Offside explained – a FAQ

What comes to mind when the offside rule is explained?

It is an “invention of the devil[1]Schmal, Felix: Die Achillesferse des Fussballs. In: Deutsche Schiedsrichter-Zeitung 10/1924 (May 1924), pp. 45-46., the “notorious monster[2]Schmal, Felix: Die Achillesferse des Fussballs. In: Deutsche Schiedsrichter-Zeitung 10/1924 (May 1924), pp. 45-46., the “child of sorrow[3]Rosenberger, Simon/Hofschneider, Alwin: Der Schiedsrichter Stuttgart 1923. p. 58. Also: Rosenberger/Hofschneider 1930, p. 48. Also: Kuhlmann, Fritz: Abseits. In: Oldenburger Zeitung für Volk und … Continue reading:

The offside rule was already a football rule 100 years ago that often led to discussions.

In 1924, the German journalist Felix Schmal thought that the rule was only there to “drive players to despair, incite spectators to scandals and give referees a beating.[4]Schmal, Felix: Die Achillesferse des Fussballs. In: Deutsche Schiedsrichter-Zeitung 10/1924 (May 1924), pp. 45-46.. And somehow one would like to agree with him in a way.

“The key law”

Fear game isn’t ready for change to key law” was the headline of the Evening Express in 1989 and still hits the nail on the head: the offside rule is the key rule of the game of football, the linchpin of the rulebook. (And not Rule 12, handball and fouls, as many referees also think). The unnamed author summed it up in this article: “Offside has always been a much debated and unpopular tactic, yet from its very inception in the earliest years of the game. It has been one of soccer’s fundamental features.[5]NN: Rule it offside! Fear game isn’t ready for change to key law. In: Evening Express (29.04.1989). S. 18.

The offside rule an unpopular tactic? Two parameters collide here: on the one hand, any change to the offside rule has an immediate impact on the tactics of the game and, on the other hand, an offside rule also allows for an offside trap. In the 1920s, when this quote was written, the offside trap was highly unpopular, even unfair, and not a sign of a skillful, considered system of play as it is today.

It was also clear to Sir Stanley Rous that the offside rule was the “lesson in the history of the development of the laws[6]Rous, Sir Stanley/Ford, Donald: A history of the laws of association football. Zurich, 1974[?] P. 54.. And yet so many questions remain unanswered.

A FAQ explaining the offside rule

Not only the text of the rule, but also the background. What is the purpose of the offside rule? Why and when was it invented? And what would happen if we didn’t have an offside rule?

Offside ExplainedI’m Petra Tabarelli, a football historian who writes for the DFB referee newspaper and works for The IFAB as an expert on the development of the Laws of the Game. A woman who not only knows the offside rule, but also its history and significance. Reason enough to clear up all the assumptions and nostalgic transfigurations.

A guest contribution? A podcast interview? An expert talk on TV? Or a lecture for referees? Feel free to write to me via 📩 Mail – 🔗 LinkedIn – 🐦 Twitter or jump to the About me or Work with me.

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Since when has there been an offside rule?

Answer

“Always”, because there is an offside rule in (almost) all football rules from the 19th century. The exception is the Sheffield FC rules of 1858, but they dispensed with an offside rule as a deliberate opposition to the London clubs.

Most early football rules in England (until about 1850) knew a very strict offside: any person between the ball and the opponent’s goal was offside and thus out of the game. A combination play was hardly possible in this way. Instead, the ball was driven towards the opponent’s goal as a funnel-shaped crowd.

Strict offside existed at schools in Rugby, Harrow, Shrewsbury and Uppingham, for example. It was also adopted by the London FA in 1863, from which the national, English FA was formed in the late 1870s – which also has to do in part with the offside rule (1866, 1877).

Did all English public schools used to have the strict offside rule? No. One school did not cease to be deliberately contrary to the way rugby was played and is therefore one of the origins of the game of football in England: Eton College with its Eton Field Game. It was physical, however, but unlike the rugby style of play, almost all hand play was forbidden and the offside rule was more open: Offside is all between the ball and the opponent’s goal, unless at least three opponents are closer to their own goal line at the moment of the clearance.

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Who invented the offside rule?

Answer

The inventor of the offside rule in unknown, because the offside rule is part of all early football rules and it is impossible to say who wrote down the very first modern football rules.

Thomas Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby School was long considered the inventor of the rules of football and rugby, but this is now very much disputed and widely considered to be disproved. This is because the Rugby School rules are not the very first football rules.

It is quite possible that the inventor of the offside rule in football took the idea from other sports and adapted it to the game of football.

But claims that offside was invented at Eton are just as hare-brained as those that the rule was invented in London in 1863.

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Why does the offside rule exist? Why was it introduced?

Answer

Let’s go back very briefly to Eton College and its three-man offside: in the college’s football rules, the word sneaking was used: Someone sneaking into an advantageous position at goal. Meaning what to this day is derogatorily referred to as “loitering in front of the goal”.

Waiting at the goalpost until a long ball reaches you – that’s neither fair, nor nice to watch from a playful point of view. That’s why the offside rule was important. But is it still up to date? Does it still make sense today?

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Should the offside rule be abolished? Does it still make sense today?

Answer

Derek Dougan formulated as early as 1973 that the concern about loitering was no longer justified, no longer in keeping with the times. Numerous other sports had already abolished the offside rule by then and it showed: despite all cultural pessism, a very offensive, fast combination game and new tactics emerged after a few months – similar to Chapman’s famous World Cup system back in 1925.

Now it is by no means the case that there have never been football rules without offside. For that, we only need to travel back to the founding days of Sheffield FC, because there was no offside rule in the club’s internal rules from 1858. One can speculate about the reasons: Was it because the founders were not at public schools? Were they not only anti-rugby, like Eton College, but also anti-gentlemen, even though the were entrepreneurs? One does not know.

Discussion about abolishing the offside rule is not a phenomenon of recent decades. It was an issue at the London FA as early as 1866. There have been further discussions in 1922 in England, 1943 in the USA, 1990 in Germany and England, 2009 in Germany, 2010 by the then FIFA president Sepp Blatter and 2021 in England. There have also been several test matches without offside, namely in 1956, 1965, 1972 (2x), 1973 and 1987.

And yet most referees today do not want the offside rule to be abolished either – they feel the same as most people. Hidden in the offside rule is a moral component that is closely intertwined with gentlemanly ideals: gaining an unfair advantage, for it is precisely to prevent this that rules exist in football in the first place. Despite all the experiences of football on the football pitch, the vast majority of football fans, players and officials fear a simple kick and rush from the defender to the attack.

What would a game look like without offside – and without loitering in front of the goal? Similar to the change from three-man offside to two-man offside in 1925, only intensified: At first, it will certainly be considerably higher-scoring until new defensive tactics have emerged. In the long run, the game will become even more dynamic and faster in width and depth. And discussions about offside would no longer exist.

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Since when “When in doubt, give the accused the benefit of the doubt?”

Answer

There was and there isn’t.

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When did offside not apply in the past? And how is it today?

Answer

Same level

  • Until 1990: offside
  • Since 1990: no offside

Ball comes from opponent

  • 1863-1882, FA: Offside
  • 1882-today, FA: No offside
  • Also in Germany always: No offside

Back pass

  • 1863, FA: No offside (because it is player in front of the ball)

Kick

  • 1863-1873, FA: no rule
  • 1873-1920, FA: Offside
  • 1920-today: No offside
  • In Germany, on the other hand, there was no offside 1905-1921, then 1921-? offside, and from 1927 at the latest, no offside again.

Throw-in

  • 1863-1879, FA: no regulation
  • 1879-1920, FA/IFAB: offside
  • Since 1920: IFAB: No offside

Dropped ball

  • 1923: No offside. Must have been changed later, however, because in
  • 1986 it was demanded that no offside was possible.

Corner kick

  • It was never discussed in the FA or the Laws of the Game and was therefore never addressed in them. In Germany, it has been addressed in the rules, but with “no offside” in each case, as in 1905, 1927, 1929.

Own half

  • Until 1907: Offside position possible
  • Since 1907: no offside possible

Free kick

  • An offside position is possible at a free kick.
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Which type of offside applied when?

Answer

Strict offside

  • Most public schools
  • London FA 1863-1866

“at least three opponents” offside

  • From 1847: Eton Field Game
  • From at least 1856: Cambridge University FC
  • 1866-1925: London FA/Laws of the Game

“at least two opponents” offside

  • Until 1886: Scotland (exception: Queen’s Park around 1870)
  • 1867-1877: Sheffield FA
  • Since 1925: International (FIFA members)
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Experiments on the offside rule

Answer

“at least two opponents” offside before 1925

  • Early February 1925: Arsenal FC, some friendlies in London [only one half].
  • 30 March 1925: unknown amateur team against unknown professional team [only one half].
  • 11 April 1925: Rugby Town Reserves v Warwick Town [only one half].
  • May 1925: unknown amateur team vs. unknown professional team.

No offside

  • November or December 1956: Partizan Belgrade v Crvena Zvezda Belgrade
  • 1965: Feyenoord Rotterdam v Alkmaar [experiment without FIFA permission].
  • 1971: Watney Cup
  • 1972: Anglo Italian Cup
  • 1972: Metropolitan London League
  • 1987: Senior Competition Season

Offside only 40 yards in front of the goal

  • 10 January 1925: Amateur teams of the West Riding County Association and the Staffordshire Football Association
  • 31 January 1925: Clapton Orient v Wolverhampton Wanderers
  • 31 January 1925: Arsenal v Chelsea
  • 31 January 1925: Charlton v Luton
  • Early February 1925: Arsenal FC, some friendlies in London [only one half].
  • 7 February: St Johnstone v Cowdenbeath
  • 18 March 1925: Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic (professional team) v Bournemouth [F. C.] (amateur team)
  • 30 March 1925: unknown amateur team v. unknown professional team [only one half].
  • 11 April 1925: Rugby Town Reserves v Warwick Town [one half only].

Offside only 35 yards in front of the goal

  • 1978-1981: Unknown league in the USA [Unauthorised experiment by FIFA which was carried out for several years despite repeated admonitions]

Offside only 30 yards in front of the goal

  • 18 March 1925: Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic (professional team) v Bournemouth [F. C.] (amateur team).

Offside only 18 yards in front of goal (= also to the sides of the penalty area)

  • 1965: Netherlands, Feyenoord Rotterdam v Alkmaar (friendly match)
  • 1972: Unknown teams in Scotland
  • 1973/74: Scottish League Cup
  • 1973/74: Dryborough Cup
  • 1991: U17 World Cup
  • 1992: Unknown teams in Finland
  • 1992: unknown teams in Sweden

Offside only in the two outer thirds of the pitch

  • 1949: Friendly matches in England, just before the 1949/50 season

Same level

  • 1990: unknown teams in Chile

Daylight Offside

  • March 2021: Chinese 3rd league
  • April 2022: Italian U18 championship

SAOT (semi-automatic offside technology)

  • 30 November to 18 December 2021: Arab Cup
  • January 2022: FIFA Club World Cup
  • 10 August 2022: UEFA Super Cup
  • Season 2022/23: UEFA Champions League
  • November and December 2022: World Cup (m)

Offside only in the outer thirds of the pitch

  • Immediately before the opening match of the 1949/50 season: friendly match in England

No offside when free kick

  • 1968: Unknown teams, FIFA test
  • 1987: Test during Senior Competition Season 1987/88 in England

Offside only in penalty area

  • 1971: Unknown teams in England
  • 1972: Unknown teams in Northern Ireland
  • 1973-1975: Scottish League Cup
  • 1973-1975: Dryborough Cup

Offside only outside the penalty area

  • 1972: Unknown teams in England
  • Offside only inside the goal area
  • Before 1975: in England (friendly match)

Unknown regulations

  • 17 March 1925: England v Scotland
  • 20 April 1925: Hearth & Co. v Symington & Co.
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References

References
1, 2, 4 Schmal, Felix: Die Achillesferse des Fussballs. In: Deutsche Schiedsrichter-Zeitung 10/1924 (May 1924), pp. 45-46.
3 Rosenberger, Simon/Hofschneider, Alwin: Der Schiedsrichter Stuttgart 1923. p. 58. Also: Rosenberger/Hofschneider 1930, p. 48. Also: Kuhlmann, Fritz: Abseits. In: Oldenburger Zeitung für Volk und Heimat (13.11.1923.) S. 7.
5 NN: Rule it offside! Fear game isn’t ready for change to key law. In: Evening Express (29.04.1989). S. 18.
6 Rous, Sir Stanley/Ford, Donald: A history of the laws of association football. Zurich, 1974[?] P. 54.