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Football Basics: The Offside Rule in Modern Football

Football Basics: The Offside Rule

Imagine yourself receiving the ball at your feet at Old Trafford. You run past two defenders with only the keeper to face, chip the ball over him and score a magnificent winner in stoppage time, take off your shirt in celebration only to witness the linesman excruciatingly deny your goal. Chances are you were either dreaming or infuriatingly called offside.

The offside rule is perhaps, the most puzzling amongst all laws within the sport. Peeving and undeniably buzzkill, the rule is reflective of the sport’s principles and, at times, serves as a great leveller on the pitch. Besides, its controversial nature and vulnerability to human error make the rule all the more perplexing considering the recent introduction of the technology-driven application of the law.

In the article, we attempt to break down and explain the offside rule, and the laws’ application in modern football.

Offside Law: The Application

Simply put, an offside occurs when an opposition player finds himself beyond the second-last defender at the time of the pass being played. Though its application is simple, the law constitutes several nuances.

While it is not an infringement in itself if one is in an offside position, a player is considered to be offside if he/she/they receive the ball on returning from an offside position and/or receive the ball beyond the second-last defender during active play. If any part of the attacking player’s body is found to be ahead of the second-last defender, before or at the time of the pass, the play is halted for offside with the opposition receiving a free kick.

The graphic below, explains the application of the rule during open play. 


Football Basics: The Offside Rule
(Image Courtesy: The Conversation)

In addition to the most common scenario of this application, an offside is also subject to numerous infringements during open-play and set-pieces. For instance, a player is considered offside if they affect the opponent in any way, even without having possession of the ball. 

Offside is called if a player blocks the opponent’s line of vision, primarily during set-pieces, and makes a distracting gesture or movement, thus, provoking a reaction from the opponent. Further, if you continue to play, from an offside position, having received the ball rebounded from an opponent or the goal-post – kicked by your teammate – an offside is called. 

Offside Law: Non-Application

In addition to the complex application of the law, it also offers breathing space for the attacking team. There are several instances wherein the law is non-applicable, thus, considering a player’s skill and susceptibility to errors on the pitch.

The most common occurrence of a close-call involved the attacker’s body in line with the second-last defender. Provided the attacker times his/her/their run to perfection, the player’s position is not found in infringement of the rule. Additionally, if a player receives the ball beyond the second-last defender but inside one’s own half, an offside cannot be called. 

The graphic below explains a common occurrence wherein the attacker is found to be onside.

Football Basics: The Offside Rule
(Image Courtesy: The Conversation)

Further, the rule is not applicable if an attacker receives or intercepts the ball in an offside position from an opponent’s pass. An offside cannot be called on balls received directly from a corner, free-kick, or a throw-in.

VAR Intervention

The introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was envisioned as a new precedent in modern refereeing. However, its susceptibility to human error and subjectivity has resulted in inconsistent decisions on the pitch, thus, infuriating both players and managers alike. In context to the offside rule, VAR has proven to be time-consuming. However, with recent changes, its management and decision-making have resulted in successful interventions on the pitch.

Though offside calls have evidently favoured the defending side since VAR’s recent intervention within the sport, changes such as the overlapping of lines and reducing the margin for offside applications have resulted in the attacked receiving the benefit of the doubt. While VAR’s have relied on several thin lines on the screen to assess a call for offside, the shift to thicker lines and lesser scrutiny has resulted in more efficient offside calls.

A shift in the change from the previous modus operandi is illustrated below.

Football Basics: The Offside Rule

Before: The original VAR image shows the red (attacker) and blue (defender) lines on top of each other.

Football Basics: The Offside Rule

After: Following the new changes, the VAR will rule the goal onside and instead show a single green onside line.

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