when the distance between the attacking player and the assistant referee is significantly different from the distance to the defending player, and the assistant referee is not directly in line with the defender. The difficulty of offside officiating is often underestimated by spectators. Trying to judge if a player is level with an opponent at the moment the ball is kicked is not easy: if an attacker and a defender are running in opposite directions, they can be two metres apart in a tenth of a second.

Some researchers believe that offside officiating errors are "optically inevitable".[4] It has been argued that human beings and technological media are incapable of accurately detecting an offside position quickly enough to make a timely decision.[5] Sometimes it simply is not possible to keep all the relevant players in the visual field at once.[6] There have been some proposals for automated enforcement of the offside rule.[7]


Offside rules date back to codes of football developed at English public schools in the early nineteenth century. These offside rules were often much stricter than the modern game. In some of them, a player was "off his side" if he was standing in front of the ball. This was similar to the current offside law in rugby, which penalises any player between the ball and the opponent's goal. By contrast, the original Sheffield Rules had no offside rule, and players known as "kick-throughs" were positioned permanently near the opponents' goal.

In 1848, HC Malden held a meeting at his Trinity College, Cambridge rooms, that addressed the problem. Representatives from Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester and Shrewsbury schools attended, each bringing their own set of rules. They sat down a little after 4 pm and, by five to midnight, had drafted what is thought to be the first set of "Cambridge Rules". Malden is quoted as saying how "very satisfactorily they worked".

Unfortunately no copy of these 1848 rules exists today, but they are thought to have included laws governing throw-ins, goal-kicks, halfway line markings, restarts, holding and pushing (which were outlawed) and offside. They even allowed for a string to be used as a cross bar.

A set of rules dated 1856 was discovered, over a hundred years later, in the library of Shrewsbury School. It is probably closely modelled on the Cambridge Rules and is thought to be the oldest set still in existence. Rule No. 9 required more than three defensive players to be ahead of an attacker who plays the ball. The rule states:

If the ball has passed a player and has come from the direction of his own goal, he may not touch it till the other side have kicked it, unless there are more than three of the other side before him. No player is allowed to loiter between the ball and the adversaries' goal.

As football developed in the 1860s and 1870s, the offside law proved the biggest argument between the clubs. Sheffield got rid of the "kick-throughs" by amending their laws so that one member of the defending side was required between a forward player and the opponents' goal. The Football Association also compromised slightly and eased the Cambridge idea of "more than three" (i.e. four opponents) to at "least three" (i.e. three opponents). Finally, Sheffield came into line with the F.A., and "three opponents" became the rule until 1925.

The change to the "two opponents" rule led to an immediate increase in goal-scoring. 4,700 goals were scored in 1,848 Football League games in 1924–25. This number rose to 6,373 goals (from the same number of games) in 1925–26.

During the 1973–74 and 1974–75 seasons, an experimental version of the offside rule was operated in the Scottish League Cup and Drybrough Cup competitions.[8] The concept was that offside should only apply in the last 18 yards of play (i.e. inside or beside the penalty area).[8] To signify this, the horizontal line of the penalty area was extended to the touchlines.[8] FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous attended the 1973 Scottish League Cup Final, which was played using these rules.[8] The manager of one of the teams involved, Celtic manager Jock Stein, complained that it was unfair to expect teams to play under one set of rules in one game and then a different set a few days before or later.[8] The experiment was quietly dropped after the 1974–75 season, as no proposal for a further experiment or rule change was submitted for the Scottish Football Association board to consider.[8]

Throughout the 1987–88 season, the Football Conference was used to test an experimental rule change, whereby no attacker could be offside directly from a free-kick. This change was not deemed a success, as the attacking team could pack the penalty area for any free-kick (or even have several players stand in front of the opposition goalkeeper) and the rule change was not introduced at a higher level.

In 1990 the law was amended to adjudge an attacker as onside if level with the second-to-last opponent. This change was part of a general movement by the game's authorities to make the rules more conducive to attacking football and help the game to flow more freely.[9]

Offside trap[edit]

Pioneered in the early 20th century by Notts County[10] and later adopted by influential Argentine coach Osvaldo Zubeldía,[11] the offside trap is a defensive tactic designed to force the attacking team into an offside position. Moments before an attacking player is played a through ball, the last defender(s) move up field, isolating the attacker into an offside position. The execution requires careful timing by the defense and is considered a risk, since running up field against the direction of attack may leave the goal exposed.


  1. ^ Laws of the Game 2009/2010 PDF (1.9 MB) (page 130), FIFA, February 2010
  2. ^ Laws of the Game 2007/2008 PDF (1.68 MB) (pages 35–36), FIFA, July 2007
  3. ^ Laws of the Game 2009/2010 PDF (1.9 MB) (page 102), FIFA, February 2010
  4. ^ Oudejans, Raôul R. D.; Verheijen, Raymond; Bakker, Frank C.; Gerrits, Jeroen C.; Steinbrückner, Marten; Beek, Peter J. (2000), "Errors in judging 'offside' in football", Nature 404 (6773): 33–33, doi:10.1038/35003639 
  5. ^ FB Maruenda (2009), An offside position in football cannot be detected in zero milliseconds, doi:10.1038/npre.2009.3835.1, hdl:10101/npre.2009.3835.1 
  6. ^ B Maruenda (2004), "Can the human eye detect an offside position during a football match?", BMJ (British Medical Journal) 329 (7480): 1470–2, doi:10.1136/bmj.329.7480.1470, PMC 535985, PMID 15604187  Correction: "Can the human eye detect an offside position during a football match?", BMJ 330 (7484), 2005: 188, doi:10.1136/bmj.330.7484.188 
  7. ^ S Iwase, H Saito (2002), Tracking soccer player using multiple views, Proceedings of the IAPR Workshop on Machine Vision, CiteSeerX: 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Russell, Grant (1 April 2011). "How the Scottish FA tried to revolutionise the offside law". STV. Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  9. ^ Offside history, 18 March 2006, archived from the original on 30 March 2010 
  10. ^ Wilson, Jonathan (13 April 2010), The Question: Why is the modern offside law a work of genius? 
  11. ^ Intercontinental Cup 1968, archived from the original on 6 Nov 2012 

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