Offside: Changes Needed? – Part One

Raising the flag on problems and shortcomings of the current offside rule.

OffsideI recently wrote an article where I posed the question, “what is the point of the penalty area?” In this I suggested the removal of the penalty area as it stands to be replaced by a line, which would stretch right across the pitch. The line would have nothing to do with the issuing of penalty kicks, but would be an instrumental line for a change in the ridiculous offside law (as it stands), which I will outline further starting with this article.

I’ve got a lot of views about offside and I’ve been reading about the law, FIFA guidance, referee guidance etc. One problem I have is that it has been proven in scientific research that human beings (including linesmen!) physically cannot move their eyes fast enough to take in all the necessary action. To make a correct decision they have to assess the positions of the player passing the ball, the player receiving the ball, and the second from last defender at the exact moment a pass is made, bearing in mind that they could be some distance apart, and possibly moving at speed in opposite directions.

I believe we need to look back in history to ascertain why the offside law was introduced in the first place. If you study the development of football in the 1860s, the offside law was probably the biggest bone of contention between the clubs in existence at the time who all had their own version of it.

A compromise was eventually agreed and written into the Laws of the Game in 1866, and was eventually adopted throughout. It was similar to the rule that exists today with the difference being that at a player was offside if he was in the opponents’ half, and he was nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and at least three opponents when receiving a pass from his team-mate.

The rule changed in 1925 with three opponents becoming two opponents. In 1990 the law was amended so that a player was onside if he was level with the second to last opponent. This change was considered to be part of a movement by the authorities to make the rules more conducive to attacking football and help the game to flow more freely.

But why was it introduced in the very first place? In the very early games of football, players would stand close to the opponents goal, a term known as goal-hanging (as happened a lot in the playground games of football in my day), and the ball could be played to them, where they would be in a good position to score, and obstruct the goalkeeper too. Quite clearly as the game developed it was realised that this was an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

But why do we have the situation where you can be offside in half of the area of the pitch? Can you really be goal-hanging more than fifty yards from goal? Once we’ve dispensed with the nonsensical penalty area that I previously referred to, I believe we should draw a line across the pitch, say 18 yards from the goal line. It doesn’t have to be necessarily 18 yards; it could be 20. Some experimentation would be needed of course. We would then change the rule so that you can only be offside in this final 18 yards of the pitch. This would prevent the current condensing of play in the centre of the field and stretch it out further.

In my view it would also help the assistant referee, whose task with regard to offside can be difficult, as they need to keep up with the flow of the game, consider if players are in an offside position when the ball is played, and then decide if any players that are in an offside position become involved in active play.

As I mentioned before, officiating errors in respect of offside are inevitable from an optical viewpoint, with the eyes and brain of a human being unable to process all of the necessary action to accurately call an offside decision accurately. The risk of errors increases by the foreshortening effect, which can happen when the distances between the attacking player, the defending players, and the assistant referee vary significantly. This is exacerbated if the assistant referee is not directly in line with the defender, and with the speed of the game today, this is virtually impossible.

The assistant referee has to judge if a player is level with an opponent at the moment the ball is kicked. The ball may be kicked from a short distance away or 40 yards away, and the linesman has to be able to see all of this with one set of eyes. It becomes even more difficult if an attacker and a defender are running in opposite directions. Sometimes it is just not possible to keep all necessary players in the field of vision at once.

This article will be continued with further details of the complexity of the offside rule that most of us don’t know about, and ideas for solutions to simplify the law for players and spectators alike, together with a call for video replays that could easily be introduced without any hold up to the game.

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