STANLEY LOVER (England) lives in Paris and has been interested in the Laws of the Game for decades. He has written several books on the subject as well as on other topics.
The purpose of each rule previously covered in this series is clear. The components needed to start play (Laws 1 to 4); control (Laws 5 and 6); procedures governing the ball in and out of play, timing etc. (Laws 7 to 10, 13 to 17); all contribute to understanding the desired conduct of play. Just two more complete the scenario. Law 12, which prescribes physical and moral disciplines, will be examined in the final article. Here, we look at Law 11 (Offside) and explain why it is the most brilliant of all seventeen laws.
As written, Law 11 blandly sets down the elements to judge players liable to be in an offside decision. It gives no clue as to its purpose so, why is it there? The first point to make is that it is the only law which relates to the positions of players when the ball is in play. It is concerned with the tactics or strategy of play. Morally, to be offside is a form of cheating. Kids understand this in their fun games. They do not like the one who just stands close to the goalkeeper waiting to score easy goals. They know nothing of the offside law but to them this attitude is not fair play. The Eton College offside rule of 1862 shared this philosophy viz. "A player is considered to be 'sneaking' when only three or less opponents are before him..." In those days 'sneaking' was undesirable social behaviour committed by mean and worthless people. Offside is for fair-play!
Morals apart, the law of Offside has an enormous influence on practical play. How so? Because its presence has shaped the game into the exciting world sport we enjoy today. Let's see how...
Football is a team game where the efforts of a group of individuals are combined to achieve an objective. This definition applies to many other activities e.g., business, politics, medicine etc. Each player is expected to contribute personal skills and help develop a team spirit, a feeling of pride, loyalty and comradeship which enables people to work well together. The concept of team-work and 'offside' is not modern. Back-track two thousand years when Roman generals organised games of "harpastrum", a form of mock battle to train soldiers in disciplined warfare. Equal forces attempted to capture a target by moving a ball to and behind the enemy base line, employing physical strength and tactics to outwit opponents. A basic strategy was for unity in advancing behind the ball. Any soldier stranded in front of it was considered off-the-strength of his unit (off-the-side/offside), out of the battle (out-of-play), until returning behind the ball.
Fast forward to the 19th century. Several English schools developed a rugby/football game from its ancestor, a rough street version of "harpastrum". It retained Roman principles by including a rule that players combine to advance behind the ball. Specifically, the 1856 Cambridge Rules stated, "No player is allowed to loiter between the ball and the adversaries' goal".
At Uppingham School a player was "...out-of-play immediately he is in front of the ball and must return behind the ball as soon as possible" (1860).
Because a player could not receive the ball from a forward pass, a basic tactic was to obtain possession and pierce defences by dribbling the ball in chevron or diagonal formations. Some players became famous for their dribbling skills. One, Reverend Vidal, scored three goals without opponents touching the ball in a match where the side winning a goal also restarted play in the centre of the field! Impossible today, but we can name many stars whose artistry on the football stage has had us jumping from our seats.
A personal favorite is a man who became a legend in his own time as a player and, later,as an ambassador for the game world-wide. Crowned The Wizard of the Dribble, Sir Stanley Matthews thrilled us during 34 years as a professional, from 16 to 50 years of age, with Stoke City, Blackpool and England. Lean in physique, quicksilver in action, idolised by millions, Stan remained a shy, modest man.
Stan was a winger who knew how to play to the offside law. His role was to take the ball past the defence to the goalline so that supporting teammates could not be offside. A precise centre to the head of "Dixie" Dean or Tommy Lawton had defences in panic every time.
The early dribbling game was not effective for long. Defences countered by descending en masse to smother the player in possession. A more flexible version of offside, favoured by Charterhouse School and the colleges of Eton and Westminster, required any player to have at least three opponents (i.e., four or more) between him and the their goal line to avoid being "out-of-the-play". The Football Association adopted this version in 1867. A brilliant decision which opened up the game.
Until 1907 a player could be offside anywhere on the field, even a few metres from his own goal line as applies in the game of rugby today. A 1907 law change limited offside to the opponents' half. Goal-kicks and corner-kicks have been exempted from offside since their inception (1863 and 1873) but a player could be offside from a throw-in until 1921. Originally the ball was thrown-in at right angles to the touch-line and any player on the wrong side of the ball was offside. From 1880 the ball could be thrown in any direction, providing openings for attacking moves, but still subject to offside limitations. The 1921 change has allowed attackers to be goalside of opponents at throw-ins.
A thinking man's game
The foregoing law changes all favoured attacking play. Skilful dribblers found more space, combined passing raids on goal could be planned. Players ahead of the ball had to think intelligently about seeking space to receive the ball and reading positions and movements of opponents. More exposed defences were forced to invent counter measures which included the beginnings of tight man-marking still to be seen in modern football. Football had graduated to a thinking man's game.
Not all tactical thinking was positive. The offside trap, whereby defenders simply stepped forward to leave attackers in offside positions, was perfected to stifle long forward passes and squeeze play into midfield. Quite legal, but unpopular, it provoked many stoppages and blocked the fluidity of play. Billy McCracken, a Newcastle United full-back, was a master of this move and largely responsible for a change of just one word of football law which sparked a revolution in tactical thinking. The change, adopted June 1925, required 'two' instead of 'three' opponents, between a player in an offside position and the goalline, to avoid infringing the rule.
Attacking players could now be even more adventurous, exploiting gaps in opposing defences with lethal effect. The immediate outcome was to increase goals scored in the Football League from 4700 to 6373 in one season!
How to plug leaking defences was the next challenge. Enter Herbert Chapman who became manager of Arsenal in the same year as the offside law change. A clever tactician, Chapman retreated his centre-half in between the traditional two full-backs. They linked, via two half-backs and two inside-forwards, to two raiding wingers and a strong agile centre-forward (the so-called WM formation).
Chapman's success with Arsenal is legendary. He provided a football crazy public with teams of highly talented players with specialist skills, Alex James, Ted Drake, Cliff Bastin, Eddie Hapgood, to mention a few. He led the revolution of tactical innovation, inspiring following generations to devise an exciting game which combines individual skills with intelligent team play.
In our theatre context we marvel at the performances of the dribblers, their balance, control, daring challenges and swift juggling acts with the ball which mesmerise opponents. We explode at the power of a thunderous shot or a headed ball compressed by bony skull, zooming in on target. We are absorbed by the subtle play of the 'midfield generals', receiving, controlling, stroking the ball to turn defence into attack. Flying wingers, over-lapping backs, curling corner-kicks, long throws, slick one-two passing moves, all make up the ebb and flow of our play The Match. Great theatre, this!
"Offside? Who? Me?"
So, why does Offside cause such discord amongst players and audiences? A Match will be stopped by the referee on average six times to apply the offside law (World Cup analyses 1974 - 98). The ball is transferred to opponents, turning the tide of play. There will be groans and maybe protests from the attacking team; sighs of relief from defenders. The law is not difficult and yet how can experienced professionals be called for twenty offsides, as were England against Kuwait (WC 1982)?
How can a high goalscoring international be caught eight times in another match? One or two are acceptable - but eight? Is the law so complex? How can we help players to adapt their game to the law?
The following could be a typical pre-match discussion;
Player: "How can I avoid an offside call?"
Referee: "If you are goalside of the ball I have to consider just two things. First, your position. You are in an offside position if you have less than two opponents between you and their goal-line (fact). Second, if the ball is played in your direction by a teammate, are you involved in active play or gaining an advantage from your offside position?" (opinion).
A 1990 change exempts players level with the the second last or the last two defenders. A major concession on paper but very difficult to judge with precision in fast moving play. Listen to your coach...Coach: "We kill a chance to score and give the ball away every time we're off-side.When you are ahead of the ball keep a sharp eye on defenders - have at least two between you and their goal-line. If you can't avoid being in an offside position get back behind the ball quickly or move out of the play zone to show the ref you are not influencing play or gaining an advantage."
Applying the law
One source of dispute is that offside judgements start at the moment the ball is played. Match officials concentrate on this moment whereas others tend to follow the movement of the ball. The nearest assistant referee judges when a player should be penalised for offside and signals to the referee. However, the referee may have a different opinion of the next active playing zone and whether an advantage is gained. He may overrule the assistant. A rare situation but within the true spirit of the law. Offside judgements can be complicated when opposing players switch positions rapidly or an assistant is caught out of line. Also, TV replays of big game incidents tend to magnify negative aspects of interpretation, adding to offside controversy.
To change or not to change? That is often the question. Offside controversy has provoked many suggestions to change the law or even scrap it. Experiments for change have included limiting offsides to the penalty-areas (Watney Mann Cup 1971), or within a line across the field at 18 yards (FIFA U-17 World Championship 1991, Scottish League Cup 1973), or up to 35 yards from goal (NASL-USA 1968 - 84). The International Board were not convinced that the game would benefit from any of these ideas.
The trend of changes over 150 years is to encourage attack and goalscoring. Each change moves closer to the death of the offside law. Mercifully, this is not on the immediate horizon. What would become of those exciting dribblers, intelligent midfield generals, overlapping backs, the beauty of the game as we enjoy it today? Who knows, but the possibility of foot-ball becoming a series of ping pong, up-and-under rushes from end to end, with basketball scores, etc., would turn traditionalists in their graves.
A more positive way forward would be to help the football world appreciate the vital role and effect of the offside law, to show that the Game of Football is better with it. To reduce errors of judgement and controversy is a constant goal for match officials. New methods of supervision may be necessary. The current trials with two referees could point the way. We shall see...