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OFFSIDE: WHO NEEDS IT? - October 1996

Here's a quick quiz for you. What's the most revolting sight in football? Is it a cynical professional foul, committed by a thuggish clodhopping centre-half on a mercurial winger bearing down on goal? Is it, perhaps, fully-grown men spitting petulantly at each other like witless schoolboys? Is it Steve Bruce?

Or is it, in fact, the flat, hit-by-a-bus face of Tony Adams as he moans plaintively towards the referee, arm raised in a neo-Hitler salute, the craven cry of the defeated: "Offside!"?

If you said anything other than the last one, of course, you're wrong. What could possibly be more contrary to the whole spirit of the best game in the world than the offside rule? What could possibly be the excuse for more injustices, more shattered dreams, more cynical play and more gutless whinging than the offside rule? And yet, despite years of tinkering gratuitously with the very building blocks of the game (right down to the size of the goals, for Pete's sake) what could be a more inexplicable omission from FIFA's ever-growing list of pointless rule changes than the offside rule? I'm buggered if I know.


Here's what's wrong with the offside rule. Football is, I'm sure we're all agreed, the best game in the world. One of the major reasons it's the best game in the world is that, essentially, there are only three rules - kick the ball into the net, don't use your arms, don't beat up the other players. Anyone can understand football in seconds, which is why it's so universally played and loved.

Offside sits about as comfortably with this notion as Paul Gascoigne at the opera. It's artificial, unnatural, and technical. It encourages cynical, defensive play at the expense of fast-moving, end-to-end all-out attacking (and I presume no-one's going to tell me they fell in love with football after seeing a particularly well-worked offside trap at Highbury when they were six). Its roots lie in the most pitiful childish it's-my-ball-so-you-have-to-let-me-win whining - "Aw ref, he's three inches closer to our goal line than we are. That's cheating. Please, make him come back. We can't run as fast as him."

And it's impractical, too - how many times in your life would you estimate you've seen an offside decision given (or not given) which was then proved by TV evidence (or whatever) to be incorrect? A hundred? A thousand? Let's say, conservatively, that there are just two wrong calls in an average match - you do the sums. It's an absolute nightmare for officials - by the rule's very nature, they have to be watching three things at once; the potential offside victim, the defence, and the bloke who's actually kicking the ball (not to mention the rest of the game). If those three things are more than about 15 yards apart, only a crow could actually do the job properly. Every wrong offside call drives a nail through the very heart of the game - what's the point in playing skilfully if some outside force (sheer chance, basically) is going to screw it all up for you? What's the point?

The answer is, clearly, that there isn't one. Offside is for cheats and losers. If you want to see how it really fits in with the true spirit of football, try it in a playground game and see how far you get before a gang of angry little boys chases you out into the street, their jeers of derision ringing in your reddened ears. But for the sake of democracy, let's examine the arguments in a fair and rational way.


(and why you should be watching some other game if you adhere to them)

1. "Ah, but it stops goalhanging."

Right. I see. You don't like goals, then? Why not bugger off to Eton and watch THE WALL GAME (bizarre, brutal toff's game involving a giant scrum against a wall, and much shoeing), then? I believe no-one's actually scored in that since about 1891 (true). The goalhanging argument is rubbish - if a forward spends the whole game loitering, his team are a man short in the rest of the pitch, which hardly gives them an advantage. And anyway, even if it did, all the defence has to do is put a defender on him and man-mark - advantage cancelled.

2. "Ah, but it stops the ball just being continually punted back and forth over the midfield for the whole game."

Don't be stupid. You've still got far more chance of getting the ball usefully to a forward by close-control, passing play up the pitch than by hoofing it 70 yards in his general direction and hoping for the best. And even if there are a couple of forwards goalhanging (with attendant defenders), that's just going to make more space in the centre of the pitch for the rest of the players, preventing the appallingly dull 20-man midfield stalemates we still see far too many of. If midfield stalemates are your bag, it's AMERICAN FOOTBALL for you, matey.

3. "Ah, but it all evens out over the course of a season."

Oh, what, and that makes it alright, does it? The fact that two games get decided by an unfortunate mistake by the referee instead of one? (Even assuming that the statement isn't patent statistical bollocks in the first place, which it is.) Why not just TOSS A COIN at the start and have done with all that tedious football-playing business altogether? And anyway, that argument's a fat lot of use if it happens to you in the Cup Final, isn't it?

4. "Ah, but controversial offsides make the game more exciting."

Oh dear. I think you've taken a wrong turn on the way to the WORLD WRESTLING FEDERATION show, son. Football's supposed to be about what the players do, not whether the referee cocks up or not.


You see? You're all wrong. Offside is an entirely negative aspect of the game, adding nothing to the game and taking away much of what makes it great. You want proof with that? No problem.



1. Breaking up the flow of the game, stopping the build-up of excitement and momentum.

2. Cancelling out the difference between skilful players and crap ones, by handicapping fast-moving attackers with a purely defence-orientated rule.

3. Creating more 0-0 draws. Cheers.

4. Providing more opportunity for time-wasting via free kicks.

5. Provoking riots among fans who've just seen a perfectly good match-winning goal chalked off/illegal match-losing goal allowed.

6. Tony Adams.

"Now it's all very well and easy to criticise. What about some constructive suggestions?" That's what you might be saying at this point. But you can shut it, right, because I've got that one covered as well. Basically, there are only three options as far as offside goes - keep it as it is, throw it out altogether, or change the boundaries at which it operates. (All the other variables - number of defenders, being in front of or level with the last man, interfering with play or not - have been fiddled with already). Most of them have already been tried out by FIFA somewhere, with limited success. There's only one option which hasn't had a fair crack of the whip. Can you guess what it is yet?


  1. NO OFFSIDE WHEN THE BALL IS KICKED FROM YOUR OWN HALF - This one was tried out in the League Of Wales a few years back, where it caused unfettered chaos and confusion. It's a reasonable theory, except that (a) it actually encourages the tedious big punt from defence, and (b) it's an impossible nightmare for linesmen, who have to be continuously watching half the pitch at once.
  2. NO OFFSIDE IN THE LAST THIRD OF THE PITCH - If our memory serves us correctly, this was the system operated by the ill-fated NASL in the USA, where a line was drawn 35 yards from each goal-line (the line was also used in their innovative version of a penalty shoot-out), outside which you couldn't be offside. The main drawback here is the drawing of ungainly new lines on the field (the design of which has remained unchanged practically since the game's inception), and the fact that it's an even more artificial addition to an already-artificial and unnatural rule.
  3. NO OFFSIDE IF YOU PLAY FOR RANGERS - This system has been undergoing a trial period in Scotland for the last 105 years, although the SFA are still "collating information" before deciding whether to expand the plan to include other teams.
  4. NO OFFSIDE OUTSIDE THE PENALTY AREA - The most obvious option if you really want to keep the offside rule in operation. It's comparatively easy to police (the lines are there already), and it doesn't encourage goalhanging, in as much as that if you're in what's (today) an offside position, but still outside the penalty area, you've still in all probability got quite a bit to do to get the ball into the net. (A variant on this rule was tried during the Anglo-Italian Cup (the offside line there being an imaginary extension from the corners of the 18-yard box to the touchline), but the lack of pitch markings made it difficult to execute properly.)
  5. NO OFFSIDE AT ALL - It's THE ONLY REAL SOLUTION. Otherwise, why don't you just piss off and watch basketball or something?

So there, quite conclusively, you have it. Offside is crap, and has been scientifically proven to be Killing Football. It's GOT TO GO. You can bluster and complain all you want, but next time YOUR team gets knocked out of the FA Cup by some useless Vauxhall Conference outfit playing nine at the back, offside trap and breakaway goal in the 89th minute of a coma-inducing slog through a mudpile of a pitch in January, don't come running to me, alright? YOU'RE the one who wanted it that way.


*The views expressed in the above article are solely those of the author, and not of, apparently, anyone else in the entire world.

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