What are the benefits of offside in football?

One of the consequences of having my photograph included with this column for the last twelve years, is that people keep coming up to me to talk about football, particularly the Laws of the Game. ‘Do you mind,’ they usually say, ‘if I ask you a question?’ Do I mind? My wife will tell you that there is nothing I like more than talking football and as she bitterly complains, the real problem is getting me to stop. Not that everyone is polite of course. Last season for instance, a fan harangued me in bar for about half an hour, telling me where referees were going wrong and what they should do. The only problem with his denunciation was that he was wrong on every point of law that he was talking about. No such problem with the person who approached me in the street one day in the close season. I have to admit that I was slightly thrown by his question. ‘Can you tell me,’ he asked, ‘what is the benefit of the offside law in football?’

When talking to him it turned out that he was a hockey fan, in fact a former hockey player. It so happens that I played quite a lot of hockey myself, at school, in the army and even in my early days as a referee. There was no Sunday football in those days and I was able to referee on Saturday and play hockey on a Sunday. But that was a long time ago and as I’m sure anyone who watched the game on television during the Olympics will know it has changed quite considerably. It is now an incredibly fast game and this is not entirely due to the artificial pitches on which it is mostly played. The hockey authorities have altered and removed certain aspects of the rules since the days that I took part. For one thing, they have abolished the offside law.

Hockey, like football, has a long history in this country. They were both banned by royal proclamation by Edward III in 1363 but it was not until the nineteenth century that either were formally organised. With hockey, the first rules were drawn up in 1876, which included offside. This rule was altered in 1972, again in 1987 before being removed in 1998. The reasons for abolishing offside included, ‘to help the flow of play, more goals, less whistle, and to make the game more exciting and appealing to spectators’. Add to that ‘less controversy’ and you might say that all that applies to football as well. But does it?

Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA has often been criticised but to his credit, when he heard that the removal of offside from hockey was reported to be remarkably successful, he met the hockey authorities to learn if it might be applicable to football. However, after initial discussions, he decided to pursue it no further. ‘Why not? you might ask as indeed did my questioner. Let’s face it, from a referee’s point of view it would reduce the workload and remove one of his greatest areas of confrontation with players and spectators. So what stops football from following hockey? I think the reason is that in hockey, the ball remains mostly on the ground and is difficult to control when it is in the air. This means the chances of passing accurately to ‘goalhangers’ are remote and therefore they don’t exist in hockey. In football however, it is more than likely that it would result in tall physical forwards standing in front of their opponent’s goal awaiting a succession of long balls being played up to them. How boring would that be. The benefit of the offside law in football is I think the passing game. Long may it continue.


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