Offside Position

Bill, a U-12 fan, asks:

Clarification on “second-last defender”:  Most diagrams explaining the offside law will show the second-last defender facing away, parallel to his own goal. In real life, this defender is often running ‘towards’ his goal, leaning his upper body in various directions, or has his arms extended away from his body.  Is the position of his feet, or rear foot, the decisive factor in calling offside?


That’s not the only way that “most diagrams” are often misleading.

The Law is quite clear on this – though offside position decisions rarely are decided this closely and, in a VAR-officiated game, there has been increasing talk about loosening that closeness by at least a little bit given how precisely the video results can be.  The offside position is determined by whether any part of an attacker’s body that is legally entitled to make contact with the ball is closer to the opposing team’s goal line than the part of the second-to-last defender’s body that is both legally entitled to make contact with the ball and is closest to the same goal line .  Phew!

What are the only parts of any player’s body (attacker or defender) that are NOT legally entitled to make contact with the ball?  The hands/arms from fingertips to the bottom of the shoulder joint.

Obviously, that’s a lot of words but it translates quite easily when converted to a visual image, but it is not easy to say.  For example, an attacker is NOT considered to be past the second to last defender if the attacker’s hand/arm is the only part of the attacker’s body that is past the part of the second to last defender’s body which is allowed to play the ball and is closest to that player’s goal line.  None of these statements needs to take into account where either the attacker or the second to last defender is facing (backward, forward, sideways, or any combination thereof).  And all of this is determined at the exact moment when a teammate of the forward-most attacker last plays or makes any contact with the ball (deliberately or accidentally).

We know that is a lot to swallow but it is the only, and most precise, way to state what the Law currently requires for determining an offside position. By the way, the same approach is used in determining whether an attacker is “past” the midfield line or “past” the ball (these other two requirements for an offside position are rarely in question).  Individually, these three requirements each uses the same concept of “past” as described above and thus all three use the same approach to what constitutes past some relevant reference point (midfield line, ball, and second-to-last defender).

In practice, decisions about offside position in U12 and under age groups are nowhere as precise as this.  Indeed, under standard youth soccer rules governing games of players who are under 8 years of age, there are no offside positions because there cannot be any offside offense.  The cake slices become increasingly thin as players get increasingly older and/or experienced.  The precision applied to “past” as outlined above would likely be seen used only where the teams are much older and much more competitive.