A Parent’s Guide to Core Positions and Rules – Part 4 “The Offside Rule – Explained

Learn About the Offside Rule

Without a doubt, the offside rule is the most misunderstood of the 17 laws of soccer. In fact, a memorable scene in the 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham used condiments in a café to illustrate how the offside rule works: “Don’t tell me. The offside rule is when the French mustard has to be between the teriyaki sauce and the sea salt.”

Because they are guided by their coaches and integrate the offside concept into their play, youth soccer players usually understand the idea and execution of this rule more quickly than parents and other spectators. It’s important for families to understand how offside works when they help their young players, as well as when they’re watching a match.

Although families are urged to shout encouragement — not instructions — being clear about when offside is in play is important so young players don’t receive confusing, contradictory input during a practice or game. Spectators who understand the offside rule will also be able to understand the flag signals made by the referees in these instances. Consequently, the talented and experienced coaches in the Northeast Rush league are committed to ensuring that the players and their families understand this crucial rule.

What It Means to Be Offside

Law 11 of the FIFA Laws of the Game covers the offside rule. In U6-U10 play, offside is not penalty that is called. From U12-U19, Law 11 states that a player is offside when they are in the opponent’s half of the field, closer to the goal than both the ball and the second-to-last defender (the goalkeeper or sometimes another defender), and are involved in the play.

A player can only be called for being offside if they are actively involved in the play. Active play can mean receiving the ball, having an advantage over the defender by being in the offside position, or interfering with a defender. A defender cannot be called offside, and offside can only occur with the offense on the attacking side of the soccer field.

It’s not against the offside rule for a player to wait by the goal in an offside position as long as the ball isn’t near them. The three key components of committing an offside offense include:

  1. Being in the offside position, although being in this position alone is not an offense.
  2. Being actively involved in the play.
  3. Timing: The key moment for establishing offside is the moment when the ball is played to the player who may be offside — not at the moment that they receive the pass. If that player is in an offside position at the moment the ball is played and then becomes involved in active play, an offside offense occurs.

When all these conditions are met, the assistant referee will blow the whistle to stop play, signaling the offside by holding the flag straight up without waving it. When the center referee sees the flag signal, the assistant referee lowers the flag to the near, center, or far position, depending where the offside offense occurred on the field.

The defending team is then awarded an indirect free kick from the position of the offside infraction, as described in Law 11.4. Also, if the ball is played to a point behind the defender, the ball’s position becomes the offside line. The ball can’t be played deeper into the offensive zone by an attacking player, and the attackers must remain behind the ball.

Why There Is an Offside Rule

The offside rule helps ensure fair play and encourages an exciting game with more open, balanced, and fluid attacking play. This rule is intended to discourage attackers from having an unfair advantage over the defenders by camping out near the goal and waiting for a pass, which could occur when the attackers are in an offside position at the time the ball is played to them. Also known as “goal hanging,” this practice was determined to be unsportsmanlike and contributed to a tedious game.

Offside Position Versus Offside Offense

There is a difference between an attacker being in an offside position without the offense being called and being in an offside position when the offense is called. As described above, the following key factors determine whether an offside infraction is called:

  1. Being in the offside position
  2. Being actively involved in the play
  3. Having a receiving player offside who remains actively involved in the play at the moment the ball is passed to them

Examples of Being Offside

As described in Law 11, an attacking player is in an offside position if they are closer to the defender’s goal line than both the ball and the second-to-last defender. A common example occurs when the attacker is standing beyond the second-to-last defender when their teammate passes the ball to them. When the attacker in the offside position is in active play — they run to the ball before it’s played or interfere with the defender — an offside penalty occurs, and referees will stop play.

In another example, the ball doesn’t need to be played forward for it to be called offside. This rule applies no matter which direction the ball is played. Importantly, the parts of the attacker’s body that are allowed to touch the ball are also considered to be either onside or offside. These are the head, legs, and trunk, including the shoulders. A player’s arms cannot be considered offside, as a field player isn’t allowed to touch the ball with their arms beyond the shoulders.

The defense can set an offside trap by creating a high defensive line, farther away from their goal. This formation can catch the onrushing attackers in an offside position when they are moving toward the goal. The high defensive line and offside trap strategy can also leave the defensive goal exposed if the attackers remain onside and push through the back line.

Examples of Not Being Offside

When a player is in an offside position but is not involved in active play, such as when they intend to go for the ball, an offside infraction will not be called, and play can continue. This is also known as the “passive rule” of offside, and it can occur in these situations:

  • The player is not near the ball.
  • The player isn’t blocking the defender’s view of the ball.
  • The player is in an offside position but doesn’t attempt to move or reach the ball.

Exceptions to the Rule: The three exceptions to the offside rule that prevent the referee from calling an offside offense include:

  • Throw-in
  • Goal kick
  • Corner kick

A player cannot be called offside for the following reasons:

  • The player is positioned in their own half of the field (near their goalkeeper).
  • The player is level with or behind the second-to-last defender.
  • The player is in an offside position and isn’t involved in active play — not near the ball and not blocking the defenders’ view of the ball.
  • The player (attacker) receives the pass when they are not in an offside position and continues play toward the goal.
  • The player is in an offside position when the ball is passed but moves out of the way of the ball’s path or moves away from a defender.
  • Responsibility of the Referee

As with the other laws of the game, referees and assistant referees are responsible for signaling and enforcing the offside rule consistently, clearly, and in a timely manner. The assistant referees are positioned on either sideline in opposite halves of the field and should adjust their positioning (aligned with the last defender) to have a clean view of the onside/offline line.

The assistant referee’s primary responsibility is to notice and flag an offside offense. The center (or main) referee moves all around the field. After seeing the offside infringement flag, they would then enforce the decision.

Although the offside rule may sometimes be difficult to call, it is not subjective and is clearly defined by Law 11.

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