History of the Soccer Offside Rule: When it was Introduced and Why

Offside is one of the crucial regulations in soccer, but many people don’t know when or why it was introduced. I’ve recently been researching this and want to share what I found with you.

The offside rule was introduced in December 1863 when the Football Association created the first official soccer rules. The offside rule was invented to discourage players from hanging at their opponent’s goal for goal opportunities. Since then, the rule has evolved and developed significantly.

In this article, I’ll show you the history of the offside rule and how it has developed and changed over the years.

Additionally, I explore why the governing body introduced the rule and what would happen if there was no offside rule in soccer. 

post title over image of soccer offside flag

When the Offside Rule was Introduced in Soccer

Ever since people started playing variations of the game we now know as soccer, hanging around the opponent’s goal to wait for lazy opportunities to score has been discouraged.

Before the rules of soccer became official in 1863, trying to discourage players from standing in an offside position seemed like an uphill task.

The way soccer teams played the game at this time varied from team to team and from region to region. The rule in a game one day may look different from how it looked in a game played the following day.

In December 1863 the offside rule was introduced as part of the newly agreed rules of soccer. The first game using the offside rule took place on December 19, 1863 between Morley’s Barnes team and Richmond.

Since, at this point in soccer’s history, many people have already noticed faults with this obvious flaw, the introduction of the offside rule at this time was unanimously welcomed.

While the offside rule became official back in 1863, thanks to ongoing slight and significant changes in the rules over time, the rule at the time was vastly different from what we know now.

To help you understand how the offside rule has changed throughout its history, let’s briefly look at the major changes to the offside rule over the years.

I’ll also show you why they were introduced and how they impacted the game of soccer.

If you want to remind yourself of the offside rule, before this, check out my easy to understand guide to the offside rule.

Timeline of the changes to the offside rule in soccer from 1863 to present day
Timeline of the changes to the offside rule in soccer from 1863 to present day

The 1863 Offside Rule Change

Although some sports used a version of the offside rule way back in the seventeenth century, the first recorded use of offside in soccer was during the 1800s.

As hinted above, there wasn’t a universal offside rule until the initial appearance of the Football Association Laws of the Game in 1863. Even when the rule made its first official appearance, it still wasn’t widely accepted by institutions pushing their versions of soccer.

The 1863 version of the offside rule was far stricter than the one in practice today. 

The rules regarded a player as being in an offside position anytime they were in front of the ball when another player on their team played it. A player could only receive a pass if they were level or behind, the player making the pass when they kicked the ball.

The only exception to this rule was when a player took a goal kick.

The 1866 Offside Rule Change

In February 1866, the Football Association revised the game’s laws for the first time. One of the changes was to soften the offside rule, so it was less strict.

In this variation of the offside rule, a player would only be offside if there were less than three players from the opposing team in front of them when a player has kicked the ball.

One of these three players included the opposition goalkeeper.

The 1925 Offside Rule Change

While the 1863 offside rule did solve the problem of hanging around for goal opportunities, it posed another problem; players weren’t scoring as often as the fans and governing bodies wanted.

After playing with the initial offside rule for decades, the offside rule was modified in 1925 to make scoring easier.

The 1925 offside rule is very similar to what is still in use today; the rules only required two players in front of you to be onside.

*Note that the version of the 1925 offside rule required players to be in front of you and not level with you, as that still constitutes an offside.

After soccer implemented this change, it took 65 years before the rule was adapted again.

The 1990 Offside Rule Change

The primary rationale behind the 1990 offside rule change was the same as all previous changes; the need for more goals.

The 1990 offside rule only required two opposing players to be level with you to be onside. While previous iterations required the players to be in front of you, now you could be onside by staying level with the opposing player.

This offside rule is still in use in soccer today. While the sport may see another significant change to the rule soon, it still appears to work perfectly, with the sport seeing no shortage of goals either.

The 2005 Offside Rule Change

The change in 2005 was an attempt to clarify what part of a player’s body the referee should consider when deciding if a player is offside or not.

The International Football Association Board said that the referee should only consider the “part of the player’s head, body or feet closest to the defending team’s goal-line” when enforcing the offside rule.

The IFAB also laid out that a player’s hands and arms should be excluded from the referee’s decision because these body parts don’t give a player an advantage.

This image below helps you work out if a player is offside under the current rules.

Offside rule in soccer decision tree

Why Was the Offside Rule Introduced in Soccer?

The offside rule is beneficial to the game of soccer. The only person who may disagree is a striker caught offside while trying to score their first goal of the season!

In that situation, the striker may ask why the offside rule is even necessary for soccer?

The main reason why the offside rule was introduced in soccer was to prevent goal-hanging. Goal-hanging gives a team an unfair advantage, and the offside rule minimizes this unbalanced situation.

Goal-hanging is a trick attackers use to score cheap goals by “hanging” at the opposing team’s goal in wait for goalscoring opportunities. It has been a significant problem in soccer, even before the sport became official.

Since goalies are at a disadvantage when facing a quality striker head-on, it’s clear that goal-hanging is cheating.

It’s important to note that the offside rule didn’t see instant universal adoption back in its first iteration.

But over time, as FIFA became the governing body of world soccer and became more inclusive, more people started to become members of the organization, requiring them to obey the rules of the game.

The offside rule has been pretty successful.

While it has been refined a few times because it can make it harder to score goals, it has proved to do more good than harm to the sport.

Referee's assistant indicating an offside offense
Referee’s assistant indicating an offside offense

What Would Happen If There Was No Offside Rule?

Ever since the offside rule made its initial appearance, there have been a set of people against its existence. This group of offside critics believes that the rule stands in the way of a more entertaining game.

But how would soccer look if FIFA decides to scrap the offside rule?

Firstly, it would detract from the tactics that make the game exciting. The offside rule forces players and teams to be tactical, organize themselves, and rely on their core skills.

Without this rule, players will have too much space, and the tactical brilliance required to create scoring opportunities will disappear.

In today’s game, defenders must press and drop together at the right time, and forwards must time their runs to penetrate the defense.

The absence of an offside rule may not spell doom for the game automatically. Maybe defenders can actually up their game to put up with strikers that practice game-hanging.

However, since the offside rule has worked well until now, there isn’t any rationale behind removing it.

If you want to understand some more of the specifics of offsides in soccer I recommend you check out one of my related article below.

Ben Clayfield

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. Find out more about me here - Ben Clayfield

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