Offsides in Soccer: A Simple Explanation


The offside rule is one of the most used AND most misunderstood 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 has judged a player to be in an offside position.

But, what are offsides in soccer?

The offside rule states that players are offside if they become involved in active play when any part of their head, body, or feet is nearer to their opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent. The player must also be in their opponent’s half of the field to be offside.

There’s a lot of aspects to the offsides in soccer so let’s break this down and explain in more detail what offside means.

In this article I’ll show you:

  • what the offside rule means,
  • Why being in an “offside position” doesn’t always mean a player is “offside”,
  • what “active play” means,
  • Some examples of offsides to help make the rule even clearer.

By the end of this article, you’ll have no problem explaining the offside rule to your friends!

Soccer Offside Rule

First, let’s clarify offsides in soccer by breaking the rule down into its individual parts.

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

  • when they become involved in active play,
  • while any part of their head, body, or feet is nearer to their opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent
  • and any part of the player’s head, body, or feet is in the opponents’ half at the moment the ball is played or touched by another player on their team.
Soccer offside rule decision tree
Soccer offside rule decision tree

Take a look at the image below.

soccer player in offside position
The soccer player with the ball is offside

The player in the image with the ball is offside because:

  • they are nearer to their opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent,
  • they are in their opponent’s half of the soccer field,
  • and they are involved in active play after receiving a pass from another player on their team.

However, it’s important to understand that just because a player is in an offside position on the field doesn’t mean they are committing an offside offense.

The reason for this is that the rules of soccer require a player to be “involved in active play” before the referee will penalize them for being offside.


Being In an Offside Position Isn’t Always an Offense

If you look at the offside rule in isolation, you would probably think a player should just always avoid being ”nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent”. But sometimes it’s OK for a player to be in this position.

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 (the organization that sets the rules for soccer worldwide) states 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 the referee would penalize a player 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 become “involved in active play”.

But what exactly does this mean?

What does it look like for a player 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

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

The rules of soccer say that “active play includes:

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

IFAB “Laws of the Game”

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

The rules of soccer also say that active play includes:

“Interfering with an opponent

IFAB “Laws of the Game”

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

Interference in soccer includes:

  • 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 After the Ball Has Rebounded or Been Deflected

The last statement the rules of soccer makes about “active play” is that it includes:

Gaining an advantage by playing the ball or interfering with an opponent after the ball has rebounded or been deflected

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 after a deliberate save from any opponent.

Three Situations Where There Is No Offside Offense

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.

There are no offsides in soccer when:

  1. A player receives the ball directly from a goal kick.
  2. The player receives the ball directly from a throw-in, and
  3. 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!

Find out more about being offside in these scenarios in one of my recent articles – Can You Be Offside at a Corner Kick in Soccer?, Offsides at a Throw-in in Soccer: The Rules are Clear, or Offside From a Goal Kick: An Explanation of the Rules.

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 if a player commits an offside offense?

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.

So, overall, an offside offense isn’t a serious deal for the individual player but can put their team at a disadvantage and potentially restrict a goal-scoring opportunity.

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.

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 good about it so far, let’s keep going by looking at 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 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.

Find out all the details about the different lines and areas on a soccer field in my article all about soccer field size and dimensions.

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 About Offsides

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

The offside rule was introduced into soccer in the 1860s. It exists to prevent all the attacking players from just standing around the goal waiting for the ball to arrive from a big kick up the field.

Since the 1860s the offside rule has developed and changed significantly but the purpose of it has stayed essentially the same.

Having no offsides 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 this:

A player can be offside even if the ball is passed back to them by a teammate. The direction the ball is passed in is irrelevant to whether a player is offside or not.

Here’s why:

Near the beginning of this article, I laid out what the offside rule is according to the IFAB, the governing body that 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 back 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 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

Recent Posts