A kind reader brought to my attention an error in the answer which I have corrected below (the affected text is in red).
A referee asks:
Player A1 kicks the ball. Player B1 heads the ball and it falls directly to player A2 who is standing in an offside position. Is Player A2 offside?
Whenever we discuss anything pertaining to an offside question, it’s always useful to make sure we are speaking the same language. Your basic question is “Is Player A2 offside?” and our first response is “What do you mean by ‘offside’?” Law 11 uses the term to mean two related but very different things. If by “offside” you mean “offside position,” then clearly the answer is “yes” because this is a given in your scenario but, as we all know, there is nothing illegal or immoral about being in an offside position. Our next question therefore is “So what?”
The challenge for an offside position player is to not become involved in active play while carrying that tag. If you do, then you have committed an “offside violation” and an offside violation involves a whole different set of issues.
If A1 had kicked the ball directly (which, in soccer, means only that there was no intervening touch or play of the ball by anyone else) to A2, we still do not necessarily have an offside violation because A2, before being whistled, needs to become involved in active play. To say that the ball “falls … to A2” indicates nothing more than that the ball wound up from A1’s play somewhere at or near A2 and it says nothing about what A2 did about this. Did A2 then make contact with the ball, which is at the core of “becoming involved in active play by interfering with play”? At this point, A2 could play the ball (violation) … or A2 could make eye contact with the referee and begin backing away while shouting to his teammates “No! I can’t play the ball.” (no violation).
Your scenario, however, adds a twist. The ball off A1 didn’t go directly to A2 — there was an intercepting contact with the ball and, in fact, it was by an opponent. If, instead, the interception had been by a teammate (A3) in an onside position, then there would be no offside violation and thus ends that particular segment of play for offside analysis, only to begin another when A3 heads the ball to A2. Was A2 still in an offside position at the time A3 headed the ball? Did A2 then become involved in active play by touching the ball in any way? If the answers to both questions is “Yes,” then there has been an offside violation; if the answer to either of these questions is “No,” then no offside violation. (For purposes of this scenario, we’re focusing on “interfering with play” and not such additional ways of active play involvement as “interfering with an opponent.”)
So, we come to the heart of your scenario and the really important question becomes “What do you mean by ‘heads’?” In an offside scenario involving intervening contact with the ball by an opponent (B1), the referee must decide whether the contact was deliberate or accidental (e.g., a deflection off the opponent’s head, trunk, or legs). If deliberate, then there is no violation because, by the deliberate play, the opponent took possession of the ball and, when that ball then went to A2, it was no longer coming from A2’s teammate. If accidental, then there is a violation because the accidental contact is deemed not to have given B1 possession and, thus, the ball at A2’s feet had indeed come from A1.
There are one note and two important caveats to remember in all this.
The note is that, historically, this distinction between deliberate and accidental applies only to a defender, not to an attacker. In other words, any contact with the ball by an attacker, without regard to whether it was accidental or deliberate, is deemed as “coming from the attacker” for purposes of evaluating the offside position. A rather extreme example of this might start with both A2 and A3 in onside positions but with A2 moving forward toward the opponent’s goal. The ball is struck toward the intended target A3 by A1 and it glances of A3’s head. Since A3 was in an onside position when A1 kicks the ball, there is no violation. The glance of the ball redirects it to A2 who, at the time of the glance, had moved far enough toward the opposing goal line that A2 is now in an offside position. There is an offside violation now if A2 interferes with play because, although not in an offside position when A1 kicked the ball, A2 is in an offside position when the ball accidentally deflects off A3. The accidental deflection is treated the same as a deliberate play.
The first caveat is that the decision about whether B1’s contact was deliberate or accidental is solely in the opinion of the referee. There are no hard and fast guidelines for this — you have to “be there” to see all the facts and circumstances. That said, using the phrase “heads the ball” generally suggests a deliberate play.
The second caveat is that there is a significant exception to the whole deliberate/accidental dichotomy — namely, it doesn’t matter even if the contact was deliberate if the opponent’s resulting play is deemed to be a “save”! The 2016/2017 rewrite of Law 11 requires us to develop some general notion of what a “save” is. Fortunately, the Law has given us an excellent start on this by defining a “save” (p. 166, current Lawbook) as “an action to stop the ball when it is going into or very close to the goal.” “Into the goal” is easy … this has long been meant as “but for the intervention, the ball would have gone into the net.” “Or very close” is tougher but could be thought of as “so close to looking like it would go into the goal that a reasonable defender would expend every legal effort to prevent the goal” — some might think of this notion as meaning something desperate enough to be virtually reflexive (e.g., a goalkeeper fisting the ball away).
So, finally, we can answer your question about whether A2’s actions constituted an offside violation. “Yes” if “heads” is pictured as an accidental deflection, “No” if the referee decides B1’s play was deliberate, and “Yes” if the accidental deflection was a save.