Offside In Soccer: Meaning, Rules & Origin

“Offside!”. Ever been at a sporting event and heard fans yell this word out? If so, it’s usually an indication that one of the players is somewhere they’re not supposed to be, or at least that the vocal fan in question hopes that they were.

The offside rules exist in a variety of sports, from American football to ice and field hockey, rugby, and, of course, soccer.

In general, these rules are meant to prevent one team from having an unfair advantage over the other based on the placement of players, and we’re going to break down what the offside rule means in soccer specifically.

What Is Offside Position?

In soccer, the offside is based on the positioning of the players on the field and where they are when the ball is kicked. The wordy official rule can be broken down like this. The player is in the offside position when:

  • She/he is in the opponent’s half of the field

AND

  • She/he is closer to the goal line than the ball

AND

  • She/he is closer to the goal line than the second-to-last opposing player, with the last defending usually being the goalkeeper

Now, for a player to be standing in this position is not, in and of itself, a penalty. This just places the player in the offside position, and so the player with the ball will need to keep into account where their players are relative to this rule.

Here’s an example of a player that’s in an offside position:

As you can see in the picture, the attacking player is in front of the defenders when the pass occurs.

When Does It Become A Penalty?

If a pass is made to the player in the offside position, then the line judge should call an offside offense by raising their flag vertically to alert the referee and then dropping it to a specified angle if and when the referee stops play. Any play that takes place after the pass that triggered the offside call will be nullified. 

This includes any scores made by the player who was in the offside position, which is why fans can be incredibly invested in whether the offside call was correct or not.

Fans of the opposing team will want the goal to be called back if the player was in the incorrect spot, and fans of the scoring team will be very upset if the goal is taken away when the player was, in fact, in a legal spot of play.

Now, the offside offense can be a little bit tricky because the play in question begins when the ball is passed, not when it is received. Consider the following example:

  • Player A has the ball near to the midline of the pitch
  • Player A passes the ball to Player B

This is the critical moment of consideration.

IF:

  • Player B is in an offside position when the ball is kicked, then the play should be ruled offside.

IF:

  • Player B is in a legal position when the ball is kicked but ignites on a burst of speed that puts her between the goalkeeper and the second-to-last defending player, this is a legal play and not an offense.

So the offside offense is dependent on two players and their positions at the moment where the ball is delivered. It is not a foul specifically against the kicker of the ball or the receiver of the ball, as they’re considered in tandem and used to determine whether or not the foul was committed.

What Happens After An Offside Call?

As mentioned above, any play resulting from a pass deemed an offside will be called back. Play will be stopped by the referee, and the ball will be placed at the place where the offside player received the ball, and the opponent has an opportunity to take an indirect free kick.

Since these calls are fairly high stakes, in regards to potentially taking scores away, and so they can be quite controversial calls. With the adoption of the virtual assistant referee (VAR), these calls can be clarified, but that doesn’t necessarily satisfy fans. 

However, given the fast pace of soccer and the specific combination of the player position and the initiation of the kick, this can be a hard call to get right on the field, and there have certainly been instances where on-field referees have gotten it wrong, much to the dismay of fans around the world.

Exceptions to The Offside Rule

There are some exceptions to the offside rule:

  • A players positioning during a goal kick, a corner kick, or a throw-in is not considered in the offside call. 

Additionally, if two players make a breakaway, and there are no defenders between two offensive players and the goalkeeper, the player with the ball can pass the ball forward and the other player can run to catch up with it. Since the two offensive players are technically behind the ball, they’re exempt from an offside call.

Has It Always Been This Way?

First introduced in 1863, the offside rule was originally even more strict, dictating that the attacking player had to be behind three players, usually two on the field and the goalkeeper. It remained that way until 1925, when the rule changed to drop from three defending players to two defending players. 

In 1990, the rule was updated to state that if the attacking player was level to the defensive player, they were not offside. 

The origin of the rule was predicated on the fact that players had been hanging around the goal, just waiting for the ball to come into play. Despite the controversy around the calls, the rule has fulfilled its intended purpose, as we don’t see players chatting with the goalkeeper as they wait for the ball. 

Well, not unless it’s the youth five and under league, anyway. 

Can Teams Use The Offside Rule To Their Advantage?

Certainly, and some teams do. In the early 20th century, Nottingham team Notts County began a style of play that included the offside trap, which is a risky defensive move that depends on the accurate timing and a coordinated effort by the defense to drop back away from their own goal just before the one attacking player passes the ball to the other.

The player, if the offside trap was executed correctly, will be stranded between the second-to-last defender and the goalie and be called offside. However, now that the rules have updated interpretations that mean that only players who are active in the play can be called offside, using an offside trap is even riskier. 

The attacking player could simply not make a play on the ball if she sees the defending team initiate the offside trap. Then the defenders have fallen back and would not get the call, leaving the goalkeeper vulnerable if another member of the attacking team charges forward to get the ball.

So the next time you hear someone yell that a player is offside, have a look for yourself. It’s a subtle call. If any part of a player’s head, body, or feet has gone past a defending player when the ball is kicked to them…It’s a tough call, but between the line judges, referees, and VAR, hopefully erroneous offside calls will fade into obscurity.

Connor Smith

I'm Connor, the guy behind SoccerPrime. I'm a former NCAA Div 1 college player that retired at the age of 21 due to injuries - which led me into a new career as a soccer coach.

Recent Posts