What is the offside rule?

The offside rule is one of the fundamental principles of association football, but not without continuous controversy amongst players and spectators of the sport. By no means is the offside rule a modern introduction, in fact it has been around since the Football Association was formed in 1863. However, to this day it remains one of the most debated football rules, partly due to the numerous nuances, subjective nature, and difficulty to call an offside offence.

For those who are new to the sport or have recently taken more of an interest, the offside rule can be very confusing to interpret even though in theory it seems simple enough to understand. In this blog, we’re going to break down what the offside rule means and how it applies to the sport to help you figure out whether or not players are in an offside position or have committed an offside offence. 

What is the offside rule in simple terms?

In very simple terms, the offside rule only applies against you when in the opposition's half. The attacking player when in the opposition half must be behind two of the defending players (including the goalkeeper), or level with the second to last opposing team member.

However, a simple explanation doesn’t give a thorough insight into how this controversial rule actually works, so it’s best to understand the ins and outs. It may seem complicated at first, but once you understand the exemptions and definitions, it becomes much easier to comprehend. 

What does offside mean in football?

Offside refers only to passing the ball. A player cannot be offside if he uses a dribbling technique to take the ball past the opposition and score a goal. If at any time the ball is released from one teammate to another in the bid to score a goal, then the positioning of the players must be taken into account in case there is an offside offence. It is important to note that it is not an offence to be in an offside position as long as you do not come into contact with the ball.

A player is in an offside position if any part of their head, body, or feet (arms and hands are excluded) is in the opposition’s half of the pitch and if they are closer to the goal line than the ball and the second to last opponent. Therefore, ‘offside’ does not refer to a defined and fixed area of the pitch, but rather, it is determined by the positioning of the players. Additionally, if the player is exactly level with the second to last defender, then this is considered onside. It is important to note that players cannot be offside when they’re in their own half of the pitch, or if they’re exactly on the halfway line, if the ball is received within their half. If they go beyond the halfway line and the ball is then released from a teammate still within their half, then the receiving player could be in an offside position depending on the placement of the opposition.

Therefore, when considering offside positions, the timing of the ball must be considered. To help clarify the above scenario, if a player moves past the halfway line before the ball is released, they will be offside. However, if they are still within their half when the ball is released, they can then run past the halfway line to receive the ball and still be onside. If the ball is passed to them and both teammates are within their half, the player cannot be offside.

There are penalties for playing the ball in an offside position. If an offside offence occurs, the referee will award a free kick where the offence happened even if this is inside your own half. Additionally, if a goal is scored as a result of an offside position, the goal will be disallowed.

When was the offside rule introduced?

The offside rule was introduced in 1863 by the then newly formed Football Association (FA), stating that a player is offside unless three players from the opposing team are in front of him. This rule was changed in 1925, reducing the number of opposing players required to be in front from 3 to 2 players. In 1990, this rule evolved again into what we know today as the modern version. This change stated that a player is considered onside if he is level with the second to last opposing player.

In modern football, many players and spectators of the sport do not agree with this rule and call for it to be changed once again by FIFA on the grounds that it can be almost impossible to call an offside offence. This is because there can be only millimetres between an offside and onside position, making it prone to human error as offside is usually called by the linesmen. However, in larger matches the use of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) makes calling an offside slightly easier. VAR also checks for any offside offences after any goal, as any offside offence missed by the linesmen can be picked up and the goal will be disallowed.

What are the three exceptions where offsides will not be called?

There are some exceptions to the offside rule, where there is no offside offence if a player receives the ball. These three instances are:

A goal kick

As long as the goal kick is taken from the floor, and not a kick out of the goalkeeper’s hands, any player on the opposite side of the pitch receiving the ball directly from the goalkeeper cannot be offside.

A throw-in

Offside cannot be called for a direct throw-in. If the player receives the ball directly from the throw-in, despite his position in relation to the opposing defenders, it is not considered offside.

A corner kick

A corner kick cannot be offside if the ball is passed directly to the player, regardless of whether the player is closer to the goal than two of the opposing defenders.

However, there is a caveat to all three of these exemptions. If the ball is passed to an onside teammate, who then passes it to the player who is closer to the goal than the two opposing defenders, that player then becomes offside because he has indirectly received the ball from the throw-in, goal kick, or corner kick.

Get into football with Avec Sport

Understanding the offside rule is key when participating in or spectating football games. Whilst larger games with world-class professional teams will have the assistance of VAR, small team games will have to use their best judgement. 

If you’re a team coach for beginners, you might want to consider setting up some real-life scenarios using a training ball and bibs to help your team get a practical and clearer understanding of the offside rule.