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DECODING THE OFFSIDE PUZZLE: UNRAVELLING THE NUANCES AND CONTROVERSIES OF FOOTBALL'S OFFSIDE RULE

*Written by Kartik Tripathi



Introduction


Football (or soccer as the Americans refer to it) as a sport has evolved since its inception in England in the middle of the 19th century. Since time immemorial, humans have tried to make their lives better and entertaining. The advent of technology has aided the process of humans taking gigantic leaps not only in the field of technology but also slowly and gradually in sports. Arguably, this technological evolution has been prevalent more in football than in other sports due to the nature and popularity of the sport worldwide. Laws, regulations and rules all go in tandem with any sport, irrespective of its nature. After the inception of football as a sport, rules and regulations were introduced slowly. The idea of football as a formal institution arose in the early half of the 20th century. FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) was instituted in 1904 to help bring the sport into perspective and to constitute a governing body. Since then, football has been spreading like wildfire across the globe.



Origins of the rule


Prior to FIFA, there was no governing body to regulate the game. This often led to conflicts among teams. There were a plethora of controversies ranging from topics like handball to offside. Slowly and gradually, football started to evolve and transform into a discipline. FIFA was responsible for this change and greatly influenced the transformation of football into a formal sport. It was easy to understand the basic rules of the sports, such as throw-ins, fouls, etc. One rule that has been in the spotlight is an 'offside'. The term was first used in 1883 by the Football Association (FA). The word offside originated from the military word, 'offside,' meaning a man trapped behind enemy lines.' The idea behind introducing this rule was to prevent the forward players of a team from going near the opposition's goal to look for goal-scoring opportunities.


In the past, the forward or attacking players often stayed near the opposition's goal to score a goal. This meant that when the attacking side played a long ball, a cross-field ball or a diagonal ball, that would entirely evade all the defenders of the defending team. The ball would reach the attacker without being impeded by a defender, often leading to a goal. This was a lacuna in the game during that time, and there have been attempts to resolve this. The introduction of the offside rule led to a monumental change in how the game was played, especially from an attacking point of view. There was plenty of rationale behind the introduction of such a law. A solid but debatable argument was that the attacking team would have a significant advantage without the offside rule. To further elaborate, the attacking team would find its forward players with relative ease and comfort.



Arguments and Counter- Arguments


All they had to do to unlock the opposition's defence was to send a long ball over the top of the opposing defenders. Since immemorial, football has often been associated with 'skill' and 'technique'. Not having an offside rule would directly contradict both aspects of the game. Elucidating further on the same, the example of 'Ginga' is a classic case. It involved a unique style of play involving panache and was primarily associated with the Brazilian national team. 'Ginga' translated to 'Sway', meaning the sport had to be played with a specific flow and tempo. The great Brazilian player Pele was an advocate of the same.


An alternative argument was made, which was that the offside rule was in favour of the defending team as it restricted the attacking opportunities. This meant the opposing team's defenders could play a low block, pushing the attacking team forward. This would constrain the attacking team from creating attacking opportunities and making attacking runs. An offside trap is created when the defenders of an opposing team move up the pitch, which would inevitably lead to the other team's attackers pushing back. This is a defensive strategy used by many teams in the modern era. It is also referred to as the high-line strategy. The movement of the attacker becomes crucial in these instances. A good player must precisely time his run to break the offside trap. The sport's gradual formalisation has now made it the most-watched sport in the world.


There was another lacuna, which was slowly creeping its way up. A set of persons are called' linesmen' on either side of the pitch. They are responsible for raising the flag when a player is offside. In the past, there were several instances when the linesmen did not raise their flag when it was an offside. This led to further controversy since the advantage was transferred to the attacking team. The reverse also occurred where there were instances where the linesmen raised their flag despite the attacker being 'onside' and not offside. As humans, we tend to make mistakes. It is a natural phenomenon.


 

The advent of VAR


In order to curb and resolve the issue of human errors and minimize incorrect decisions, VAR or Virtual Assistant Referee, was introduced in July 2016 by the Eredivisie, which is the Dutch league. The notion evolved with the sole intention of minimizing human error and increasing the probability of correct decisions. VAR involves using high-quality cameras and a set of officials to regulate the same. A separate room in the stadium has to be called the 'VAR Room', where experienced referees regulate the game. The on-field referee can review the decision if the 'VAR officials cannot reach a consensus. This technological advancement has changed not only football but has considerably influenced the outcome of a football match. The VAR technology uses two sets of precise lines to determine the position of the defender and the attacker in live play. At first glance, one would think positively of this technological advancement, but somehow, there have been instances where VAR has intervened.


However, despite this post-match, controversies have risen regarding the decision made. When introduced, FIFA and UEFA, the major governing bodies, assured the fans that VAR would act promptly and quickly to make the decision. That has not been the case. There have been matches where VAR has taken more than 30 seconds to determine whether or not the attacker was offside. This is despite the drawing of precise lines and the use of the best camera angles.



Contemporary Existing Rules under IFAB Laws


Law 11 of the IFAB Laws of the Game 2023-24 defines the term 'offside'. Rule 11.1 states that a player is in an offside position if: any part of the head, body or feet is in the opponent's half (excluding the halfway line) and any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponent's goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent. This is the current rule which has been imposed. Apart from these, rules 11.2, 11.3 and 11.4 also elucidate on the same. Rule 11.2 defines an offside offence as, “A player in an offside position at the moment the ball is played” or “touched by a team-mate is only penalised on becoming involved in active play by: interfering with play by playing or touching a ball passed or touched by a team-mate or interfering with an opponent. The primary purpose of Rule 11.2 is to elaborate upon the position of the player and whether or not interference has been caused.


Further, Rule 11.3 touches upon the instances where there is ‘no offence’. This rule is in favour of the attacking team. Finally, Rule 11.4 prescribes for the after effects in case an offside occurs. If the referee blows the whistle for an offside then a free- kick will be given to the opposing team. Household names of the English Premier League, such as Peter Crouch and Arsene Wenger, have suggested changes to the current offside laws. They have termed the current rules as 'bizarre'.



Conclusion


Football has been people's favourite sport for a long time. Instances of respect and sportsmanship have been highlighted in many games. The sport symbolises unity and discipline for those who choose to follow it. History has taught us that evolution is a part of human beings. As complex psychological beings, we choose to improve the existing aspects of life. Its respective governing bodies have regulated sports as a discipline. So is the case with football. The sport has come a long way since Franz Beckenbauer and Dino Zoff graced the game with their imperious presence. The dawn of technology and its substantial impact on the game has been viewed as a double-sided sword. Like the two sides of a coin, VAR has also led to some fascinating thoughts and opinions on the offside. Various football pundits have pushed and advocated for novel rules and regulations regarding offside. The implementation of those is a question for the future.



*The Author is a legal scholar from India






(The Image used here is for representative purposes only)



References

 1) Pfsa. (2023, August 15). Football History: Everything you need to know. The PFSA. https://thepfsa.co.uk/football-history/

2) Nag, U. (2021, May 11). Offside in football: Rules and how they work. Olympics.com. https://olympics.com/en/news/offside-rule-football-history-referee-var


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