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Offside, 21 July

Football authorities tinker with the offside rule at their peril.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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A ball has not yet been kicked in anger in the new football season but already FIFA’s new offside rule is causing confusion. Plus ça change….

Every football fan knows the offside rule, don’t they? Well at any rate, we all like to think that we know the rule even though, when called upon, many of us would struggle to recite it. The problem that now confronts us, nay threatens to erode our very existential certainty as football fans, is that the football authorities seem intent on making the offside rule as incomprehensible as possible.

Law 11 states that a player should be penalised if he is in an offside position (if you don’t know what this means then stop reading now) and he is ‘involved in active play’. A player is deemed to be ‘involved in active play’ if he is interfering with play, interfering with an opponent (yes, I know that sounds rude but please bear with me) or gaining an advantage from being in that position. The problem is that all these phrases are quite subjective and consequently FIFA has felt compelled to issue guidelines on how to interpret them.

You may recall that FIFA’s last attempt to clarify the law in October 2003 led to chaotic situations in which attacking players deliberately starting taking up ‘passive offside’ positions. Bolton manager Sam Allardyce exploited the new rule by stationing his players on the goal line for free kicks in order to confuse defenders. In one notorious incident Leicester keeper Ian Walker was so disoriented by this tactic that he contrived to score a farcical own goal.

This month FIFA issued yet another clarification of the offside law. The new guidelines seek to correct the confusion caused by the 2003 guidelines but may well end up making matters worse. Most controversially, referees have now been ordered to wait until a player has actually touched the ball before blowing for offside. The new directive was trialled in the recent Confederations Cup tournament and predictably led to more confusion. In fact it provoked a full-blown philosophical debate about the ontology of offside. German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn was quick to complain about the new application of the offside law. ‘I thought I was playing indoor football’, said Kahn after Australian players had taken up passive offside positions near the goal. ‘I actually thought that we had abolished passive offside, but this new rule is dubious and only complicates things even more.’

FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s cryptic response was to deny the existence of passive offside altogether. ‘There has never been passive offside and with this rule we’ll hopefully never hear that expression again’, retorted Blatter. ‘It will just take a little time for everyone to get used to the new rule.’ A little time? Blatter’s optimism is touching but woefully misplaced. What was once a simple rule designed to prevent goalhanging is fast becoming a branch of philosophical inquiry in its own right. It can only be a matter of time before universities start offering courses in Offside Studies and academics churn out long-winded treatises on the Passive Offside Fallacy and Active Play and the Dialectics of Offside.

Harry Redknapp was one of the early casualties of the Offside Wars following a pre-season friendly between Southampton and Motherwell. The Saints manager, who has worn a bewildered expression ever since assuming the reigns at Southampton, appeared even more confused than normal after his opponents had a goal chalked off for offside. ‘I didn’t know anything about it, I swear. Nor did Dave Bassett. We were sitting there saying “What’s happening here?”’, spluttered a distressed Redknapp. ‘I think the crowd are going to wonder what is going on. It is frightening. A nightmare.’ When a good, honest footballing yeoman like Harry Redknapp gets confused about the offside rule, we know something is seriously wrong.

The offside rule has contained a subjective element ever since the concept of interfering with play was introduced at the start of the twentieth century. But our current definitional crisis really started when the concept of ‘active play’ was written into the rules in 1995. Subsequent attempts by FIFA to clarify and re-clarify the meaning of ‘involvement in active play’ have effectively removed the scope for referees to apply common sense in calling offside. The consequence is that defenders are no longer sure whether to track an attacker running off the ball or hold the line, while officials are given the impossible task of simultaneously watching the ball, watching the defensive line and assessing whether attackers in offside positions are involved in active play.

The football authorities tinker with the offside rule at their peril. The battle over the meaning of the offside rule is not just football’s problem – it has far-reaching implications for society. Thanks to FIFA’s meddling an entire generation of men may cease to understand the very rule through which they define themselves as football fans. The choice facing humanity is an offside rule that everyone understands…or barbarism.

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Topics Politics

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