Choosing the Offside Violation

Brenden, an adult amateur player, asks:

A5 makes a run with the ball towards goal while his teammate A12 is also moving downfield ahead of A5.  During this phase of play up to the moment when A5 last touches/plays the ball, A12 is onside but mistimes the continuation of his run such that, when his teammate last plays the ball, A12 is in an offside position while another attacker, A18, is onside.  A12’s run draws the attention of D34 who begins to move toward A12 to cover him.  However, A5’s last play of the ball is a pass to A18 who is unmarked as a result of D34’s diversion toward A12.  Can the referee rule an infringement against the attacking side on the basis that they gained an advantage from A12’s offside position?

Answer (see also “Apology” posted on July 5)

The easy answer here is, No, because “gaining an advantage” is not technically a basis for an offside violation.  It is used only under special circumstances which involves a ball which has either”rebounded or been deflected off the goalpost, crossbar or an opponent” or “been deliberately saved by an opponent” (see Law 11.2, 2016/2017 Laws of the Game).  The sole purpose of this section of Law 11 is to make clear the offside position of an attacker is not changed by (1) any contact between the ball and things considered “part of the field” (inanimate such as a goalpost or animate such as the referee) or (2) the ball  rebounding/deflecting from an opponent or (3) contact by the ball with an opponent which is deemed to be a “deliberate save”).  Since there was no such intervening contact by the ball with anything inanimate or with a defender (either accidental or deliberate), the “gaining an advantage” element in Law 11 is completely irrelevant.

That leaves just three possibilities for the only attacker carrying an offside position: (1) A12 committed no offside violation at all, (2) A12 committed an offside violation by interfering with play, or (3) A12 committed an offside violation by interfering with an opponent.  Note that, once A18 makes contact with the ball from A5’s pass, all offside position decisions have to be re-evaluated, following which A5 might not be in an offside position at all.

Prior to A18’s contact with the ball, did A12 interfere with play?  No, because A12 made no contact with the ball.  Indeed, while we do not know where A12 was relative to A18, we presume they were far enough away from each other that a ball passed to A18 could not reasonably be considered even within the vicinity of A18.  No contact, no offside violation based on “interfering with play.”

Prior to A18’s contact with the ball, did A12 interfere with an opponent while in an offside position?  There are four alternative actions which could be considered “interfering with an opponent” but only the fourth one is potentially relevant: “making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball.”  Remember, an action of this sort is entirely legal if performed while in an onside position.  So, did D34 begin his run before or after A2 was in an offside position … which translates into whether D34 began his move toward A12 before or after A5 passed the ball to A18?

We think there would be no reasonable dispute that A12 did not commit an offside violation if D34 began running to cover A12 before A5 passed the ball because an offside violation cannot be committed if the player in question was not even in an offside position  at the time.  Nor could there be any reasonable dispute that A12 did not commit an offside violation at the moment he came into an offside position if, at that moment, he stopped running, even if D34 continued in his effort to reach A12 to “cover him.”

If A12 continues or initiates a run downfield after A5 passes the ball to A18, we are now into a grey area of angles and distances.  The offside violation dispute would virtually disappear if A12 turned and began running back towards his end of the field or began running toward the touchline to his right (away from the direction of play), even if D34 followed him.  It would be difficult to argue under these circumstances that D34’s “ability … to play the ball” was being impacted since he was running away from the ball (indeed, to make matters more apparent, he would be pursuing an attacker, A12, who didn’t need “covering” while running away from A18 who did need covering!).  In many referee circles, if A12 began running as described, this would be interpreted as a clear body language statement that A12 did not wish to be involved in active play.

Where light grey starts becoming dark grey is if, at the moment A12 acquired an offside position, he continued or initiated his run downfield but not toward where the ball was being passed from A5 to A18 and this behavior arguably “drew” D34 away from moving to cover A18 by enticing him to begin running toward A12.  We believe this situation was of D34’s own making.  It was not an action by A12 which impacted on D34’s ability to play the ball — that was created by D34 running away from the ball (indeed, away from the entire area of active play) to pursue the chimera of A12 possibly receiving the ball and having a referee unable to decide correctly that, if that happened, it would be an offside violation.

To finish off what is already a lengthy but we hope stimulating discussion, there are the changes to Law 11 made this year (in the 2017/2018 edition of the Laws of the Game) which we believe both clarified and solidified the conclusion we have reached that A12 has not committed an offside violation.  The International Board added a proviso that, if an attacker in an offside position were fouled “before playing or attempting to play the ball, or challenging an opponent for the ball,” the foul itself would be penalized “as it has occurred before the offside offense” {we’ve Americanized the Board’s spelling).  This seems to us to be a very compelling reason to argue that an offside offense has not yet occurred while running to the ball or the ball is running to the attacker or the attacker is not challenging for the ball,