The Offside Rule in Football Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Offside Rule in Football

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Offside - Infraction in which an attacking player is closer to his opponents' goal line than both the ball and the second last defender when the ball is played by a member of the attacking team.


The offside rule was first introduced by the English Football Association in 1863. It stated that 'any player in front of the kicker was offside and unable to play the ball'. This largely resulted in lots of dribbling by the players. It was changed in 1868 to 'an attacking player must have three players between him and the goal line when the ball was last played (by a team-mate)'. This worked better, but as the game evolved it was changed again in 19251. The law hasn't changed drastically since that time, although it has been 'interpreted' differently at different times.

Often used as final proof that there is a vast and unconquerable difference between the sexes, the offside rule has long been considered (by men) to be incomprehensible to women.

The Rule Explained

The rule is only thought to be complicated because a player can be in an offside position, without actually being offside. To be in an offside position means that there are less than two members of the other team between you and their goal when you are in their half of the pitch, at the precise moment that a member of your team plays the ball, if you are ahead of the ball at that moment. Note that if you are level with the second last defender, you are not offside.

You can only be offside at the instant the ball is touched, and only if you then actively participate in the play. This means:

  • Gaining an advantage by being in an offside position. For example, if the goalkeeper or other players are distracted by your position, then that could be counted as gaining an advantage.

  • Interfering with play, ie, you intercept or receive the ball.

  • Interfering with an opponent.

To sum up, an attacking player is deemed offside if he is ahead of the ball and the second last defender (including the goal keeper) and in the opponent's half of the field when the pass is played, and he is actively involved in play. It's also worth pointing out that if the ball comes from an opposing player, the offside rule does not apply.

There is also one other condition that must be met - You are only offside if the referee blows his whistle. If he doesn't, then you are not offside. The call is normally made by the assistant referees, but remains the referee's decision.


The offside rule is suspended when a player receives the ball via:

  • A goal kick
  • A throw-in
  • A corner kick

Without the offside rule, there is nothing to stop players standing in front of the rival goal, and waiting for the ball. It forces them to get behind the ball, and build up an attack. It is also one reason for the low scores of football matches.

1The total number of goals scored in a season increased by nearly 50% in the first season under the new rule.

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