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Law 11: When is offside, onside?

The offside law is a feature of the game that has been the cause of tears of joy and pain, a topic that has provoked hours of conversation in front rooms, bars, cafes and public houses all over the world. The law has been changed on numerous occasions and the shape of the game has had to adapt to meet the latest changes. Every facet of the law has not always been clear, and the changes have often muddied the waters further. Against Arsenal, the officials made a decision that sparked rounds of discussion regarding Louis Saha’s goal. But were they correct?

Exhibit A: The goal

On Wednesday night, Seamus Coleman ran at a retreating Arsenal back line looking to play in Louis Saha. When Saha was finally played in he was a few yards offside, he took the ball on and scored regardless. The matter was complicated because on it’s way through to Saha it had been intentionally played by Arsenal centre back, Laurent Koscielny.

Referee, Lee Mason, gave the goal but only after conferring with his linesman for some time. The Arsenal players were up in arms over the decision and, allegedly, protested the decision right into the dressing room at half time, allegedly. Were they right to feel aggrieved?

Laws of the game

The offence that is offside in the FIFA Laws of the Game is described as follows:

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

The document also provides some clarification on some of the above bullet points.

In the context of Law 11 – Offside, the following definitions apply:

  • “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 or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent.
  • “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

Notice that there is no mention made toward back passes or interventions from defensive players. As well as the above clarifications there are a number of pictorial examples with the aim of assisting with the officials interpretations of the law. Here are the 2 relevant examples I could find.

9. An attacker in an offside position (A) runs towards the ball preventing the opponent (B) from playing or being able to play the ball. (A) is making a gesture or movement which deceives or distracts (B).

12. The shot by a team-mate (A) rebounds off an opponent to attacker (B) who is penalised for playing the ball having previously been in an offside position.

While neither of the above examples describe the situation precisely, there is a prevailing feeling that the decision made by the officials is based on interpretation and gut feeling rather than defined boundaries. Example 12 is the closest example though, when Coleman plays the ball forward, it is a pass rather than a shot. Does this detail make any difference to the assistant? In my opinion it shouldn’t.

Then throughout the FIFA document it is made clear a number of times that playing the ball or inhibiting a defender from playing the ball, but there is the occasional sporadic mention of “distracting” play. No clear definition is applied to the term, and it must be here where the law needs addressing.

A player in an offside position is not committing an offence if he is latching onto a ball played by a player on the opposite team, however in this case the ball has only been played in an attempt to stop Saha getting to the ball.  Had Koscielny’s flailing attempt spun back to the goalkeeper, he would have been allowed to pick the ball up without having to worry about conceding an indirect free kick for a back pass. Saha, in an offside position, is gaining an advantage by being closer to the goal and is distracting the defender.

The goal should not have stood, and the law requires tweaking. This occurs on such an infrequent basis that I’m sure FIFA will avoid any sort of clarification, ensuring that this grey area will live on, providing much banter for the masses in the coffee houses worldwide.

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