Offside … Once Again (with Gusto)

Robb, a parent of a youth player, asks:

An attacker (Red #7) was in an offside position when her teammate (Red #11) tried to pass her the ball. It was intercepted by a defender (Blue #42) who attempted to clear the ball forward. The defender (Blue #42) kicked the ball forward but it hit the back of another defender (Blue #33) in front of her and deflected backwards to the attacker (Red #7) still in an offside position. The attacker (Red #7) subsequently scored a goal,which the Referee allowed. The Referee explained the goal would only not have counted if the deflection was off an attacker but, since the deflection was off a defender, it counts. Should a goal have been awarded? What if the deflection had been off of the referee (a neutral person on the field)? [We have added specific player team/number designations to this scenario only after discovering in the initial draft of the answer that it was going to be difficult keeping these people straight as things shifted around.]


It’s always interesting when anyone, much less a Referee, gets it right but for the wrong reason!  We are going to use the plain and usual meaning of the words in the above scenario to make a critical decision — if a defender “intercepted” the ball and then “attempted to clear the ball forward,” then it seems inescapable that this defender deliberately possessed and controlled the ball.  It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a deflection, it wasn’t a rebound … it was a play of the ball.  Period.

Once we get this, all the rest follows.  The moment Blue #42 played the ball, the play that had been initiated by Red #11 (which resulted in Red #7 being labeled as in an offside position) was over.  Now, this new play by Blue #42 automatically converted her into an attacker, thus making Red #7 a defender)!  Sounds crazy, yes?  But that is the way Law 11 works.

So, by definition, Red #7 is no longer in an offside position (contrary to the scenario language).  And Red #7, who used to be in an offside position but now isn’t, receives the ball from off the back of Blue #33  and then scores against Blue.  How could this possibly be an offside violation?  The goal was scored by Red #7, an attacker, who received the ball from an opponent  (Blue #33).  Offside and onside positions are determined only by looking at where attackers are at the moment the ball was last touched or played by a teammate, not by an opponent.

Accordingly, the Referee was correct to accept the goal as legally scored.  Where the Referee went astray (or, alternately, was not understood correctly) is in explaining the decision based on an irrelevant fact — namely, the ball having come to Red #7 by a deflection off the back of Blue #33.  There is a kernel of truth in the concept, but it applies only to an attacker whose last contact with the ball was accidental or a deflection and, as a result, the ball goes to a teammate.  In short, determining who is or is not in an offside position can be based on purely accidental contact with the ball by an attacker.  Applied to a defender, the exact opposite is true.  In order for Red #7 to be considered still in an offside position following intervening contact with the ball by any defender, that contact has to be accidental, i.e., not a deliberate play (or a deliberate save), but the only contact that was accidental was the deflection from Blue #33 after Blue #42 had turned herself and all her teammates into attackers by her deliberate play of the ball.  Red #7’s goal was safe for two reasons — first, Blue #42 deliberately played the ball and, second, Blue #33 wasn’t a teammate of Red #7.