When 'off' is really 'on'

Offside has always been a problem for the uninitiated but even diehard fans will be wrestling with it after the authorities tweaked the law again.

Euro 2004’s officials will apply a new interpretation to offsides, following a directive from Fifa’s international board. The thorny issue for fans will be how referees and their assistants apply the offside law’s clause regarding whether players are in ‘active play”.

Uefa has launched a PR campaign in an attempt to familiarise fans with the new interpretation, issuing a DVD to players, coaches and fans ‘to help understand the offside law and its consistent interpretation throughout Europe”.

Judging by the examples from the promotional video, that will not be easy. The two images are from Juventus’s Champions League semifinal victory over Real Madrid in the 2002/03 season.

In the first picture, Roberto Carlos’s drive from 15m skips beyond Gianluigi Buffon with Michel Salgado, Javier Portillo and Luis Figo in offside positions. Despite furious representations from the Juventus players — and the shrill whistles of the fans — the goal stood. The reason was that Buffon’s line of sight to the ball was unimpeded by any of the three players; they were not ‘involved in active play”.

Conversely, Raul’s effort in the second picture was ruled out since, with Figo standing in front of him, the goalkeeper did not have a clear view of the ball and the Portuguese international was judged to be ‘interfering with an opponent”.

The first example also illustrates another issue that is likely to prove contentious in the coming weeks. The linesman flagged the three players offside but the referee overruled his assistant. The key phrase in the offside law is ‘in the opinion of the referee”.

Though confident that the new interpretation will produce more goals and, in time, prove popular with supporters, administrators expect teething problems when it is employed at Euro 2004.

‘There have been arguments over the offside law for as long as it has been in the game,” said the Football Association’s (FA)head of refereeing John Baker, who was the English representative on the international board subcommittee that urged the introduction of the new interpretation.

‘One of the problems is that every offside will will be attributed to the new interpretation. We believe it will help that now there are clear definitions of what is active involvement in play. The intention is that it will stop negative tactics, defenders stepping up and trying to put people offside.

‘The first stage in that was for players to be onside when they were level with defenders. This takes it further and we’re confident it will produce more goals.” 

There is no question that the new interpretation was brought in as a reaction to the controversies of the last World Cup. Spain suffered at the hands of dubious offside decisions in their quarterfinal with South Korea, and Italy were outraged by perceived injustices in their group game with Croatia and their second-round match with Korea.

It was the Italian FA that pressed for change, insisting that inconsistencies must be ironed out. Baker is confident that his revised interpretation of the law, which will be more rigorously applied than it has been in domestic leagues this season, will achieve this aim.

However, fans will have to get used to increasingly late flagging from officials.

‘We are trying to make sure they look very carefully. We want a ‘wait, wait and see’ policy to ensure there are fewer instances of wrong flagging,” said Baker. ‘But we’d prefer it if these decisions are not considered ‘late’ but ‘thoughtful’,” he said.

How the offside rule will work

The new interpretation gives greater emphasis to the following element of football’s Law 11: ‘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. He is involved in active play by interfering with play or interfering with an opponent or gaining an advantage by being in that position.

‘For a player to be guilty of an offside offence he has to be in an offside position when the ball is touched or played by one of his team and then also be involved in active play in one of these ways,” the law says.

In layman’s terms the law dictates that players will be flagged if, for instance, they are obscuring the view of a goalkeeper, or poach a rebound from a keeper’s block while in an offside position.

Being offside is not an offence in itself. Flagging, though, does not require a whistle. Offside is down to the referee’s interpretation of the situation, with the linesman’s assistance. —

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