I was watching the Euro Cup 2008 qualifier between Italy and The Netherlands. The first goal generated some controversy.

During a free kick, the keeper pushed a defender beyond the goal line. The Dutch recovered the deflected ball and put it back into the box to where Van Nistlerooy directs the ball into the goal. Based on the players on the field, he was clearly in an offside position but the flag was not raised.

My question is whether or not the defensive player that was on the ground beyond the goal line should have been counted as the last defender, meaning the attacking player was not offside, even though he was not within the boundaries of the field? Or is the fact that he did not come back into play prior to the goal means that he is not an active player and the call should have been that the attacking player was offside?

USSF answer (June 10, 2008):
You seem to have a grasp on the problem, which is actually not a problem at all — no matter what the TV announcers may have suggested.

This information in the USSF publication “Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game” should give you all the additional information you need:

A defender who leaves the field during the course of play and does not immediately return must still be considered in determining where the second to last defender is for the purpose of judging which attackers are in an offside position. Such a defender is considered to be on the touch line or goal line closest to his or her off-field position. A defender who leaves the field with the referee’s permission (and who thus requires the referee’s permission to return) is not included in determining offside position.

This release from UEFA arrived after our answer was published:

UEFA has emphasised that the goal scored by Netherlands striker Ruud van Nistelrooy in last night’s UEFA EURO 2008˙ match against Italy in Berne was valid, and that referee Peter Fröjdfeldt acted correctly in awarding the goal.

Not offside
UEFA General Secretary David Taylor was reacting to claims from some quarters that Van Nistelrooy was standing in an offside position when he scored the first of the Netherlands ‘ goals in their 3-0 win. “I would like to take the opportunity to explain and emphasise that the goal was correctly awarded by the referee team,” he said. “I think there’s a lack of understanding among the general football public, and I think it’s understandable because this was an unusual situation. The player was not offside, because, in addition to the Italian goalkeeper, there was another Italian player in front of the goalscorer. Even though that other Italian player at the time had actually fallen off the pitch, his position was still relevant for the purposes of the offside law.”

Still involved
The starting point, said Mr Taylor, is the Laws of the Game ˆ Law 11 ˆ which deals with offside, and whereby a player is in an offside position if he is nearer to his opponents’ goalline than both the ball and the second last opponent. “There need to be two defenders involved,” the UEFA General Secretary said. “If you think back to the situation, the first is the goalkeeper, and the second is the defender who, because of his momentum, actually had left the field of play. But this defender was still deemed to be part of the game. Therefore he is taken into consideration as one of the last two opponents. As a result, Ruud Van Nistelrooy was not nearer to the opponents’ goal than the second last defender and, therefore, could not be in an offside position.

Rare incident
“This is a widely-known interpretation of the offside law amongst referees that is not generally known by the wider football public,” he continued. “Incidents like this are very unusual ˆ although I’m informed that there was an incident like this about a month ago in a Swiss Super League match between FC Sion and FC Basel 1893. [It was] initially suggested that this [goal] was a mistake by the referee in terms of the offside law ˆ the commentator later apologised publicly, as he didn’t realise that this was the correct application of the law. ”

Law applied
Mr Taylor concluded: “So let’s be clear ˆ the referees’ team applied the law in the correct manner.

If we did not have this interpretation of the player being off the pitch, then what could happen is that the defending team could use the tactic of stepping off the pitch deliberately to play players offside, and that clearly is unacceptable. The most simple and practical interpretation of the law in this instance is the one that is adopted by referees throughout the world ˆ that is that unless you have permission from the referee to be off the pitch, you are deemed to be on it and deemed to be part of the game. That is why the Italian defender, even though his momentum had taken him off the pitch, was still deemed to be part of the game, and therefore the attacking player put the ball into the net, and it was a valid goal. The law in this place was applied absolutely correctly.”

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