This past Boxing Day an own goal by Manchester United defender Jonny Evans was allowed to stand despite Newcastle forward Papiss Cissé’s apparent offside position. United, who trailed 2-1 after the linesman’s flag did not go up, roared back to win 4-3, so the incident didn’t get as much attention as it might have.
But it didn’t escape FIFA’s gaze.
On March 2 the body responsible for tweaks to and reinterpretations of the laws of the game—the International Football Association Board, or IFAB—will convene in Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel for their Annual General Meeting. And among the items up for discussion, as requested by FIFA, will be Law 11: the offside rule.
Of particular concern to FIFA is the ambiguity of the language in the law that allows significant room for a match official’s opinion. Which is precisely what happened at Old Trafford.
Evans’ own goal was permitted because, in the opinion of referee Mike Dean, Cissé—despite being in an offside position—was not interfering with play when the Northern Irishman deflected the ball into his own net.
The thing is, the language in Law 11 as it currently stands might well have been interpreted to disallow the goal and render Dean’s judgement incorrect.
“Interference” is the term we’re most concerned with here, and FIFA defines it as follows:
“Interfering with play” means playing or touching the ball passed our touched by a teammate.”
As Cissé had done neither, we can move on to the second item:
“Interfering with an opponent” means preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or movements or making a gesture or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent.”
The phrase “making a gesture or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent” could be used to overturn most, if not all, incidents deemed not offside due to lack of interference.
In a column for theScore.com on December 28, 2012 I wrote that this phrase, because of the inclusion of the words “distract,” “deceive” and “opinion,” was enough “to blow the understanding of offside currently in vogue to smithereens.”
It seems FIFA agreed with me. The ambiguity of the language at the tail end of its own law, especially the inclusion of those three words and their respective definitions, contradicted all the paragraphs that preceded it. And FIFA have recommended that the IFAB erase the phrase from its law, entirely.
It will now read as follows:
“Interfering with an opponent” means 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.
That will clear things up considerably. And there is another paragraph that will be added to the law:
A player in an offside position receiving the ball from an opponent, who deliberately plays the ball (except from a deliberate save), is not considered to have gained an advantage.
FIFA’s reasoning for the change?
In their own words, according to the official IFAB AGM Agenda, “The current wording creates many discussions as it gives too much room for interpretation and is not precise enough.”
It’s worth pointing out that this tweak in the language will now nullify my own, personal interpretation of offside, and that of many others.
I had previously used the final phrase in the law, particularly the words “distract,” “deceive” and “opinion,” to argue that any player in an offside position was, in fact offside, because his very position was serving as a “distraction.” And while FIFA has indicated that this belief was, in fact, correct, it has now blotted it from the realm of possibility by revisiting the language in the law (assuming, of course, that it will pass the IFAB vote).
While so much of football is so simple, so straightforward, the offside rule has long been a source of contention. Should the IFAB approve FIFA’s proposals next month it will be, by my count, the 11th re-interpretation of offside since the English Football Association conceived of it in 1863.
It almost certainly won’t be the last. For as tactics continue to evolve—as the game, itself, evolves—the authorities that watch over it will use whatever tools are within their grasp to ensure it still has flow and that goals are still scored. And as Law 11 is a law without physical lines or markings on the field it will be the one relied on, and re-interpreted, most of all.