New Interpretation of Offside

Recently there has been a lot of focus and discussion on the "new interpretation" of Law 11 - Offside. The purpose of this memorandum is to provide you with an explanation that can be distributed to your members in the hopes that all of us - players, coaches, referees, and administrators - can be on the "same page" with regard to offside.
Before reviewing Offside and discussing the new interpretation, it is important that everyone understand several things:
  • First, there has been no change in Law 11 - Offside. It reads the same today as it has for the past several years.
  • Second, last year the International FA Board (IFAB) issued changes to the definitions in the ways a player can become actively involved in play by "interfering with play"; "interfering with an opponent" and "gaining an advantage."
  • Third, USSF and the State Referee Program has been emphasizing the new interpretation in Senior Referee Clinics, Instructor Clinics, and other forums such as the VYSA workshop sessions this past February. We will continue to focus on this in referee classes for the next year in an effort to ensure that all our referees have a common understanding of Offside and how it is to be called.
  • Fourth, over the years the IFAB has been gradually revising Law 11 - Offside, its interpretations of Law 11, and its instructions to referees with the objective of promoting more attacking football.
The fourth point, above, is critical for it sets a tone or overall philosophy behind what FIFA, USSF, and the State Referee Program are telling referees. Years ago the thinking among referees tended to be, "If you are not sure but think the player might be offside, raise the flag and call offside." As a result, the defense was favored, many "good" goals were called back, and the overall flow of the game was continually being interrupted for restarts after an Offside call. Now the guidance has swung all the way in the other direction. Referees are clearly being told, "If in doubt, keep the flag down and do not call Offside." The offense is now favored over the defense, fewer "good" goals should be called back, and the game should now flow more with fewer interruptions.
Review of Offside
For a player to be penalized for Offside, two things must happen. First, the player must be in an offside position when the ball is last played by a teammate. Second, that player must then-
  1. Interfere with play,
  2. Interfere with an opponent, OR
  3. Gain an advantage from that position

And, of course, a player can never be guilty of  the offside violation if he/she receives the ball directly from a Corner Kick, Throw in, or Goal Kick, nor when the player is in his/her own half of the field. Referees are taught that they must make two judgments: First, was the player in an Offside position and then, second, did the player interfere with play, interfere with an opponent, or gain an advantage. Only if the answer is "yes" to both questions should the player be penalized for being Offside. The key point is that there is nothing wrong with being in an offside  position. Players can be in an offside position all the time. Nothing requires the player to be onside. The Laws of the Game simply say that a player who is in an offside position cannot participate in play by one of the three things stated above: interfering with play, interfering with an opponent, or gaining an advantage.

New Interpretation
The IFAB issued two decisions about Law 11 (Offside), effective 1 July 2005, by defining what is meant by "being in an Offside position" and "interfering with play," "interfering with an opponent" and "gaining an advantage from an offside position." The first decision addresses the criterion used in judging the definition of "being in an Offside position." Law 11 states that a player is in an Offside position if the player is in the opponents half of the field and is closer to the goal than both the ball and the second to last defender. The new decision clarifies that only those parts of the body that can legally score a goal are to be considered when judging if the attacking player is nearer the goal than an opponent and the ball. In other words, a player is in an Offside position (but not necessarily Offside) if the attacking player’s head, foot, leg, or torso is ahead of the second to the last defender and the ball. We don’t care if the hand or arm is ahead because players (except for Maradonna in the World Cup) cannot legally score with the hand or arm.

The second decision deals with the very important definition of what it means to be "interfering with play." In the past, referees were taught that if the player in the Offside position was in the active area of play (i.e. near the ball) and made any movement toward the ball, then that player was considered to have interfered with play and was called Offside. Now, "interfering with play" means playing or touching the ball passed to him/her by a teammate.
The following illustrates the difference between the old and new definitions and interpretations of "interfering with play." Consider that a player is in the Offside position near the halfway line (in the player’s attacking half of the field). His teammate makes a long pass into the opponent’s end of the field and the player in the Offside position runs after it. At the same time, a teammate who was not in an Offside position begins running for the ball. We now have two players, one who was and one who was not in an Offside position going for the ball. Under the old interpretation, the Assistant Referee would have raised the flag immediately upon seeing the player in the Offside position going for the ball and the referee would have called Offside. Now, however, the Assistant Referee and the Referee must wait and see which player touches the ball. If the player in the Offside position touches the ball first, then the Assistant Referee will raise the flag and the Referee will call Offside. If the player who was not in the Offside position touches the ball first, then there is no Offside.
Similar definitions were made by the IFAB on the meaning of interfering with an opponent (i.e preventing an opponent from playing, obstructing his/her path to or line of vision of the ball or gestures to distract an opponent) as well as gaining an advantage by being in an offside position (i.e. a ball rebounding off the goal post or crossbar or deflecting off an opponent).
It is very conceivable, as did happen to me recently, that the Assistant Referee and I as the Referee had to run almost all the way to the end line, waiting to see who would touch the ball first, before deciding whether or not to call Offside. If, as in this case, the Offside player touched the ball first, then the Offside occurred not where the player finally touched the ball, but rather back up near the midfield where the player was when the ball was last touched by a teammate.
More Information
Attached to this memorandum is the USSF memorandum on Offside issued in August 2005. This is the "official" word from USSF on the subject. A person may also wish to go to the State Referee Program web site at and read the article called "What’s Happening with Offside." This contains several links to other information including a link to a PowerPoint presentation that our instructors are using with referees during their certification and re-certification classes. The State Director of Instruction, Paul Mungra, will also be glad to arrange for an instructor to come to any club meeting or gathering of parents or coaches to make a presentation on Offside, including video clips that illustrate the concepts.
The Offside law, its interpretation, and the instructions to referees have been gradually changing to allow more attacking football. Each time a change is made, it takes awhile to communicate the change to the referees, longer yet until all the referees have a common understanding, and in most cases even longer yet for coaches, players, and administrators to understand the changes. Even when that is accomplished, there is lots of room for interpretation and it takes awhile (probably a long while) until everyone is applying the same interpretation. In the meantime, there will be inconsistencies among the referees (and misunderstandings and lack of up-to-date knowledge by coaches, players, and administrators). That is something we have to accept, knowing that we in the referee program are doing are best to get all the referees "on the same page." In the meantime, it will help if players, coaches, parents, and administrators understand what has changed and not be overly critical of the referees especially when the referees "got it right" and the criticism is based on an outdated interpretation of the law.