Back in July one of the countries leading dailies had the headline, ‘Offside rule changes could cause chaos for new season.’ It reported that the Premier League could be thrown into chaos as a FIFA amendment to the offside rule has caused concern amongst leading officials and could add further confusion for fans. This was following a conference for Premier League officials at which the changes to the Law (not rule) were unveiled. My reaction to this is that is was completely sensational rubbish. I wasn’t at the Premier League conference of course but I was at the National Referees conference and I’m sure the presentations to both conferences were given by the same person; Neal Barry, former Premier League referee and now FA Head of Senior Referee Development and the FA’s representative on the International FA Board’s technical committee. If so, I don’t think anyone would have come away confused.
So what are these changes to what is probably the most controversial Law in football? There are two main points. First of all it clarifies what is meant when the law says ‘a player in an offside position is penalised if (in the opinion of the referee) he is involved in active play by interfering with an opponent. Remember the law itself has not been changed it is the interpretation, what does interfering with an opponent mean? Previously the interpretation said it meant ‘by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision and that remains but it added ‘making a gesture or movement which in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts the opponent.’ That has now been replaced simply with ‘challenging an opponent for the ball.’ For example if a ball is crossed into the goal area and an offside player jumps with an opponent to try and head the ball, he is interfering with that opponent. Something quite obvious, whilst before the referee had to get inside the mind of the defender, was he deceived or distracted by the fact the offside player was there? The change has made it much simpler for all to understand and referees to apply.
The other change has caused some discussion amongst referees. We are all now familiar with the situation where a player is penalised for gaining an advantage from being in an offside position when it rebounds to him from goalpost, crossbar or an opponent. Now, to the word rebounds, has been added the phrase ‘or is deflected to him’. The offside decision is made when the ball is last touched by a teammate. Therefore if a defender plays the ball, except in making a save, to an offside opponent it nullifies the offside, but if it is a deflection it doesn’t, the player is still offside. It’s nothing new to what we always understood. Not something I feel likely to create chaos.
There is one other aspect to the tale. Referees who attended either conference during the summer, have learnt about the new interpretations but no referee has been officially notified. For many years I led a campaign for referees to be informed of changes in law before the season started. Sounds logical but it didn’t happen. Then there was chaos with a change in permitted goalkeeper’s movements whilst holding the ball. I ran the line at a FA Cup game that year and the referee knowing only what he had read in the newspapers, made a complete hash of it and he wasn’t the only one. After that every referee then got law amendments posted to them prior to the season but sadly it has lapsed again. Thankfully these changes do not have a great deal of substance, otherwise they could have caused chaos because many local referees will have not heard of them.