Why is football knowledge measured by the offside rule?

Sian Massey No explanation required - Sian Massey called it right

The row over remarks made by Sky Sports presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray about female assistant referee Sian Massey centres on the offside rules. But why is the offside law such a benchmark of football knowledge?

If you Google "explaining offside rule to women" you will find a widely circulated "amusing" explanation about two women in a shoeshop, having forgotten their purses, battling for the same pair of shoes.

It might not raise too many smiles among female football fans. But it's a reflection of the widely held belief that the offside rule is something that is not really easily understood by those uninitiated in football.

"It's the old joke about moving HP sauce bottles around the kitchen table," says Jeff Winter, former Premiership referee.

As written in the FA's Laws of the Game, Law 11 on offside is fairly brief at about 200 words.

"A player is in an offside position if he is nearer to his opponents' goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent," the law says.

You can't be adjudged offside

  • If in your own half
  • If not interfering with play
  • If not interfering with an opponent
  • If not gaining an advantage

It says a player is not in an offside position if he is in his own half, level with the second-last opponent or level with the last two opponents.

It's not an offence in itself to be offside, but it is if the player is "interfering with play, or interfering with an opponent, or gaining an advantage by being in that position". You can't be offside directly receiving the ball from a goal kick, a throw-in or a corner kick.

Sound fairly simple? Apparently not in the minds of some fans and pundits.

"It's almost a joke - do you know the offside rule?" says Amy Lawrence, a football writer for the Guardian and the Observer. "It's the immediate [barometer] for how you judge someone's football knowledge. It isn't that complicated. If you wanted to know about it, it wouldn't take that long to figure it out."

Of course, as any fan of the game knows, Law 11 has plenty more to it than that.

What exactly is interfering with play, what is interfering with an opponent and what is gaining an advantage?

Complicated developments

The FA's rulebook offers a further 500 words of explanation on the definitions and 13 helpful diagrams.

Assistant referee's flag An irksome sight for many fans - when your team's goal is the one disallowed

The 13th, which shows player C being in an offside position when the ball is first played forward, is particularly instructive. Player B, in an onside position, receives the ball and plays it back to C.

The so-called "phase one and phase two" aspect of the offside law can leave many struggling to understand.

"I'm not sure I do," jokes Winter. "They have not made it easy for the punter to understand now.

"Brian Clough said if you are on the pitch you are interfering. Phase one and phase two has made it very difficult."

The interpretation of the law has evolved steadily over the years, forcing the hardcore football fan to make efforts to keep themselves up to speed.

"Football rules are tinkered with on a relatively regular basis. You should read the rulebook every season," says Lawrence.

"There is always a grey area. For all anyone says they are an expert on it, it is still something that can be vague. I feel sorry for anyone officiating, trying to get it right all the time."

It might seem unfair to some that a law with such nuanced interpretation should be such a benchmark, but it remains a classic jibe.

The rule on what constitutes a foul throw perhaps does not contain as much meat as offside. Law 11 is easily parodied, as in this John Cleese video on YouTube.

Other sports

In some other sports there are rules at least as complicated that are not equivalent badges of honour. Rugby Union's own law 11 on offside eats up considerably more paper and there are fans who will happily admit they don't fully understand it.

When England cricketer Graham Gooch was once given out for handling the ball while in play, there will have been a fair number of fans in the stands baffled for a few moments.

In football, the essence of the offside law is not knowledge but fine judgement. An attacking player who is distracting a defender but does not receive the ball can be adjudged offside, but what constitutes distraction? For the official, passing the pub-level knowledge test is not enough.

"Knowing the law and the rules is one thing. Practically implementing them is totally different," says Winter. "There is far more to controlling a game than perfectly answering questions but it's a stereotypical aspect of football - they say 'Do you know the offside law?'"

Even after multiple-angle analysis afterwards in a TV studio an offside decision can be impossible to clear up.

But for Massey, the big offside decision of the match hinged on a defender being level with an attacker.

And she got it exactly right.

A selection of your thoughts on the offside law.

As a Referee of 35 years plus and a Referee Instructor for 25 years plus, I find the present offside law much simpler to teach and to interpret than ever it was in the past. When I first started refereeing in 1973, any player in an offside position, whether interfering with play or an opponent or not, was expected to be given offside. Then, later it became the referees responsibility to judge in his (there were no female officials at this time) opinion whether a player was interfering or not. As you can imagine, opinions were widely varied and players opinions differed greatly from that of referees. Gradually the interfering with play aspect has become more clear cut leading to less arguements as to whether a player should be given offside or not. Now a player has to virtually touch the ball before he is considered interfereing with ''active'' play which, is much easier to define than when I first started refereeing. Without a doubt there is now much less arguments between players and officials concerning offside compared to 1973. Most of the controversy today is caused by missinformed commentators.

Louis Stephenson, Fareham, England

The rules of cricket as in the classic routine are much simpler. You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side thats been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out. When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out. When both sides have been in and all the men have out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game!

Stan Gain, London, UK

There is an analogous rule in baseball, not so much in applicability, but in the sense that it is a litmus test for whether you know your stuff: The infield fly rule. Like the offsides rule, there is some judgment to it, though it is almost never as close a call as some offsides rulings!

Dan Wade, Chicago, US

Some Finns explained it in two parts when I wondered what it was. 1. Do you know ice hockey offsides? 2. Soccer is the same concept except instead of a fixed blue line there is a theoretical line even with the last defender in front of the goalie.


Offside is when the referee blows the whistle and signals an offside offence. All other details are irrelevant.

J Tharsen, Sacramento

It's simple when I explain it to club assistant referees I have in my games on a Saturday morning. If the ball is played forward by an attacking player to another inside their opponents half and in front of the second-last defending player - think of the rule of P.I.G. Do they PLAY (or attempt to play) the ball? Do they INTERFERE with play? (Either the ball or impairing the 'keeper's vision) Do they GAIN an advantage (i.e. ball parried by the keeper or coming off the crossbar/post)? If the answer is 'yes' to any of these - then they are offside!

Matt, Aldershot, Hampshire

Summary of the Offside Rule: If you play for the top 4, you're onside. If you don't, you're off. Simple.

John, Manchester

Though a life-long Baggies fan my dad also used to take me to Villa Park because his boss had season ticket seats he didnt always use. I remember a match when I was about 7 in 1958 when left-winger No 11 Peter McParland was stopped as he ran through to a pass. When I asked dad why the ref had stopped him dad said " Cus he's off-side". I didn't know what that meant but suddenly noticed that PM was in the outside-right position when blown up. I innocently and privately concluded that off-side meant that a left-winger has strayed onto the other side of the pitch and that he must stay on that side - not be off it!

Nick G, Wembley

As a Bristol Rovers supporter it hurts me to say that often, even when in possesion of the ball, our strikers do not interfere with play.

Nick, Bristol

If you don't have the ball, there must be two players between you and the goal line.

Timothy Frankland, St Louis Park, MN, USA

The offside rule is simple. If he plays for Walsall he's onside, if he doesn't then he's offside. Simple.

Pete Stock, Walsall


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