A Change to Offside

The start of the football season is not the same without a controversy or two and this year was no different. Bournemouth in their first away game in the Premier League lost after having a goal controversially disallowed for offside. I can’t discuss the incident as I haven’t seen it but I did read one comment that said ‘even with the new offside law it was still a mistake’.

For many to learn that there was a new offside law must have been a surprise, as it was to most referees in the country. It is actually a late addition to the interpretations of offside that hadn’t been agreed at the International FA Board meeting in February. The FA only informed Level 4 referees and above, in other words those who referee above local football. The reason was that they hadn’t told lower clubs of the change, so it wouldn’t apply in local football.

The problem is that many Level 5 referees run the line in more senior games, so there could be a referee and his two assistants working to different offside laws. The ruling is now that it will only apply in leagues with neutral assistant referees.

You have to go back a couple of years to understand the reason for the change. The Offside Law says that a player in an offside position is only penalised if he

  1. interferes with play,
  2. interferes with an opponent, or
  3. gains an advantage by being in that position

The interpretations at the back of the book say that interfering with play means playing or touching the ball.  Interfering with an opponent was described as ‘preventing an opponent by clearly obstructing his line of vision or making a gesture or movement, which in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts the opponent’. It was this last phrase that was deleted in 2013 and replaced with ‘or challenging an opponent for the ball’. No longer did the referee have to decide whether a defending player was distracted or deceived.

However, unhappy football associations around the world started to make up their own interpretations. I saw the one from the NFL in America complete with videos. The International FA Board which insists on uniformity throughout the world, realised it had a problem that couldn’t wait until the next laws meeting in February 2016. It therefore issued its own revision, which all football nations must use instead of their own versions.

We now have two other clauses when an offside player may be penalised. These are ‘clearly attempting to play a ball which is close to him when this action impacts on an opponent, or makes an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball’ What does it all mean? Let’s take a high ball well over the head of an offside player that goes into the net. That would still be goal. But if the ball was lower and the offside player attempts to head it, he would be given offside even if he didn’t touch it. This is because the goalkeeper would have to wait to see the result of the player’s attempt before trying to save the ball. Similarly, a ball going into the gaol at ground level would be allowed if the offside player was not near, but if he was close to the ball and stuck out a foot without making contact, he would be considered to have an impact on the goalkeeper’s decision. In short the offside player must be close to the ball, make an attempt to play it, which could impact the goalkeeper’s action.

In attempting it make it clear the IFAB in their 2013 amendment had made it unfair in many people’s eyes. It is now perhaps fairer but more complicated for referees.

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