Offside Rules in Soccer – The Ultimate Guide

Introduced to the professional game in 1863, the offside rule has been baffling soccer fans and haters alike for well over a century now.

Responsible for sparking many a half-baked lesson on diner tables with ketchup bottles and salt shakers for players and crumpled napkins as balls, why is this one rule so dang tricky to wrap our noodles around? 

Well, the good news is that it’s really not that complicated a concept at all, and I’m going to take you through it step by step.

You’ll often hear “offside” screamed by both fans and players in integral moments during a game. Perhaps in the past, you stood up in faux disgruntlement, mimicking their anger, but no more, friend!

By the end of this brief article, you’ll have mastered the one rule that has everybody flummoxed, and then you can enjoy the beautiful game to its fullest extent — hurray!

Offside Rules in Soccer - The Ultimate Guide

The Most Contentious Rule - Human Error

One of the reasons that the offside rule has built up somewhat of a nebulous mystique over the years is that it’s incredibly hard to officiate in-game. 

To call an offside offense, the referee has to have clear visuals of multiple points across the pitch (more on this later).

As soccer pitches are so large, with players sprawling across its entire width, it’s a miracle that the poor old ref sees anything at all.

The fact that offside is so difficult to diagnose, so to speak, is the reason it causes such a ruckus if an infraction goes unnoticed or if a player is ruled against unjustly.

As observers on a television or a stadium, we have a much better visual perspective on the game, and what’s clear to us with our elevated, almost bird’s-eye-view, isn’t so clear to the referee.

Sure they have sideline officials to help out, but an accurate decision is still hard to make in the moment.

As offside is almost only ever called during a real attempt on goal, its demoralizing effect is doubled, tripled even, dashing the building hopes of screaming fans as a free kick is handed to the opposition.

Unfortunately, human error is always going to be part of soccer, and to be honest, the uncertainty it brings can make for a more exciting game altogether.

Recent technological advancements such as VAR (Visual Assistant Referee) have reduced error, but as a fairly new technology, it’s not perfectly streamlined yet.

How much we should rely on VAR to begin with is a massive point of contention across soccer communities.

So, what the heck is the offside rule, and why does it have the uninitiated scratching their heads?

The Offside Rule in a Nutshell - What is It?

You’re going to kick yourself when you realize how simple the offside rule is. In my experience, the easiest way to grasp the offside rule is to learn when a player isn’t offside. For instance, a player is Onside when they’re…

  • In their own half.
  • Are In their opponent’s half but are either level with the last defender or the defender is closer to their goal line than the attacking player.

A player is offside when they’re

  • Closer to their opponent’s goal line than the ball and last defender - To be in an offside position, the attacking player doesn’t need to be completely past the last defender.

If any part of the attacking player’s body apart from their hands or arms is closer to the opposition’s goal line, it’s an offside position.

It could be a toe, a knee, their head...it doesn’t matter; if that body part is closer to the opposition goal line than the last defender, it’s an offside position.

In a lot of offside explanations, the term “second-last defender” is used to describe the last defender, as they’re classing the goalkeeper as a defender.

I think that causes more confusion than it’s worth, so for my examples, the last defender refers to the last outfield player before the goalkeeper.

So, it’s all pretty easy to digest so far, right? Well, things are going to get a little more complicated, but nothing too cerebral — I promise.

A lot of the confusion of the offside rule is derived from the fact that there’s a difference between committing an offside offense and being in an offside position.

Being Offside vs Committing an Offside Offense

The important thing to note is that being in an offside position isn’t a foul. As a striker, you are allowed to wander beyond the last defender and no whistle will blow.

It’s not an attacking player’s being there in general that’s an issue, it’s whether they exploit that position for gains.

Being offside only becomes a foul if the attacking player is in an offside position when they interfere with play, which can mean two things…

  • They directly interfered with play - As in, they received or made any contact with the ball whatsoever.

If a player in an offside position is receiving a pass, the moment used to measure whether they’re offside or not is the moment the ball leaves their teammate’s foot. 

Even if they get into an Onside position before the ball reaches them, it’s still considered offside.

  • They obstructed an opposing player - As in, using their position to influence a defenders' ability to respond to the play.

Some people struggle to come to terms with the idea of interference, so let’s briefly cover this topic in more detail.

What Does it Mean to Interfere with Play?

Interfering refers to having an effect on the play or in some cases even just appearing as if you’re about to get involved with the play. Some instances of offside interference include…

  • Blocking an opposing player’s line of vision.
  • Obstructing an opposing player’s movement.
  • Receiving the ball from a deflection off a player, goal post, or referee.
  • Playing the ball after the opposition goalkeeper deflects a shot from a fellow attacking teammate.

Put simply, if you’re in an offside position, you have to act as a passive, non-player, and if play moves into your area of the pitch, you should actively avoid getting involved until you’re either level with or closer to the halfway line than the last defender of the opposing team.

As soon as you become directly or indirectly involved with the play, you’re committing an offside offense, and an indirect free kick may be awarded to the opposition.

Following? The takeaway here is that being in an offside position isn’t a foul, but getting involved in play from an offside position is a foul.

However, being an incredibly varied and nuanced game, there are some exceptions to the offside rule to mention. 

All this information may seem a little overwhelming at first, but it all makes sense with the flow of the game.

Exceptions to the Offside Rule

At its core, the offside rule is confusing because it’s actually a collection of little rules pertaining to the same general instance.

As it’s such a broad umbrella of a soccer law, there are bound to be exceptions in order to keep the beautiful game, well...beautiful.

There are four main exceptions to speak of. If an attacking player in an offside position receives the ball via…

  1. A goal Kick
  2. Corner Kick
  3. Throw In
  4. Dropped Ball

...they are not committing an offside offense.

Furthermore, if an attacking player in an offside position receives the ball due to a sloppy back pass by an opponent, they’re not committing an offense.

For instance, if the last defender tries to pass the ball to their goalkeeper, but slices it or doesn’t put enough power on it, the offside attacker can take possession and play on.

The key thing to remember with this exception is that the ball has to have been deliberately passed back by an opponent. If it’s an accidental deflection, it’s an offside offense.

This exception also encompasses any possession gained by the offside player as a result of a deliberate tackle from an opposition player. Deliberate mistakes can be taken advantage of in the offside position.

There’s one other exception I’d like to bring to light before moving on, and that’s if you receive the ball from a teammate that’s closer to the opposition goal line than you are. If you’re behind the ball when it’s passed, it’s not offside.

Is Being Offside a Cardinal Soccer Sin?

As we’ve already touched upon, simply being in an offside position isn’t considered foul play.

Even when an offside offense is called by the ref, there are normally no repercussions beyond the indirect free kick awarded to the opposition.

The general idea is that losing possession in what could have been such a pivotal moment is punishment enough, a reason in itself not to get caught doing it again.

Beyond that, getting caught offside isn’t a punishable offense; however, there are some instances in which an offside is paired with another actionable misdeed that will draw out the ref’s iron fist.

Say, for example, that an offside player obstructed an opposition player in a very physical way, by pushing them, tripping them, or kicking them, it’s a card-worthy offense.

Another example is dissent. This means that the offending player argues with the referee's decisions too emphatically or maliciously. Directly opposing the official decision of the ref can sometimes lead to a yellow or even red card.

Who Calls Offside Offenses?

Who Calls Offside Offenses

Both the referee and the linesmen or women can call an offside. As the lines people have a much better view of player position, they’re normally the ones to call an offside offense using a red and white flag. It’s the ref that has the final say, though.

If the referee disagrees with the linesperson’s call, they can choose to overrule it, but this will only ever happen if the referee is sure that they had better visuals of the play overall than the linesperson.

All good so far? Fantastic. But now that you understand what the offside rule is, you’re probably wondering why it was invented and applied in the first place.

Well, I’m afraid to answer that, we’ll have to engage in something of a history lesson — just let me don my tweed jacket with elbow patches, and we’ll be off!

Offside - An Origin Story

Early iterations of the offside rule were being implanted into the game not too long after the very basics were established.

Despite being quite technical, it was part of the rules considered when soccer was first being formalized into a structured sporting event.

In fact, prototypical versions of the offside rule have been implemented in soccer matches and friendly kick-arounds since the early 19th century.

Eventually, the first official version of the famous rule was incorporated into the English Public School “football” system. 

Educational institutions like Eton and Aldenham were some of the first to actually codify set rules for what would eventually become the modern game of soccer we so adore.

You’re probably thinking, well that’s all well and good, Professor O. Side, but that still doesn’t answer why the offside rule exists. Well, don’t worry, soccer students, I’m getting to that now.

Offside Killed the Goal Hanger

The term “goal hanging” is still used today, but its origins can be traced all the way back to the genesis of the game.

It refers to the act of lingering very close to the opposition’s goal, waiting for a long ball to whiz over the rest of the team and give you a free shot on goal with only the keeper to beat.

The ease of this goal-scoring method meant that most of the game consisted of hoofed balls flying deep into the opposition’s half, rendering most of the players and pitch redundant.

The offside rule eliminated goal hanging in one fell swoop. It meant play had to be centered more around 1-on-1 encounters and intelligent passing.

Adding more skill and athleticism to the game, the offside rule is the most significant defining aspect of modern soccer. No other rule altered the character of the game in such a huge and positive manner.

Now, rather than each player having to stick to a small zone of the pitch, full teams could flow up and down the pitch as a symbiotic unit.

The Offside Evolution Revolution

In its infancy, the offside rule in soccer was identical to the Forward Pass rule in rugby. It simply stipulated that the ball could only be passed backward.

This meant that the movements of the game were very similar to those of rugby. Plays were normally midfield oriented, focused on making as much ground as possible.

According to the original 1863 “Laws of the Game” documentation, the only kick that was allowed to travel forward was a goal kick.

Unfortunately, this variant of the offside rule led to a lot of stalemate matches with very few exciting goal-scoring opportunities.

Observers and players alike craved those flourishing, fast-paced offensives that we’ve grown to love about the modern game, and the offside rule in its then current incarnation stunted these exciting occurrences.

In light of this, alterations were made to balance out the fairness of the game with a bit of entertainment value and pizzazz.

Over time, offside more or less took on the form it still has today, with the player being deemed offside if they’re closer to the opposition goal line than the last defender.

For all the problems it solved, the offside rule had become an incredibly difficult rule to observe, and it’s still plagued by this core issue today.

Coming to Terms with the Offside Rule in Gameplay

Now that you’re aware of how this incredibly broad rule works, let’s run over a few specific gameplay scenarios and how the offside rule would or would not come into effect.

  1. Remember way at the start of this article when I mentioned that you can’t be offside if you’re in your own half?

Well, attacking players can use this exception to their advantage to counterattack an aggressive opposition. 

If the defenders go beyond the halfway line, an attacker can sit behind them on the line and wait for a through pass or high-arcing pass to fly over the defender’s heads.

As the ball was passed when the attacker was in their own half, it doesn’t matter that they are behind the last defender.

  1. I also mentioned that offside is called the moment the pass leaves a teammate’s foot.

This means that in our 1st scenario, if the ball deflects off a defender after the attacking player has already started their run into the opposition’s half, they’re still considered Onside.

  1. The same’s true if a defender inadvertently allows the ball to continue through to the defender through some other mishap such as slicing the ball or kicking it against one of their teammates.
  1. What about if an attacker is in an offside position and a defender comes into possession of the ball?

In this scenario, as long as the attacker doesn’t intervene with play up until the point the ball is brought under control, they may travel back and attempt to win the ball, and it wouldn't be considered an offside offense.

  1. Now let’s say that a defender is off the pitch, perhaps over their own goal line. They are still a player as they haven’t been substituted, so they’re still considered the marker of offside play. This means an attacker could technically stand on the goal line and remain Onside.
  1. The offside rule is put on hold during throw-ins, corners, and goal kicks, but this is only if a player receives the ball directly from one of these in-game events.

As soon as the ball is moved on, the offside rule comes back into effect. This means that a player can run through the defensive line to head the ball at the goal, but if they hit the crossbar and the ball bounces to a teammate outside the box, they’ll need to return to an Onside position before the ball is played.

  1. The best way to deal with the offside rule as an attacker is to time a run perfectly. This is called “breaking the offside trap”.

As long as you’re onside when the pass leaves your teammate’s foot, you can burst through the defensive line and claim possession of the ball.

Watch how Diego Maradona breaks the offside trap set by these defenders: Diego Maradona - Breaking the Offside Trap Analysis.

What is the Offside Trap?

After watching that Maradona video, you may be wondering what exactly an offside trap is. It’s actually a very basic defensive move.

It can be done when the defense’s team has possession in their opponent’s half to push strikers back as far as the halfway line, but it’s best utilized when the other team is on the attack.

Usually called by the last center back, the whole defensive line moves out rapidly towards the halfway line.

If timed correctly, the attacking players are left in an offside position just as their teammate plays the ball through. 

Suddenly a promising attack is dead in the water, and the defenders win possession via a free kick.

The offside trap is especially effective when defending against free kicks just outside the box, as evidenced in this video: Crazy Offside Traps in Football History ● Smart Defenders.

It’s a risky gambit as it requires top-notch communication, timing, and teamwork. If it fails, you’ve given a forward a free chance on goal, but if it works, you’ve completely turned the tables on an offensive.

The Final Whistle - Offside Conclusions

As you can see, it took less than 300 words to sufficiently describe the offside rule in soccer, as the general principle is really quite basic. It only becomes a little confusing once you realize there are a few nuances and exceptions to the rule.

Even so, now you have the details in mind, you’ll see soccer in a whole new light. You’ll come to appreciate the intricacies of the game, and best of all, you’ll be able to fully immerse yourself in it — no more pretending you know why everyone around you is in an uproar.

It may be frustrating at times, but the offside rule really doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Without it, soccer would be an entirely different, less artful, not nearly as beautiful game.

Next time your team gets slammed with an offside ruling, instead of getting angry, just remember how enriching offside is to the game as a whole, and you never know, it might help to relieve the sting.