The Offside Rule in Soccer: A Complete Guide


header image for the offside rule

The offside rule is one of the most misunderstood but most often used rules in soccer.

If you have watched or played soccer for any length of time, you will have noticed that one of the most common stoppages during a game is because the referee judges that a player judged is in an offside position.

A player is considered to be breaking the offside rule in soccer when any part of their head, body, or feet is in the opponents’ half and nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent.

What may not be so clear is “why that player is offside” and “what the offside rule means.”

In this article, we’ll look at everything to do with the offside rule, and hopefully, by the end, you’ll have the answer to any questions you may have.

The Offside Rule in Soccer

Firstly, let’s clarify offsides in soccer.

The offside rule in soccer states that a player will be penalized when:

  • any part of a player’s head, body, or feet is in the opponents’ half (excluding the halfway line)
  • and any part of the same player’s head, body, or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent.

For reference, the IFAB is an independent body, of which FIFA is a part, and are the only organization in world soccer that are authorized to decide on and implement changes to the rules of soccer. They set the rules which every major soccer league and competition across the world follows.

example of player in offside position
The player highlighted in the yellow circle is in an offside position

At first glance, this explanation may bring clarity and seem straightforward, or it‘s possible that it may make things seem a little more confusing and raise more questions!

Either way, don’t worry!

Let’s dig into it a little more, and hopefully, by the end of this article, you will be able to explain the offside rule to all your friends without a second thought!

Two specific clarifications about the offside rule

In soccer, a player is in an offside position when:

  • any part of their head, body, or feet is in their opponent’s half of the field,
  • they are nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent,
  • and they are involved in active play

Although the offside rule as written above encompasses the basis of what the offside rule is, the IFAB goes on to make two specific clarifications about this statement.

When looking to understand the offside rule you need to be aware of what these clarifications are.

image showing player not using their arms

Firstly, when a referee, or referees assistant, is deciding whether a player is offside, they will not take the position of the player’s hands and arms into consideration.

When the rule mentions the “head, body or feet“ of a player, it is excluding the hands and arms of the player. This can be confusing as many people consider the hands and arms to be part of the body.

In the context of the offside rule, this is not the case.

This also applies to the goalkeeper, even though in other situations they are permitted to use their hands and arms.

example of player level with defender

The second thing to be aware of is: A player is not in an offside position if they are level with the:

  • second-last opponent or
  • last two opponents

This is a clarification that the player does not have to be behind the opponent to be onside. They can also be level with the opponent and still be onside. As the offside rule says, a player is offside when they are ahead of the opponent.

Why being in an offside position isn’t always an offense

If you look at the offside rule in isolation, you would probably think there was no situation where a player should be ”nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent,” but the reality is that this isn’t the case.

This is because it is not an offense for a player to be in an offside position.

Following the definition of what it means to be in an offside position, the IFAB goes on to state that:

A player in an offside position at the moment the ball is played or touched by a team-mate is only penalised on becoming involved in active play

IFAB “Laws of the Game”
example of player in offside position

In the image above, the player highlighted in the yellow circle is stood in an offside position but is not considered to be committing an offense until they become involved in the play.

In the past, it used to be the case that a player would be penalized for simply being in an offside position at the moment the ball was played towards them by another member of their team.

In recent years the rule has changed so that a player is only penalized when they are “Involved in active play”.

But what exactly does this mean? What does it look like to be involved in active play?

What Is “Active Play” in Soccer

There are 3 different things that are considered involvement in active play:

1.

Interfering with play by playing or touching a ball passed or touched by a team-mate

IFAB “Laws of the Game”

This is the most common instance you will see where a player is penalized.

Numerous times throughout a single game, you may see a player pass the ball past the last defender to another player on their team only for the referee to blow their whistle and stop the game because the player receiving the ball was in an offside position and is now involved in active play.

2.

Interfering with an opponent

IFAB “Laws of the Game”

There are a number of things that are considered as interference with another player.

These are:

  • preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or
  • challenging an opponent for the ball or
  • clearly attempting to play a ball which is close when this action impacts on an opponent or
  • making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball

3.

Gaining an advantage by playing the ball or interfering with an opponent

IFAB “Laws of the Game”

This happens when the ball has:

  • rebounded or been deflected off the goalpost, crossbar, match official or an opponent
  • been deliberately saved by any opponent

If the ball is deliberately played or touched by a defensive player and an opponent intercepts and receives the ball, then even if that attacking player is in an offside position, they are not considered to have gained an advantage and will not be penalized.

The only time this is not the case is when the player receives the ball from a deliberate save from an opponent.

Meaning of a “save”

goalkeeper saving a shot at goal

It is worth pointing out here what is meant by a “save” because if you are like me, you may assume that it is only a goalkeeper that makes a save in a game of soccer. But in this context, that’s not the case.

The definition of a save is:

A ‘save’ is when a player stops, or attempts to stop, a ball which is going into or very close to the goal with any part of the body except the hands/arms (unless the goalkeeper within the penalty area).

IFAB “Laws of the Game”

So, any player on the field can make save!

Situations where there is no offside offense

So we have now established what it means to be in an offside position, explained two specific clarifications about the offside rule, and described when being in an offside position is penalized.

The next thing to know about the offside rule is that there are 3 situations where there is no offside offense even if the player is in an offside position and becomes involved in active play.

These 3 situations are:

  1. When a player receives the ball directly from a goal kick.
  2. When the player receives the ball directly from a throw-in, and
  3. When the player receives the ball directly from a corner-kick

These 3 set pieces are the ideal opportunity for a player to take advantage of the opportunity to be further ahead of the defenders than would usually be possible. Especially if the defenders momentarily forget that there is no offside offense in these situations!

Offside sanctions

Knowing the details of a rule is great, but you also need to know what the consequences are of being penalized for breaking this rule.

So, what happens when an offside offense is penalized?

When an offside offense occurs, the referee will award an indirect free kick to the opposing team. This free-kick will be taken from the point on the field where the player in the offside position became involved in active play.

If you want to know more about what an indirect free kick is, have a look at my article – Free kick in Soccer: Everything you need to know.

A player won’t be cautioned, or shown a yellow card for being offside.

Although it is possible that a player could be cautioned for time-wasting if they deliberately and repetitively get penalized for being offside. This would be incredibly rare, however, and I can’t personally recall this happening.

6 Specific Examples of Offside Offenses for Clarification

Hopefully, the offside rule and all its details are starting to make sense now and you’re feeling more confident in your understanding of it.

If not, don’t worry! Have a look at this decision tree in the image below and see if that helps.

Is a player offside decision tree
Offsides in Soccer Decision Tree

It can seem complicated at first, and there is a lot of detail to understand. If you are struggling, I would encourage you to go back to the beginning of this article and go through it again at a slower pace to take it all in.

But for clarification, here’s the offside rule one more time.

A player is offside in soccer when they are closer to the opponent’s goal line than either the ball or the second-last opponent; they have become involved in active play, and any part of their head, body, or feet are positioned in their opponents’ half.

If you feel like good about it so far, let’s keep going with some examples.

When applying a rule like this to a real-world situation it can be helpful to lay out some specific examples to help everyone understand.

The offside rules do this by going on to give 6 examples of how the rule applies in specific situations.

These are to help soccer players, spectators, and referees understand how the rule applies in a game situation and help prevent any possible confusion.

Here are the 6 examples:

1.

In situations where a player moving from or standing in an offside position is in the way of an opponent and interferes with the movement of the opponent towards the ball, this is an offside offense if it impacts on the ability of the opponent to play or challenge for the ball.

If the player moves into the way of an opponent and impedes the opponent’s progress (e.g. blocks the opponent), the offense should be penalized under Law 12(Fouls and Misconduct)

2.

In situations where a player in an offside position is moving towards the ball intending to play the ball and is then fouled before playing, or attempting to play the ball, or challenging an opponent for the ball, the foul is penalized as it has occurred before the offside offense.

3.

In situations where an offense is committed against a player in an offside position who is already playing or attempting to play the ball or challenging an opponent for the ball, the offside offense is penalized as it has occurred before the foul challenge.

4.

A defending player who leaves the field of play without the referee’s permission shall be considered to be on the goal line or touchline for the purposes of offside until the next stoppage in play or until the defending team has played the ball towards the halfway line and it is outside its penalty area.

If the player left the field of play deliberately, the player must be cautioned when the ball is next out of play.

5.

An attacking player may step or stay off the field of play not to be involved in active play.

If the player re-enters from the goal line and becomes involved in play before the next stoppage in play or the defending team has played the ball towards the halfway line, and it is outside its penalty area, the player shall be considered to be positioned on the goal line for the purposes of offside.

A player who deliberately leaves the field of play and re-enters without the referee’s permission and is not penalized for offside and gains an advantage must be cautioned.

6.

If an attacking player remains stationary between the goalposts and inside the goal as the ball enters the goal, a goal must be awarded unless the player commits an offside offense or a Law 12 offense, in which case play is restarted with an indirect or direct free kick.

If you take the time to go over these and understand them it will help you follow what’s going on in a soccer game.

Common questions

Although at this point we’ve covered a lot about what the offside rule is and how it works in a game, there will often still be a few questions people have about it.

So let’s have a look at these questions and answer them below.

Why is there an offside rule in soccer?

example of players gathering around goal

There has been an offside rule in soccer since the 1860s. Since that time it has developed and changed significantly but the purpose of it has stayed essentially the same.

The offside rule exists to prevent all the attacking players just standing around the goal waiting for the ball to arrive there, usually from a big kick up the field.

This would make for a much less interesting game. It would stifle any creativity and the game would probably resort to a game of long kicks rather than the creative passing game that it is today.

Is a player offside if the ball comes off a defender?

The answer to this question depends on how the defender has played the ball.

A player in an offside position is penalized for being offside if they receive the ball after it has rebounded or deflected off of an opponent.

However, if the player in an offside position receives the ball after the defender or opponent has deliberately played the ball, the player is not considered to have gained an advantage and will not be penalized for being offside.

Sometimes it will be hard for the referee to decide whether the defender played the ball deliberately or if it was just a deflection, but this decision can be the difference between a player being penalized for offside or not.

Can you be offside in your own half?

image showing the attacking half of a soccer field

As the offside rule states:

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)

IFAB “Laws of the Game”

This clearly shows that it is not possible to be offside in a player’s own half. The player has to be in the opposition half.

However, you may notice that the free-kick for the offside offense will sometimes be taken in the player’s own half. This is because the free-kick is taken from the place from where the player became “actively involved in the play.”

An example of this is when a player is in the opposition half when the ball is played to them but then moves back into their own half to receive the ball. The offense is committed by the player being offside in the opposition half but only penalized when the player receives the ball.

Is it offside if you pass backward?

This is a really interesting question. For a long time, I had assumed I knew the answer to this but while researching for this post I realized my assumption was wrong.

It’s interesting because I discovered that the direction the ball is passed in is actually irrelevant.

Here’s why:

Near the beginning of this article, I laid out what the offside rule is according to the IFAB, the governing body who decides on the rules for soccer.

Part of the offside rule says:

A player is in an offside position if…any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent

IFAB “Laws of the Game”

This means that at the moment a player passes the ball backward to another player the position of the player being passed to is the most important factor to be considered.

For example, if the player being passed to is “nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent” when the ball is passed backward, they are in an offside position.

But if a player is not nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent when the ball is passed backward then they would not be in an offside position.

The direction the ball travels in is not relevant. The position of the player in relation to the ball and the second-last opponent is what is important.

Conclusion

I hope that at this point, you feel like you have a much better grasp of what the offside rule is in soccer than you had when you started reading this article.

The offside rule is definitely not the easiest rule to understand in soccer, but taking the time to learn about it and see how it applies in a real-world situation should hopefully increase your enjoyment of watching and playing soccer.

Feel free to use this article as a resource to refer back to when you have questions about the offside rule.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the rules of soccer check out this recent article I wrote – A Simple and Easy to Understand Guide to the Rules of Soccer

*Also check out the next article – Why Soccer Players Wear Gloves – How it can Increase Focus *

Ben

Hi! My name's Ben. I've played, watched, read about, and enjoyed soccer throughout my life. I really enjoy finding out more about the game I love and sharing it with you all. Sign up to the yoursoccerhome.com newsletter here or check out more about me here - Ben Clayfield

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