World Cup: The Offside Curse

Observers of World Cup Soccer are often puzzled by the referee disallowing a seemingly legitimate goal or halting the flow of play and awarding a free kick to the opposing side. I understand how the offside rule works, but often wondered why it had to be so disruptive. Its only evident purpose is to protect the goalkeeper from interference. With the World Cup currently occupying everyone’s thoughts, I decided to do some research — i.e. I googled Wikipedia.


The offside rule dates back to when football developed at English public schools in the early nineteenth century. The sport was fragmented and two opposing codes developed: Sheffield rules, with no offside rule and players entitled to lurk in front of the opposing goal; and Cambridge rules, with a similar offside rule to rugby union — where any player in front of the ball was considered offside. As the game developed and the codes amalgamated, the offside rule proved a major point of contention. Sheffield eventually conceded and by 1863, when the Football Association was formed, the offside rule required “at least three” opponents between an attacking player and the goal.

In 1925 the requirement was reduced to the current “two players” leading to a sharp increase in the number of goals scored.

….4,700 goals were scored in 1,848 Football League games in 1924–25. This number rose to 6,373 goals (from the same number of games) in 1925–26.

Further attempts have been made over the years to reduce the impact of the offside rule on the game, especially as defenses nowadays deliberately attempt to trap an opponent offside (the “offside trap”). Changes attempted have so far proved unsuccessful. Most promising was the Scottish Leagues attempt, in 1973-1975, to only apply the offside rule in the last 18 yards of play (i.e. in line with the penalty area). The move fizzled out — probably because it originated North of the border — but I think they had the right idea. After all we watch soccer to see goals; not the referee blowing his whistle.

The Offside Rule

Law 11 in association football states that if a player is in an offside position (as defined below) when the ball is touched or played by a team-mate, the player may not become actively involved in the play. A player is in an offside position when:

  • He/she is in the opposing team’s half of the field;
  • Is in front of the ball; and
  • Fewer than two opposing players (the goalkeeper counts as an opposing player) are between him/her and the opposing goal line.

Any attacker that is level with or behind the ball is not in an offside position.

Read more at Wikipedia: Offside – Association Football