Applying Offside

By: John Kipp, NISOA National Clinician, Cleveland, Ohio

When attending mandatory in-service or training sessions from the various venues we officiate, the subject of Offside always comes up.  Initial reaction by our Referees may be: “Oh no, do we HAVE to go over this again?  We’ve heard enough on this subject already!” The NISOA Intercollegiate or Interscholastic official should welcome the chance to periodically re-visit a rule that affects our game significantly.  For review purposes, this article will discuss the current NFHS and NCAA Offside Rule, review the officiating Mechanics associated with same, and offer some suggestions to improve your ability to “make the call and make it – right.”

The NFHS 2007-08 Soccer Rules Book lists Offside on Page 39.  There are approximately 139 words defining this rule, making it the second shortest in the book.  The 2008 NCAA Men’s and Women’s Soccer Rule Book (Page 59) has more verbiage, including approved rulings, but it still is the third shortest rule found there. So, how can such a short and simple rule create so much controversy when applied on the pitch?  Let’s review the important rule application of Offside so that we all stay consistent with its use in your match.

Both rule books define Offside position identically.  A player is in an offside position if he or she is “nearer to the opponent’s goal line than the ball” – UNLESS.  The “unless” part is also identical, applying the fact that if a player is in his or her own half, or that a player is not nearer to the opponent’s goal line than at least two opponents, or is not nearer to the goal line than the ball when the ball is touched or played by a teammate, offside should not be declared. (Note: the position of the head, body or feet is the deciding factor – not the arms; identical too)  The additional conditions for declaring offside include: “that a player is involved in active play by: a) interfering with play or with an opponent b) gaining an advantage by being in that position.”  The NCAA rule is identical, but adds “if in the opinion of the referee” and codes them as: 11.2.1 and 11.2.2 respectively.  The restart is an Indirect Free Kick at the spot/point of the infraction (subject to goal area restrictions elsewhere in the rules).  The times when a player CANNOT be penalized for being in an offside position are closely parallel: “Receiving the ball directly from a goal kick, a corner kick, or a throw-in”.  The NCAA adds: 11.3.1 “Merely because of being in an offside position”; NFHS adds this stipulation in the beginning of 11-1- Article 3.  Both rule books offer similar Offside Diagrams that may be reviewed for clarity.

The mechanics used by the Referee and Assistant Referee in both venues are the same.  The NCAA rule book indicates the appropriate signals for the officials on Pages 105 and 106. The NFHS book includes this on Page 96-97 for Referee’s; and Page 87 for Assistant Referees.  The most important factor is for the Referee Team to have a thorough pre-game discussion about how offside will be managed.  Using the “better late- right; than early- wrong” theory works in most cases.  An Assistant Referee that snaps a flag up too quickly may bring the game into controversy when the player receiving the ball turns out NOT to be the player in the offside position.  Be careful with waiting, however, in the circumstance where the ball goes through and the offside player is a speedy forward who will next bear down on the opposing goalkeeper!  In this circumstance, it is better to call the offside early (assuming it occurs) to prevent a collision that will most often lead next to misconduct issues!  In general, Referees should support the decisions of the Assistant Referee when the correct application of the rule is applied.  Should the referee choose to waive off an offside indication, such as times when the ball is easily collected by the goalkeeper and a punt would be more acceptable, it is wise for the Referee to announce loud enough the reasoning WHY the flag was waived.  The proper positioning of the Assistant Referee is critical and cannot be stressed enough. “Stay even with the second-to-last defender, or the ball, whichever is closest to the goal line”.  The Assistant must concentrate on position and fight the tendency to watch the game and lose awareness of where the second-to-last defender may be.  A side-to-side shuffle, when play and movement is compacted in front of the Assistant Referee, is also advised.  Be ready, though, to immediately sprint when a long-ball is played into your half or the midfield sends an accurate through-ball.  The most controversial call may be sold easily when the Assistant has maintained the proper positioning throughout the entire match.  Coaches, and players too, are far less critical when they observe the Referee Team working hard to get this call correct — proper positioning cannot be over-emphasized.

Lastly, a few tips for the Referee and Assistant Referee to help in “getting it right”:  The Referee that narrows his diagonal pattern too strictly will often miss an Assistant’s flag.  Running a straight line from penalty area to penalty area is to be avoided at all costs.  Try, at all times, to keep your Assistant Referee in view; a wider diagonal will help correct this error.  For Assistants, try this suggestion: MEMORIZE the numbers of the defending players in the back that most often influence your decisions.  This will assist you to maintain concentration as you mentally count these numbers as they pass in and out of defending offside position or when making an offside “trap.”  If an attacker gets caught in a trap and politely asks: “How can that be?”, your response that “#21 trapped you” will turn off the dissent immediately.  Conversely, if the attacker collects the ball and scores, and #21 or his teammates ask who kept him “on-side” – the Assistant can reply: “it was #16 on the far side.”  Knowing the player’s number as well as the correct application of the rule, shows that the Assistant Referee has a high level of concentration and will diminish any form of doubt. (Obviously, when the second half begins, erase your first set of numbers and memorize the new set).

Offside, when administered properly by the Referee Team, is relatively easy to “get it right.” There is no other call in our beautiful game that can add more controversy when it is missed or when the rule is applied incorrectly.  By having a thorough pre-game discussion with your Referee Team, utilizing the appropriate signals, mastering the proper positioning, and concentrating throughout the entire match, your service to the players and the game is welcomed and appreciated.  Since the scoring of a goal is the event that causes the most joy or the most sorrow depending upon which side of the ball you stand, the Referee Team must approach the offside rule seriously.  Start with 100% dedication to the correct application of this rule throughout the match, and improve upon that percent as the game goes on!  Have a great season.