I was an AR in a Division 2 adult match this yesterday. At around the 75th minute, near my touchline, the ball was played forward to a player in an offside position. That player ran into an onside position, then turned around and chased after the ball that had been played. No player, opponent or teammate, touched or played the ball from the original play of the ball until he played it himself. When he “interfered with play,” I raised my flag for offside. The center referee blew his whistle. The offending player originally didn’t hear the whistle and proceeded to kick the ball into the goal. As this would have leveled the game 1-1, he was understandably upset when he saw that the goal was being disallowed for offside. He came over to me and asked why I called him offside. I answered, quite simply, “You were in an offside position when the ball was played.” He asked, “Did I run into an onside position after that?” I replied, “I believe so.” He asked, “But I was still offside?” I answered, “Yes, you committed an offside offence since you were in an offside position when the ball was played to you.” He then summoned the center referee, saying, “Ref, your linesman doesn’t know the rules!” The center official came to me and I clarified what happened. As my call was correct, the defending team restarted play with an IFK.

I take from this that the attacker thought there was some sort of clause in Law 11 allowing a player in an offside position to avoid committing an offside offence by “tagging up” in an onside position prior to running onto the ball. Obviously, there is no such clause. But I’ve heard this sort of thing before from a few players and coaches. In my situation, the offending player’s words and actions contributed to an eventual caution for dissent after he got upset over another offside call I made two or three minutes later. (The second call wasn’t protested due to a misunderstanding of the Law; it was simply a mistimed run on his part) This caution is something that could have been avoided if the player had a better understanding of the Laws of the Game. As referees, I feel it is our duty to educate the interested public about the Laws. So what is the origin of this “tag up” misconception, and what can we as referees do to combat further misunderstandings about the Laws? Could I or my center referee have handled the situation better?

USSF answer (September 14, 2010):
The Laws of the Game were not written to compensate for the mistakes of players (and undereducated coaches). The attacking player was clearly wrong, despite his notion that, if he returned to a supposedly “onside” position to play the ball, he was doing the right thing. Clearly he, his coach and those other, similarly rule knowledge-challenged coaches and players need to review Law 11.

Let it be clear to all: A player may not return from an offside position to play the ball last played by a teammate.

And, finally, to the point of how the officials should handle such a situation: First, your discussion was FAR too extended. Second, you should never have stated that the player was called for offside because “you were in an offside position when the ball was played.” The player was called for offside because he did one of the three things he is not permitted to do while in an offside position. Third, the referee should NEVER have let a player even approach an AR to debate a decision — the response should have been “If you want to discuss a decision, you talk to ME!”