Soccer 101: The Offside Rule

This is actually more like Soccer 201, but this is what was on my mind today. Approach this with your thinking cap on, please…

Soccer is a simple game, but one major rule that provides structure to the sport and frustrates the hell out of would-be scorers is the “offside” rule. The offiside rule was instituted very, very early in the sport’s history (somewhere between 1848 and 1856) in order to prevent attackers from “cherry-picking” by spending the entire game standing in front of their opponent’s goal waiting for the ball to come to them. Quite simply, the rule works. Sometimes too well.

If you’re already a sports fan, then offside is pretty easy to understand. If you’re not…it isn’t. The American sport with the closest equivalent is ice hockey (go Pens). American football has an “offsides” rule, but it doesn’t mean even remotely the same thing as what offiside means in soccer. In this post I will (attempt to) explain what offiside is in soccer.

Basically: An attacking player, in his opponent’s half, can only receive the ball from another teammate if there are at least two opposing players between himself (the receiver of the ball) and the opposing team’s goal. That’s as simply as the offside rule can be stated. In explaining this rule to people, I’ve often found it helpful to explain what would happen if there were no offside rule. If there were no offside rule, then Sergio Aguero (a goal-scoring machine) could just stand in front of his opponent’s goal the whole game, wait for the ball to come to him, and smash it in. Well, the offside rule prevents this from happening by forcing Aguero out of his opponent’s goal area and away from the goal when he doesn’t have the ball, thereby making the game more fair.

To imagine this rule in practice: Pretend there is an imaginary, movable line stretching across the width of the field, parallel to the end-lines and half-line. This line is attached to the last remaining defender (other than the goal keeper), and moves up or down the field depending on where this defender (or defenders, if they are lined up evenly across the field) is positioned. This imaginary line is the “offside” line, and there’s one in each half of the field at any one time.

A British coin with the offside rule on the back. See?? Even the BRITS don’t understand it.

Now pretend you are an attacking player, and you’re deep in your opponent’s half waiting for the ball to make it up to you so you can score. You’re considered “onside” if you are behind this imaginary line, meaning that — in real terms — there are at least two opposing players (including the goal keeper) between you and goal…and remember, this applies even if the second to last opposing defender is way on the other side of the pitch. It’s all about the imaginary line. So…since you’re onside you are free to receive the ball from one of your teammates and make a play.

However, let’s say, while waiting for the ball to get to you, you get impatient and cross this imaginary line. Now the only opposing player between you and the goal is the goal keeper. You are now in an “offside” position. If you received a pass now, while you are across the imaginary line, the referee will blow his whistle, play will stop, and the other team will be awarded a free kick from the spot where the violation occurred.

The guy receiving the ball is clearly offside. And has no face. Furthermore…where is the goal?












Offside calls happen fairly often during the course of your regular professional football match. So it won’t take you long to see an example of this on T.V. some time. And you’ll also start to see how the difference between offside and onside can sometimes be as little as — seemingly — a few inches, and how an offside call or a blown offside call can change the course of a game.

Things to note:

  • You cannot be considered offside in your own half of the field (the half in which your team’s goal sits)
  • You cannot be called offside if you are dribbling the ball (since you are behind the ball, you cannot be offside)
  • It is not illegal to stand in an offside position. A player can position himself anywhere on the field he wants to, at any time. However, the problem comes when that player attempts to receive a pass or play a ball in an offside position. You’re really only offside if you play the ball or are in any way influencing a play.
  • Defenders use the offside rule to their advantage all the time, by “pushing up” the offside line, and therefore reducing the amount of space in which attacking players can roam. There’s also a technique call the “offside trap,” used a lot by Arsenal FC at one time (not sure any more) in which defenders push up the offside line just as an attacking player is about to get the ball, therefore stranding him in an offside position. Risky, but it works sometimes.

Summary: If you’re confused, don’t worry. It’s a little confusing. And it’s even more confusing once you get into the specifics of different situations, the moments when a player actually becomes offside, who is offside when, etc. But for now, these are the basics of the rule. Just think of it as a way to make sure that attacking players don’t get too much of an advantage over the defense, and imagine the “line” that runs through the last defender, and sooner or later, it will click.