An important concept in the rules of football (soccer).

For some reason this rule is considered difficult to grasp. The basic rule can be stated as follows:

A player is considered offside if there are less than two players from the opposing team between him and the goal at the time the ball is passed towards him.
OK, that's a little wordy and probably wouldn't win many awards from the Plain English Campaign. The problem probably stems from a misunderstanding of the way "between" is defined in this context. It doesn't mean that the opposing players have to be in a straight line between the recipient of the pass and the goal, simply that they have to be further along the pitch than the recipient.

Hmmm, I've just re-read that and it's still not crystal clear. Perhaps I should try and draw a diagram. At this point I apologise in advance for my crap ASCII art skills.

In the following diagrams, the team trying to put the ball in the target goal are represented by a 'X', the other team by 'O' and the ball by a full stop (period).

     X.                   O          --+
                                       | target
                      X            O   |  goal

Here the player X on the left has the ball, and kicks it to the other player X. This is NOT offside because there are two members of the other team (one of whom is probably the goalkeeper), further along the pitch than the second X player.

     X.                              --+
                                       | target
                      X            O   |  goal
                 O                   --+

Here there IS a potential violation of the offside rule. If the left-most player X were to pass the ball to the other X player, it would be offside as there is only one opposition team member closer to the goal than him.

One other thing to note, and that's the underlined part of the original description: the offside test is applied when the ball is first passed, not when it's received. In other words, in diagram two the right-most 'X' player is offside as soon as the ball leaves the left-most 'X' player's foot. Even if he has moved to put himself back onside by the team he receives the ball, the linesman should still flag offside and a free kick will be awarded to the 'O' team.

*phew* that was hard work! Now I know why people have such trouble with this rule: it's something that's easier to understand than to explain. Hope this helped anyway!

I don't think the above definition of 'offside' is quite correct. There are various exceptions, as follows:

  • A player cannot be offside if he is in his own half of the pitch when the ball is passed towards him.

  • A player who isn't considered (at the discretion of the officials) to be 'active' can't be offside. For example if he's running back towards his own goal, or lying down with a broken leg.

  • Sometimes people are offside even when the player with the ball just dribbles the ball and never passes it to the offside player.

  • If the pass is a backpass (a pass towards the player's own goal) then the player is never offside, as in the following diagram.

         O                            X. --+
                                        O  | target
                          O                |  goal
                                     X     |

Put all that into a single sentence and you definitely wouldn't win any awards from the Plain English Campaign.

It has been pointed out to me that FIFA have the official version of the rule here:

The Offsides rule is one in soccer that benefits the defender, and is a tool in the soccer defender's arsenal. It is usually slanted heavily in the defense's advantage:
There are more than one disadvantage to offsides for the defensemen, but these make sense:
  • There is no offsides on a corner kick. This, of course, makes some sense, since a corner kick is a strange circumstance, where the entire teams squeeze themselves in to a small spot. All bets here are off.
  • Offsides is not called if the person gets the ball by starting on one side of a defender, and running past him to get the ball. This is just hard work, and defeating the defender.

The Offsides rule in soccer is meant to keep the final shot to a one on one match-up between the attacker and the defender (usually the goalie). It is very hard to teach this rule to most new soccer players as it involves a good eye on the field, and a good deal of almost trickery to get two people to run past you. My brother, a referee hates this call since it is almost an opinion of the referee as to where is too far, and what constitutes a threatening move by the offense.

There is also an Offsides rule in American football. Offsides is when either the offense or the defense is over the line of scrimmage before the snap is called. This carries a five-yard penalty, and replay of the down*

*unless the defensive offsides would give a first down to the offense. In this case the first down is awarded.
The offside rule was the subject for a brilliant Fast Show sketch in which John Thomson's clueless football "fan" character Roger Nouveau ("I'm not really that interested in England. They don't really stand much of a chance, do they? No, I think I'll give Germany my full support" etc) is having dinner with friends. I cannot recall any of the names (sorry!) but the conversation went something like this...

Roger Nouveau: ...and Wright just knocked it in! It was a fantastic goal, probably one of the best goals I've ever seen, but wait - the linesman ruled it offside! (laughs)
Woman #1: Oh yeah... listen, what is offside? Is that when the ball goes off at the side?
RN: (laughs) Off at the side? Off at the side? No, no; offside is, well, it's offside.
W#1: (is obviously none the wiser)
RN: Look, it's simple. Simple. (arranges salt and pepper pots on table) Offside. There has to be... a defender between the att... when the ball's kicked forward, there has to be a defender near the attacker, and... no, hang on, erm...

Fades out, and several sketches later...

RN: ...when the ball's kicked forward, the linesman rules offside when the ball is struck behind the halfway line.
Guy: That doesn't sound right...
RN: No, of course it doesn't sound right, because you're not listening properly. Look, it's simple. When the ball is kicked forward, there must be an attacker near the defender... Now let me... that... that's not right.

Fades out, and yet more sketches later...

RN: (still moving salt and pepper pots around) Let me explain this to you, in a way that you'll all understand, yeah? OK? There's the defender, there's the attacker, there's the goalie, and there's the ball. Now, he passes the ball to him...
W#1: I thought you knew all about football!
RN: (angry) I DO! (calms down a bit) When the ball is kicked forward, there must be an attacker between the defender.
Woman #2: Between the defender? Between the defender and what?
RN: Yes! Between! BETWEEN! It's a well known footballing phrase!
G: Between?!
RN: Yes!
G: A footballing phrase?
W#1: So what does it mean?
RN: AARGH! GOD! (throws the salt and pepper on the floor in a rage and leaps up) JUST FORGET ABOUT IT! YOU'RE NOT INTERESTED IN FOOTBALL! God, you're so detached from reality! (walks off and calms down a little)
RN: (sulkily) I'm going to clean my boots.

It should also be noted that in football a player cannot be offside from a throw on.

There is often a great deal of controversy over the offside rule. Attackers will always aim to get ahead of the defenders once the ball has been played and so they try to be as far forward as possible at all times. Frequently a player will have one foot onside and one foot offside. The recent trend in the premiership, encouraged by the FA, is for linesman to signal these tight decisions onside to improve the flow of the game and encourage exciting attacking play.

Linesmen have a difficult job and offside frequently results in a goal being disallowed after it has been scored as it can take time for a referee to notice the linesman's flag (the linesman has no whistle, they simply raise a flag to signify offside, the referee is not forced by the rules to act on this but they nearly always do as the linesman has the best view). As with the current world cup this can cause a great deal of anguish, Italy have had four goals disallowed by linesmen so far. Two of them incorrectly. There has been some debate about the officials in the world cup. Every nation playing has at least one official at the tournament. However for countries like Saudi Arabia and Cameroon these officials may have experienced very little, if any, of high level games.

The best way for an attacker to avoid being offside is to start from a position that is clearly onside and be running to receive a ball ahead of the defence. In these cases the defenders can often be left static and unable to catch up with the already moving attacker. Arsenal's style of play has taken advantage of this with players like Thiery Henry making runs through the defence and getting on the end of a long pass. To combat this teams are often forced to play very deep, as they have done against Liverpool, to counteract the pace of attacking players. This means there is less space behind the defenders for the attacker to run into and it is often easier for a defender to catch up and get back.

One will often see the Offside Trap being played by a defensive line. The aim of this tactic is to catch attackers offside by advancing just before a pass is played to leave the attacker offside. This is a very difficult tactic to play and requires only a single mistake for an attacker to slip through and score. A central defender will often lead the advance but the whole defence must be aware, it only takes one player to play someone onside.

There is also an offside rule in rugby union. This states that,

"In general play a player is off-side if the player is in front of a team-mate who is carrying the ball or in front of a team-mate who last played the ball."
However being offside does not necessarily result in being penalised. If a player simply moves back onside without attempting to interfere in play in anyway then no action is also taking. It is also possible for a player to be brought back onside by the movement of the person in possession of the ball. It is common for a player to get offside, particularly during rucks, and they will normally put their hands in the air to signify they are not playing a part in the game and move back onside.

The offside rule also plays a part when the ball is kicked. If the ball is kicked by a player some of whose team mates are in front of him they are all offside. He can play them onside by running in front of them to where the ball has landed. This is the reason that backs, when clearing the ball, will always run up to where it has gone into touch or landed.

The full rule can be found at,

The offside rule is a common regulation in many team sports to restrain players to certain areas of the field or court.

The purpose of the rule is to prevent teams from spreading their players in an effort to remove all risk and daring from the game. For instance, basketball employs an over-and-back rule, which limits the area in which the offensive team can dribble and thus prevents a boring game of keep-away.

Most offside rules limit offensive players from lingering too close to their opponent's goal. This actually encourages offensive play, for if attacking players could roam wherever they wished, the defense would fall back to the goal line and the game would be quite boring.

Now, let's look at offside rules, sport-by-sport. I've listed any team sports (with more than two players per side) that are either recognized by the Olympics or are popular in certain countries. I'm not counting baseball, cricket, takraw and volleyball, because those aren't games of field position. As for rules, I'm going with the sport's international organization (such as FIBA for basketball).

As I said before, basketball's version of the offside rule is called the over-and-back rule. Once the offensive team has brought the ball over the halfway line toward their opponent's basket, that team cannot cross back over the line with the ball. If you are holding the ball with one foot on each side of the line, you're safe, but if you have both feet on the wrong side of the court, then the other team gets possession. Two caveats: There are no over-and-back violations on inbounds plays, and if an opponent knocks the ball across the halfway line, you're allowed to go back and get it.

Moreover, basketball also has rule to prevent offensive players from camping out underneath the basket. This is called a lane violation; in it, an offensive player cannot keep both feet in the painted area underneath the basket (otherwise known as the key) for more than three seconds if he does not have the ball. That is, he must have at least one foot outside the key every three seconds. In the NBA, there is also a five-second lane violation rule against defensive players, but FIBA does not enforce this. In either case of lane violations, the other team gets to inbound the ball.

Football (American and Canadian)
Before a play can start, the referee lays down the football on the field with each end of the ball pointing at an end zone. All the defensive players must be in front of the ball, and all the offensive players must be behind it — no one can cross the "invisible line" extending across the width of the field except for the center, who must touch the ball with his hand to begin the play. If someone is breaching this line when the ball is snapped, it's offside, and that team is penalized five yards.

Football (Association/Soccer)
Many writeups above this one are solely devoted to the soccer offside rule, and for good reason — it's complicated. Basically, offensive players must always make sure that there are at least two defensive players between them and the goal. So, if I'm 30 meters away from the goal, and there is a goalkeeper and another defender five meters away from the goal, then I'm okay. A violation of this rule results in a free kick for the defensive team.

However, with this rule, there are a lot of caveats. (1) There can be no offside on your half of the field. (2) There can be no offside if you are in possession of the ball, or if the ball is nearer to the goal than you are. (3) There is no offside on a throw-in play, but there can be offside immediately afterward. (4) If you are receiving a pass, and if you are onside when the ball leaves the foot of the passer, then you cannot be offside, even if you run past all the defenders to catch up to the ball. So, if you're barely onside when a teammate kicks the ball hard down the field, you're allowed to run "offside" even when the ball is still behind you in transit. (5) If you are offside but not taking part in the play at all, then the referee may decide to let the game continue. This is totally at his discretion. However, if the defense kicks the ball toward this offside (but out-of-the-way) player, then he is considered to be put onside by the defense's mistake. (6) No offside on back passes: If you have the ball and are ahead of the defense, and then you kick the ball "backward" to a teammate, then you won't be called for offside as long as you remain out of the play. As a corollary, there is never offside on a corner kick. Any corner kick is technically a back pass, since it originates from the goal line.

Football (Australian)
Has more in common with rugby than with American or Canadian football, to say nothing of Association football. Anyway, there's no offside.

Hockey (Field)
No offside. It's rather difficult to hit the ball a long distance with any accuracy, considering how awkward to use field hockey sticks are, so the sport isn't worried about offenses spreading themselves out too much.

Hockey (Ice)
A hockey rink has two blue lines parallel to the goal line that divide the rink into three sorta-equal sections. The two areas with the goals are called the attacking zones, and the (smaller) area in the middle is called the neutral zone or center ice.

Now, the offside rule states that an offensive player cannot cross the blue line into the attack zone unless he's carrying the puck or if the puck is there ahead of him. (The latter ploy is known as "dumping the puck" or as "dump and chase," because the offense slaps the puck into the corner and then has to chase it down.)

If a player is offside — that is, if he is in the attacking zone and the puck isn't — then the game will continue, though a linesman will signal that there is an offside pending. If a teammate of the offside player then puts the puck into the attacking zone, a whistle will be blown to stop the game, and there will be a face-off in the neutral zone. However, if the defense hits the puck into their own zone, then the offside is waved off, and the game continues uninterrupted.

Ice hockey has another restraining rule as well; this is called the two-line pass, or sometimes the offiside pass. There are three parallel lines in the middle of a hockey rink — the two blue lines I told you about before, as well as the red center line — and a pass cannot cross a team's defensive blue line (the one closest to its goal) as well as the center line. In effect, "long" passes are forbidden. (Note: In the 2002 Olympics, hockey decided to allow two-line passes, and the result was fun, open play. It remains to be seen if they'll be allowed for 2006.)

A rather violent Irish game. No offside.

Lacrosse (Men's)
Like in ice hockey, a lacrosse field is split into three more-or-less equal areas. In lacrosse, however, each team must keep four players (goaltender included) on its defensive end and three players on its offensive end. Three players, called midfielders, are free to roam wherever.

The rule doesn't care which players remain in the proper ends, just as long as the correct numbers stay there. So if a defenseman picks off an errant pass and starts running down the field on a breakaway, then one of the midfielders has to hang back. A violation of this rule results in a 30-second penalty if the defensive team is at fault, or a change of possession if the offensive team committed the no-no.

Lacrosse (Women's)
Women's lacrosse also has three zones, but they're a little bit more lax about who goes where. (Pardon the pun.) Anyway, only seven offensive players and eight defensive players, including the goaltender, can go into each attacking zone. A violation results in a free possession for the other team.

Polo (Water)
The offside rule in water polo is only in effect within two meters of each goal. An offensive player cannot enter the area unless the player has the ball, or unless the ball is already in the area. Back passes are legal, as long as the receiving player shoots the ball immediately, or if the passing player leaves the two-meter area as quickly as possible. If a team is penalized for being offside, its opponent gets a free throw, which is a free possession from the spot of the foul.

Polo (Ponies)
No offside penalty. Give them a break, they're horses.

In rugby union, offensive players who do not have the ball must remain behind the ball-carrier, as well as the person who last carried the ball. If a person is off-side, he will not be penalized if he does not take an active part in the play. Moreover, an offside player can be put onside by the action of himself or his teammates. For instance, if I'm offside, I can run behind the ball carrier to get back onside.

Kicks are a whole 'nother category. If you're offside on a kick, then you cannot run toward the ball unless you're put onside. This can happen if ... (1) the kicker runs past you; (2) a teammate who was behind the kicker runs past you; (3) an opposing player catches the ball and runs for at least five meters; or if (4) an opposing player drops the ball. Also, if you're offside and the kicked ball happens to land near you, then you must retreat to a distance of 10 meters from the ball until you're put onside again.

The penalty for an offside call is either a free kick or a scrum at the position which the foul occurred.

Computer programming
It's true, it's true. According to longtime programmer Peter Landin, any program that delineates declarations with indentations is considered to follow the "offside rule." Examples include Miranda and Haskell.

Field Hockey:
Men's Lax:
Women's Lax:
Water Polo:
Plus Great Neb's writeup on rugby offsides.
Thanks to unperson and Ian_Bailey for help on basketball and ice hockey, respectively.
Big props to kthejoker for clearing up soccer and ice hockey, plus that computer programming nonsense :)

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