Offsides in Soccer (Guide With Examples)

The offside rule is one of the most important and significant rules in the game of soccer. It’s one of the core influencers of gameplay, formations, and how the sport is played as a whole.

It dictates what positions players occupy on the field, as well as when and where the ball is passed.

What is offside in soccer?

The offside rule in soccer is to stop player ‘goal hanging’ – standing near the opposition goal. This also stops soccer from being a long ball game, balls hit from one goal to another.

To get the official rule we have to consult the IFAB (International Football Association Board) rulebook. IFAB is the organization that governs the laws of soccer.

They’re an independent body and are the only organization authorized to decide and agree on changes to the Laws of the Game.  

Ronaldo

The official offside soccer rule

A player is in an offside position if: 

• any part of the head, body or feet is in the opponents’ half (excluding the halfway line) and 

• any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent. 

The hands and arms of all players, including the goalkeepers, are not considered.

A player is not in an offside position if level with the: 

• the second-last opponent or last two opponents”.

IFAB
Offside Example in Soccer. SoccerBlade.com
Offside Example in Soccer. SoccerBlade.com

What is Offsides in Soccer?

The offsider rule regulates the game to be a balance between short and long passes. The game is played in a contained area that promotes play.

Without the offside rule, soccer would descend to a game where the ball is hit from one end of the pitch to the other.

This with all players competing to score in a sea of chaos. It would be an unrecognizable game.

Thankfully, instead of this, we have ‘the beautiful game’: the most popular sport in the world, full of excitement, skill, athleticism, and tactical guile.

That being said, many people don’t fully understand the rule.

Assistant referee flagging for offside (Why Offsides in Soccer?)
An assistant referee flagging for offside | Image courtesy of James West.

It’s not an offense to simply be in an offside position. If involved in active play from a touch by a teammate.

The player in an offside position will be subsequently ruled offside and an indirect free-kick will be ruled against them.

Why Does Soccer Have Offsides?

The offside rule was created to prevent players from hanging around the opponent’s goal, looking for easy opportunities to score.

The law stops teams from implementing hit and hope, long-ball tactics at every opportunity. While there is a valid time and place for direct strategies, consistently playing the game in this manner reduces the skill level significantly. 

If offsides didn’t exist, you’d be watching tall, brutish athletes competing for headers for the majority of the game instead of talented, skillful, tactical, and well-organized teams lining up against each other.

The offside rule forces teams to play a more attractive brand of soccer and ensures skill and tactics are at the forefront of success.

The Offside Rule Today

It’s common for the official offside rule to change. As soccer and technology evolve, the governing bodies are constantly trying to improve the game by tweaking rules.

Because international tournaments and most major domestic leagues now use video assistant referees (VAR), offsides have become extremely precise in recent seasons. 

The English Premier League had significant teething problems with VAR and offsides. Soccer is an extremely free-flowing sport so most rules have elements of ambiguity to them, including offside.

This allows referees to manage the game at their own discretion and gives them some wiggle room.

As offside is a relatively black and white rule, vagueness and ambiguity had to be removed from the wording entirely to comply with video technology. 

While soccer is still adapting to VAR, it is being applied much more effectively for offsides after several years in the game. 

According to IFAB

Although there have been several minor changes since the offside rule as we know it today was introduced in 1990. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) is responsible for governing the laws of association soccer. Let’s take a look at the latest interpretation of offside according to IFAB.

A player is regarded as being in an offside position in the following circumstances: 

  • Their head, torso, or feet are in the opponent’s half (not including on the halfway line) and are closer to the opponent’s goal line than the second-last opponent (usually the last outfield player). 

Once the ball is kicked and the player in the above position is deemed to be interfering with play, the linesman or lineswoman flags for offside, and a free kick is awarded to the defending team.

A player doesn’t actually have to touch the ball to be flagged as offside. Interfering with the ball can mean inhibiting the movement of an opposing player, moving toward the ball, challenging or tackling an opponent. 

The arms and hands are not acknowledged in the offside rule as players are prohibited from using them. For clarification, the boundary between the body and arm starts at the bottom of the player’s armpit. 

It’s important to note that a player is not regarded as being in an offside position if they are level with the second to last opponent. 

Check out the best-disallowed goals, with some mind-bending offside strikes! Oh, what could have been!

Soccer offside rule exceptions

There are some exceptions to the offside rule. A player is not offside when receiving the ball directly from a goal kick, throw-in, or corner kick. This allows attacking players to gain a significant advantage with intelligent movement. 

Goal Kicks

To ensure offsides ran smoothly in the original ruleset from the 1800s, offsides from goal kicks didn’t exist. Otherwise, all attacking players would have been flagged offside for every goal kick. Although the offside rule changed several times from that point, the goal kick exception remained.

Throw-Ins

In the original rules, players could not be offside from a throw-in but because throw-ins had to be taken at right angles to the sidelines, it was difficult to get an attacking advantage. 

When the rule changed to allow throw-ins to go in any direction, offsides were enabled. However, this slowed the game down significantly and encouraged teams to kick the ball out for throw-ins to waste time and stop the game. 

In 1920, the law was readjusted again, meaning players couldn’t be offside from throw-ins.

This change was widely commended as it contributed to a more open and exciting game.

Corner Kicks

In the early days, corner kicks were taken from the actual corner of the field, where the flag is now planted. This made it impossible for any players to be offside from a corner as the ball was placed along the goal line.

Later, corner kick takers were allowed to move the ball approximately 1 foot from the corner, meaning their teammates could theoretically be offside.

However, corner kicks were officially listed as exceptions to the offside rule to prevent frequent controversy during games.

Offside Sanctions

If offside is called, an indirect free-kick is awarded against the team who committed the offense.

Players do not receive yellow or red cards for being offside. However, if you commit a cautionable or sending-off offense while offside, you can still be awarded a card. 

Interestingly, according to IFAB Law, persistent breaking of the rules is a cautionable offense that is punishable by a yellow card.

Cautionable Offences: Persistent offences (no specific number or pattern of offences constitutes ‘persistent’)”

IFAB Law 12.3 (disciplinary action)

So, in theory, if a player was intentionally lingering offside over and over again, the referee would be entitled to give them a card. 

This scenario is highly unlikely, however, as it would put the player’s team at a significant disadvantage.

Becoming “involved in active play” rules: 

  • Interferes with play by touching a ball that’s passed or touched by a teammate. 
  • Prevents an opponent by obstructing their vision, by challenging them for the ball, or by making an obvious action to impact their ability to get the ball.
  • Gains an advantage or interferes with an opponent when the ball is rebounded from the post, cross-bar, *opponent, or game official.  
Example of the offside rule. 1 (Why Offsides in Soccer?)
A graphic demonstrating an offside position being occupied by player A | Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

It’s important to note that if an opponent intentionally plays the ball and it’s intercepted by a player in an offside position.

This is not regarded as gaining an advantage and so they will not be penalized for offside.   

There are several pages of more specific circumstances and situations where offsides can occur in the IFAB rulebook.

However, these are the ‘small print’ and are not important to discuss in general terms.

There are exceptions to this offside rule.

A player cannot be ruled offside if;

They receive the ball directly from a throw-in, a corner-kick, or a goal-kick. 

In most cases, the linesman or assistant referee, who operates on the sidelines of the field, is in charge of monitoring and flagging offsides. 

What’s the maximum penalty for being offside?

The maximum penalty for offside is an indirect freekick. It’s not a bookable offense to be caught offside. 

Can a goalkeeper be offside?

Yes. A goalkeeper can be offside in the same way that an outfield player can be. 

Here is the offside rule explained with some visual aids

In-game Examples of Offside

Below are some screengrabs of in-game offsides. This should give you a clearer indication of what offside is and when players are in offside positions. 

Clear Offside Example

Real match example of the offside rule in-game. 2 (Why Offsides in Soccer?)
Screenshot demonstrating offside | Courtesy of Everton Football Club.

In the above example, we can clearly see that blue number 18 (Morgan Schneiderlin of Everton) is in an offside position.

If the teammate plays the ball to him in this situation, he will be ruled for offside.

The second to last red defender is their number 21 (Diego Rico of Bournemouth), who is clearly several feet in front of the attacker. This is a straightforward offside call. 

Clear Onside Example

Real match example of the offside rule in-game. 3 (Why Offsides in Soccer?)
Screenshot demonstrating onside | Courtesy of Real Madrid

In the above example, we can clearly see that the furthest attacking green player (Eden Hazard of Real Madrid) is in front of the defender when the ball is being passed.

This means that the attacking player is in an onside position and play will go on as normal. 

Real match example of the offside rule in-game. 4 (Why Offsides in Soccer?)
Screenshot demonstrating onside | Courtesy of Real Madrid

In the above example, the passing player is kicking the ball to his left (to Karim Benzema of Real Madrid).

The receiver is clearly in front of the second and third to last defender, meaning he is onside. Both of these examples are straightforward, onside calls. 

Close Offside Example

Real match example of the offside rule in-game. 5 (Why Offsides in Soccer?)
Screenshot demonstrating a close offside call | Courtesy of Real Madrid

In the above example, we can see an instance where it’s difficult to tell from the naked eye whether a player is offside or onside. 

  • First, please note that the 2 furthest forward players in white are in offside positions. 

Now, please turn your attention to the player in white at the top of the image. From our angle, one could debate whether or not the player is in an offside position.

His feet appear to be in front of at least one defender. However, a player can be deemed offside if any part of the body that the player can score with is in an offside position.

In this instance, the attacker’s left shoulder is in a potentially offside position. It’s tight calls like this when VAR and advanced offside technology come in useful.

When we look at examples such as this one, there is no wonder that offside debates are had every week of the soccer season.

Is a player automatically offside if they’re behind the goalkeeper?

The goalkeeper is regarded as the ‘last defender’. Therefore, if a player passes a ball forward to a teammate when they’re behind the goalkeeper, they’re offside. 

Offside Based Tactics

Offsides can be incorporated into certain tactical and formational plans made by coaches.

They may use a high-defensive line or a low block defensive structure, depending on the playing style of their opponent.

Offensively, certain players might occupy specific areas of the pitch that coaches see as vulnerable in offside terms.

A player who lacks pace is consistently slow at joining their defensive line during transitions.

This could lead to opportunities for a fast striker to gain a few yards on their defender if possession is turned over.

Offsides are part and parcel of the game, in all areas. However, there are instances where offside is used directly as a tactic.

A good example of this is the offside trap.

What is the Offside Trap

The offside trap is a defensive tactic where the defense attempts to catch the attacking team in an offside position by moving forward before the ball is played.

The offside trap can be executed in several ways but the two main instances that we see it being used are when teams are defending free kicks or if a player steps up during a game to render their opponent offside. 

Offside Trap Example in Soccer. SoccerBlade.com
Offside Trap Example in Soccer. SoccerBlade.com

Offside Trap From a free-kick

It’s important to note that a player will not be ruled offside if they receive the ball directly from a throw-in, goal kick, corner-kick, or inside their own half.

  • Executing the offside trap: players line up in their usual defensive line. Just before the opposition plays the ball behind a team’s defense, the defensive line runs ahead of the opposing attacker(s) to put them in an offside position.

As the name suggests, this is a ‘trap’, so it generally only works if the opponents don’t know that it’s coming.

It’s important for the defensive team to have this well-drilled and to communicate with each other on the field so that they execute the play as a unit.

When it comes off, the offside trap from a free kick works an absolute treat. However, it’s a risky maneuver, particularly in the VAR era, where the defense cannot deceive the game officials.

If the offside trap is not executed well, the offensive team will most likely have a clear goalscoring opportunity.

Offside trap In-game Offside

This is a lot trickier as it involves quick thinking and is not a pre-meditated and rehearsed set-play. 

Offside trap failing from a set-piece

An in-game offside trap is where the last defender anticipates a pass to the opposition striker. The defender sprints ahead of their opponent, before their teammate passes the ball to them, leaving the attacker in an offside position.

This works more often than you may think, as generally the defender and the attacker are moving in opposite directions, meaning the distance between them can be created very quickly. 

The defender must be aware of their position as well as the position of their teammates.

If a defender attempts to catch their opponent offside, unaware that their teammate is behind them keeping the striker onside, the striker gains a huge advantage. 

We often see defenders attempting to do this in a desperate panic when they’re caught in a poor position.

History of the Offside Rule

Offsides have not always existed in the same fashion that they do today. It’s a rule that has undergone much change over the years.

Let’s take a look at how it all started. Before the unified rules of soccer were agreed upon, the sport existed in many different forms.

Rulesets differed so severely that in some instances the game couldn’t even be compared to today.

  • The Cambridge Unified Rules of soccer were established in 1863. In the original ruleset, there had to be three defenders between the attacker and the goal, or else the attacker was regarded as being in an offside position.

This later changed to two defenders (in the 1900s). This simple change led to a 35% increase in scoring that year. 

Offside Rule Change

The offside rule has changed from the second-last defender, an advantage to the attacker, and VAR.

With a change of emphasis on creating a more attacking playing style, a significant change to the offside rule was made in 1990.

A player was now ruled to be in an onside position if they were level with the second to last opponent. This rule change would lead to a more free-flowing game. 

Since 1990, changes to the offside rule have been made from time to time, with a general focus on giving the attackers the advantage.

The most significant rule change made to influence the game since then has been the introduction of technology into the sport of soccer, in particular, VAR (video-assisted referee).

Evolution of Soccer Rules

The sport of soccer is constantly evolving. There are adjustments to rules and regulations every season.

We have seen considerable changes in the game of late, especially with the introduction of VAR and other in-game technology.

Goal-line technology detects all shots that cross the goal line.

This has removed controversy surrounding close calls in the goalmouth. VAR was introduced to have a similar effect on offside calls.

However, as the 2019/20 EPL season has shown so far, offsides are still causing huge drama in the sport.

We may yet see further changes to the offside rule and how it’s officiated in the coming months. Why offsides in soccer?

  • If you want to read up on these finer details, check out the IFAB rulebook and skip to page 98. In the most simple terms possible, offside is where a player is in their opponent’s half and they’re closer to the goal-line than the ball and the second-last opponent when the ball is played.

You decide, would the game be chaotic or entertaining without offsides? – it sure would be interesting!

Soccer Rules FAQ

How long is a soccer game?

Soccer games include two 45 minute halves, which is 90 minutes of play. Those who have ever watched a game know that, like many sports, real-time is longer than the match time.
In real-time, the length of a soccer game varies immensely. At the bare minimum, it will be 90 minutes of play + 15 minutes of halftime for a total of 105 minutes.

What is offside in soccer?

The offside rule in soccer is to stop player ‘goal hanging’ – standing near the opposition goal. This also stops soccer from being a long ball game, balls hit from one goal to another.

What are yellow card offenses?

+ Charging an opponent – caution if reckless.
+ Holding an opponent – When the ball is in play and the holding continues.
+ Handling the Ball – When a player handles the ball to break up attacking play. If an attacker + uses their hand to attempt to score a goal.
+ Dangerous play – If a player makes an action that can risk an injury to another player.
+ Impeding the progress of an opponent – If a player holds another player back or blocks a player on purpose, that prevents an attack.
+ Breaking up an attack - where there is the possibility of creating a scoring chance.
+ Simulation - where a player tries to con a referee into thinking that they are injured in order to punish the opponent. If a player tries to make out that they have been fouled.

What are the red card offenses?

+ Serious foul play
+ Violent conduct
+ Spitting at a person
+ Deliberate handball – denying a goal-scoring opportunity
+ Denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity
+ Offensive, aggressive, abusive language or gesture
+ Receiving a second caution

Soccer field size, size of goal, number of players and minutes played per age;

+ u17-u19 - Halves 2 x 45 minutes - Number of players 11 vs 11 - Goal Size 8 x 24 - Field size 50-100 by 100-130 yards
+ u15-u16 - Halves 2 x 40 minutes - Number of players 11 vs 11 - Goal Size 8 x 24 - Field size 50- 100 by 100-130 yards
+ u13-u14 - Halves 2 x 35 minutes - Number of players 11 vs 11 - Goal Size 8 x 24 - Field size 50-10 by 100-130 yards
+ u11-u12 - Halves 2 x 30 minutes - Number of players 9 vs 9 - Goal Size 7 x 21 - Field size 45-70 by 70-80 yards
+ u9-u10 - Halves 2 x 25 minutes - Number of players 7 vs 7 - Goal Size 6 x 18.5 - Field size 35-45 by 55-65 yards
+ u6-u8 - Quarters 4 x 10 minutes - Number of players 4 vs 4 - 4 x 6 Goal Size - Field size 15-25 by 25-35 yards

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