The history of soccer’s offside rule and where it’s heading


The history of soccer’s offside rule and where it’s heading

The offside rule in soccer is integral to the framework of the sport. In the IFAB Laws of the Game, the offside rule is known as Law 11. Without the offside law, teams would heave the ball from one end of the field to the other. Working to skillfully weave through opposition defences with an artful short passing game would disappear. Attacking forwards would camp out near the opposition goal in anticipation of a long ball pass. The battle for midfield supremacy would lack the type of build-up fans love to see. Despite all these reasons for the offside law, there are still those who feel it should be done away with. Many fans hate to see marginal offside calls ruin a great goal. However, the evolution of this law has done more to improve the sport than it’s given credit for.

Early years of offside and the first FA laws of the game 1863

The 1800s saw many different rules for playing football. Some clubs would play football without an offside law, others would use one of the various interpretations of offside. Things started to change in 1863 with the birth of the Football Association in London England. The FA decided in 1963 that a strict offside law would be codified in the laws of the game. Each player had to be level with or behind the ball when his team had possession. If the ball was kicked forward past a teammate further down the field that player couldn’t play it. They would have to wait until the other side kicked it or an onside teammate was able to play it. This strict interpretation did not apply to goal kicks however, for obvious reasons.

First changes to the offside law 1886

The strict offside law started changing in 1866 with the introduction of the three-player offside rule. This allowed more leeway for players to set themselves up in an advanced attacking position. It opened up the game offensively for downfield passes which helped to spread out the players. As long as the receiver of the pass had three opponents nearer to the goal line, they were able to receive the pass. If they were in an offside position they weren’t allowed to prevent another player from touching the ball. Although there were proposals to revert back to the strict offside law, implement a one-player offside rule, or even do away with the offside law altogether; the three-player offside law remained intact well into the next century.

IFAB formed 1886

In 1886 the International Football Association Board IFAB was formed. Representatives of the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh football associations agreed to establish international unified laws of the game.

Offside called when ball played rather than when received 1873

Before 1873, a player was judged to be offside at the moment they received a pass. This rule change allowed attacking players to run onto passes deep behind opposition lines. It opened up the field of play by promoting offensive tactics previously prohibited. Attacking players could rely more on their speed in a race to the ball; as long as their starting point was onside.

Offside law further liberalizes offensive play 1903

The law stated that it wasn’t considered offside if a player was simply in an offside position. They were only considered offside if it caused play to be affected. The law could still be interpreted in many ways at this point, however, it did help improve the flow of play. It also helped to give some players leeway when inadvertently being caught offside far from the run of play.

Offside called only in attacking half 1907

This board was responsible for changing the offside law in 1907. They agreed that no one would be considered offside in their own half. They wanted to eliminate utilizing a one defensive back system in order to play the other team offside. Before this, players could be considered offside in their own penalty area.

FIFA joins IFAB 1913

In 1913 FIFA joined IFAB and was given equal voting power as the original four-member football associations combined. To this day the structure of IFAB remains unchanged. It comprises the original four representative football associations from England, Scotland, Wales and now Northern Ireland, along with equal representation from FIFA. Law changes require a three-quarters majority from the board.

Offsides eliminated from throw-ins 1921

This law change opened up the field of play allowing throw-ins to be received from anywhere on the pitch. This change continued the trend of incorporating more offensive-minded play into the sport.

Offside law changed to two-player rule 1925

In 1925 IFAB voted to change the offside law to a two-player rule instead of three. The goalkeeper and one other defensive player now had to be in front of the attacking players to be onside. This allowed attacking players to stretch the field and accept long ball passes further into the opposition defences. This impacted games by increasing scoring from an average of 2.5 goals per game in the 1924-25 season to 3.5 goals per game in 1925-26. It also led to a gradual change in formations, with more defensive players utilized in the coming years.

Offside law change promoted more offensive play 1990

By the 1980s defensive soccer tactics had taken a lot of the offensive flair out of the game. To promote a more offensive-style game, IFAB adjusted the offside law. Instead of the attacking player being behind the second-last defender, now they just had to be level with them. This allowed forward runners a little more time to dash past a defensive line. It also made it more difficult for defences to snare these forwards in an offside trap.

IFAB changes to the offside laws 2005

Further liberalization of the offside law continued in 2005. These changes reduced the number of offside calls given in a match. This improved the flow of the game by allowing more permissiveness in the attack, with fewer stoppages in play.

Hands and arms no longer considered offside

The first agreed-upon change in 2005 was when IFAB removed hands and arms from the offside law. The law previously stated that any part of the body could be considered offside. However, since you can’t use hands or arms to play the ball this was of little advantage. This marginal change aimed to increase offensive chances, rather than having players caught offside by an arm’s length.

Changing definitions of involvement in active play

The other change to the offside law in 2005; related to clarifying three definitions of involvement in active play. This had a subtle, yet more impactful change to the flow of the game. Interfering with play was defined as, “playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a team-mate. Interfering with an opponent was now defined as “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.” The final clarified definition stated; “Gaining an advantage by being in that position means playing a ball that rebounds to him off a goal post 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.”

The impact of the 2005 Law 11 changes

These changes reduced the effectiveness of teams playing an offside trap. It’s no longer enough for a defender to step up ahead of an attacking player to force them offside. This change allows attacking players in an offside position the option not to interfere with play. These subtle changes have improved the game by allowing more offensive play. The offside law, known as Law 11 in the Laws of the Game, continues to evolve for a more offensive sport.

Further clarifications of the offside law 2009

There was a slight law clarification of what happens when a defender leaves the field of play in 2009. Previously when a defender stepped behind his own goal line to place an opponent offside, they were to be cautioned at the next stoppage of play. The change stated that defenders leaving the field are considered on their own goal line or touchline for offside purposes. However, they would still be cautioned if they didn’t get the referee’s permission to leave the field. Although it was clarified in the 2016-17 laws of the game not to punish injured defenders. Several clarifications of the offside laws have been made continually throughout the years and can be viewed on the IFAB website,

The introduction of VAR technology in elite-level football 2017

When the UEFA Champions League first introduced VAR in 2017, most other elite-level competitions soon followed. One of the challenges of implementing VAR is integrating it with the offside law. One of the objectives of VAR is ensuring goal-scoring opportunities aren’t denied by an errant offside flag. Assistant referees are now instructed to leave the flag down until the passage of play has ended. Then if a goal is scored VAR will decide if there was an offside. This has eliminated poor decisions by referees and added more excitement to the game. However, there’ve been cases where players sustained injuries after a flag should have been raised, which is cause for concern.

Semi-automated offside technology and the future of Law 11

To counter injury concerns and goal celebrations being called back, semi-automated offside technology is being developed. This will allow near-instantaneous offside decisions, ending the VAR delay period in most circumstances. It will remove delayed offside flags by assistant referees, ensuring less time and effort is wasted. Ultimately it will help eliminate much of the uncertainty around goal celebrations, which is how it should be. FIFA aims to have this artificial-intelligence-based technology in place for the 2022 World Cup.

Further improvements to the offside law

Throughout football’s history, the offside law has been tweaked and refined. Improving the law for clarity, and more offensive prowess in the sport has been a constant theme. Keeping the two-player offside law intact is important to the traditions and heritage of the sport. However, Arsen Wenger, FIFA’s chief of global football development, is advocating to push the boundaries of the two-player offside law. He would like to see players considered onside if any body part is level with the second-last defender. Although the proposal would disclude hands and arms from the equation.

Liberalizing the two-player offside law

With the advent of automated offside calls providing a more accurate measure of decisions, precise rule changes are more practical. Giving attacking players a slight edge will inevitably open up the game for more offensive chances. Darting runs previously on the margins of offside, would be permitted. More goals would be scored and soccer would become a slightly more offensive and higher-scoring game. From grassroots soccer with one referee, to matches ruled by VAR this rule change would undoubtedly favour more attacking football.

For a more in-depth look at this law change and how it would work, check out this article.

About the Author /

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Nathan Holowaty is a writer and blogger, with a passion for everything soccer-related. He is a lifelong soccer player and fan, helping to grow the sport in a positive manner. Nathan began working on Top World Football in early 2021.

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