It’s a couple of months old now, but my attention was recently directed to this article by The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson, eulogising the current offside law, or more to the point the current interpretation of it. Before I get down to the serious business of slagging it off let me acknowledge: it’s an interesting article, and most of Wilson’s historical analysis is probably fair. In particular, I agree with him on the benefit of the changes in the mid-90s when the interpretation of “interfering with play” was relaxed. These changes addressed that part of the issue to most peoples’ satisfaction, as well as stressing that benefit of the doubt should go to attackers, but still failed to relieve all the frustration that all football fans have with offside decisions much of the time. Wilson is right in noting that something further was required, but goes badly wrong in his analysis of what the actual problem was and thus ends up applauding a cackhanded solution.

So, first up, what is the problem? The fairly simple truth is that offside is frustrating because linesmen (sorry, assistant refs) make too many mistakes with it. I’m not one, by and large, for criticising match officials, indeed I think we’re very lucky – at least here in Scotland – to have such good ones. But they make mistakes of course, and occasionally critical ones. And the most common source of serious errors is in the judgement of offsides. Judging offside is very tricky, and my own experience is that – rather perversely – linesmen are not actually in the best position to make those calls. The middle leagues of Scotland are a mixture of grounds, at some you can still stand at pitch level by the touchline, at some you’ll be up in the stands – and I can call them with much more confidence at those latter grounds, from further back and higher up with a wider angle of view where you’re more likely to be able to see both passer and receiver at the same time. From close to the pitch I find it much more difficult, even when I happen to be about in line with it. I don’t really know what the answer is to that – I’m not proposing putting linesmen up in the stands (keeping up with play would be a bit of a problem) and nor am I a proponent of video replays (not that we would have them at such levels of football anyway).

Furthermore, despite the injunctions on benefit of the doubt, the large majority of the errors continue to go in favour of the defending side. This is psychologically understandable – if you’re unsure and thus know that you might be about to make a mistake, it’s much safer to err on the side of caution, and in most scenarios that means putting your flag up. Although sometimes you’re flagging someone in the act of actually scoring, that’s the exception rather than the norm – in most cases it’s someone who is running onto a through ball. Flag up, play stops, no one will ever know whether it was a critical mistake, whether the attacking team would have made anything of the opportunity. The fans of the team concerned will swear at you a bit, but it’ll ultimately be forgotten. Make the other mistake, however, allow them to play on when it turns out you shouldn’t have, and it might result in a goal. Then your error is magnified and highlighted, you’ll get much more stick from fans, pundits, newspaper headlines and probably the assessors who are judging you. It’s a much less pleasant experience all round and might affect your career. Not that I imagine all of this goes through a linesman’s head in that split second he has to make his call, but it’s got to affect the mentality. Unless and until we have automata running the lines I can’t see how it could be otherwise and no amount of simply telling them to give the benefit of the doubt the other way is going to alter it.

This remains the frustration and the flaw in the offside law and again, I don’t really have any ideas as to how we can solve it. FIFA don’t have any ideas either. So instead, in 2005, they decided to ignore that bit of it and instead tackle a by now non-existent problem with the interpretation of “interfering with play”. This was entirely unnecessary – the 1995 change had worked. Gone were the days when a 35 five yard thunderbolt would fly into the top corner only to be chalked off for a teammate who was picking his nose in an offside position out on the touchline. A player who was in an offside position could trot back, make it clear he was not involving himself in play, without trouble, but would be penalised if they made themselves available for play before having returned to an onside position. It worked fine and the number of people I can recall having complained that it still wasn’t lax enough was precisely zero. Players were called off only when they were – like the law says – interfering with play.

Since I’m going to come to the interpretation of it in a moment (and since even a referee tried to tell me at one stage that the phrase “interfering with play” was no longer part of the laws) let’s take a moment to remind ourselves what the law actually says:

A player in an offside position is only penalised if, at the moment the ball touches or is played by one of his team, he is, in the opinion of the referee, involved in active play by:

  • interfering with play or
  • interfering with an opponent or
  • gaining an advantage by being in that position

With that in mind, now watch this clip of the Holland v Czech Republic game from Euro 2004, in particular the first two goals.

The second goal is the controversial one, which I’ll come to in a moment. To me it’s so obviously offisde in every possible sense of the wording of the law that it’s barely worth discussing. (It’s worth noting also that this took place a year before the change, so attempts to justify it are retrospective and the reality is that the linesman dropped a ricket.)

The more interesting and borderline case, in my reckoning, is the first goal, for which van Nistelrooy is standing in the six yard box and making himself available for play as the header comes in. To me, that’s offside – the ‘keeper has two players to think about rather than one and while there’s no way of knowing if that actually affected his behaviour, there’s a strong possibility of it doing so, even if it only means it takes him a split second longer to make a decision. I count that as interfering with play, or interfering with an opponent if you like. In that scenario though, I can at least see a reasonable case for disagreeing, and for allowing it to stand. FIFA have clarified this much by inserting the following interpretations into the laws:

  • “interfering with play” means playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a team-mate
  • “interfering with an opponent” means preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or movements or making a gesture ormovement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent

This is a bit dubious, and the second one in particular seems to ignore scenarios in which a forward affects a defender’s behaviour by his mere presence if he’s still attempting to involve himself in the game. But we’ll let that pass. The really absurd bit, the real piece of pure nonsense, is the interpretation of the third aspect – the “gaining an advantage” – by which FIFA are now trying to legitimise goals such as the second one. Under “definitions” the laws now say:

  • “gaining an advantage by being in that position” means playing a ball that rebounds to him off a goalpost or the crossbar having been in an offside position or playing a ball that rebounds to him off an opponent having been in an offside position

This is such a ludicrously restrictive definition of “gaining an advantage” as to be almost dishonest. It chooses to rule out a host of other methods by which a player gains an advantage by being offside, not least van Nistelrooy there where he actually scores from ten yards offside, having never got back onside or given the defending side any opportunity to catch him up. I defy anyone to try and argue that RvN has gained no advantage by being in an offside position in that scenario.

To some extent it’s this sheer dishonesty that irks me. If you want to make a fairly significant change to one of the major laws of the game, you don’t do so by sneaking in an extra sentence that effectively says “We define this phrase to mean something that a four year old child could tell you it doesn’t actually say”. If you want to make such a change, then do it properly – propose it and let’s have a proper debate about it.

And if such a debate ever comes the I’ll disagree with them – strongly. Not only was the change pointless, but it has an actively deleterious effect on the game. It relegitimises goalhanging of just the type that worked for the Dutch there, and thus threatens to undo a large part of the tactical beauty of the game that was the effect of the introduction of the law. (Or at least it would do if it was being applied consistently, but in practice it isn’t. I’ve seen more daft goals of the same type given over the past couple of seasons, but it’s always on telly. Up in our neck of the woods, linesmen seem to be a bit less avant-garde and are continuing to give such players offside. They do waste a few seconds of everyones’ time by waiting until players actually touch the ball before flagging, but they get there in the end.)

Wilson’s defence is firstly note that the number of offsides in Premier League games has declined – though it’s not clear what the cause of that is and he notes himself that it’s the continuation of a downward trend that was already occurring. He further claims that it opens the game out by forcing teams to defend more deeply. This is counterintuitive to me and not borne out by any evidence I can see. Whatever the cause of it, there was plenty of deep defending in the World Cup, and few commentators regarded this as being an inherently good thing. Here for example is – well look, it’s the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson lamenting the number of teams defending in depth against Spain. Perhaps he’s drawing some distinction there between defending deeply and actually playing defensively, but if so it would seem pretty naive not to expect one thing to lead to another. Inter’s success against Barcelona this season also didn’t help, and he notes here “it may be that the great creative boom of the past decade is drawing to a close”.

This analysis, to be fair, is based on events that have taken place since the earlier article under discussion, so it’s to be hoped he has now seen the error of his ways. If that’s so then now all we need to do is work on Sepp Blatter and perhaps we can have our offisde law back, just like it’s meant to be.