2 Champions League Goals Would Have Been Disallowed but for Offside Ambiguity

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2 Champions League Goals Would Have Been Disallowed but for Offside Ambiguity
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Two goals that should have been disallowed for offside were permitted to stand on Tuesday. Both were scored in the Champions League—one in each of the day’s matches—and on neither play could the officials claim to have been caught in complicated circumstances.

Both incidents were cut-and-dry—basic examples of the offside rule that should have been dealt with quickly and decisively and with precisely the opposite outcome. That they weren’t means that Bayern Munich will carry a 2-0 lead into the second leg of their quarter-final against Juventus instead of a 1-0 advantage; Paris Saint-Germain will travel to Barcelona on level terms rather than 2-1 behind.

The stakes could hardly be higher, which is why it’s in instances such as these that players, managers and fans expect the match officials to make the correct calls, especially those that are so blatantly obvious.

Not that referees and linesman are first in the order of blame. The offside rule has been adjusted so many times (at least 10 since its inception nearly 150 years ago) that its purpose has been lost in a jungle of legalese and the ambiguity that results when laws are written, rewritten and rewritten again.

The language of football’s offside rule was most recently revisited last month when the International Football Association Board convened in Edinburgh, Scotland, for its annual general meeting. According to its agenda, the IFAB decided on yet another tweak to Law 11 because the previous wording created “many discussions as it [gave] too much room for interpretation and [was] not precise enough.”

And so, where once the final paragraph in the law 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 movements or making a gesture of movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent.

...it now reads:

“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. 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.

Notice that the words “opinion,” “deceives” and “distracts” were taken out and an extra sentence added. To their credit, the IFAB succeeded in removing some of the haziness of the previous language, but there remains a fundamental flaw with the offside rule that, no matter how concise its wording, will always create an environment of ambiguity.

It is my opinion (and in stating this opinion I understand my own interpretation to be incorrect) that until the idea of “interfering with an opponent” is stroked from Law 11, the offside rule will continue to be a source of far more controversy than if it was designed according to the rules of common sense.

My point is this: if an attacking player is ahead of the second-last man when the ball is played, the linesman’s flag should go up. End of story. The “interference” idea is an unnecessary nuance that does little else than complicate things for match officials, who made a pair of incorrect decisions on Tuesday.

If the offside rule were more straightforward, I believe the officials would have made the correct calls. Instead, they found themselves caught in two minds—the one recognizing a player had advanced beyond the offside trap; the other initially unsure about his involvement, or “interference,” in the play.

You can say it was a simple matter of a blown decision, but if officials have less to think about—particularly when it comes to subjective matters such as whether an attacker is or is not “interfering” with play—they’ll be on the wrong side of the law far less often.

Mario Mandzukic, as we see in the video above, was quite clearly offside when David Alaba took a shot at the Juventus goal from distance, and it was from his offside position that the Croatian squared the ball to Thomas Muller for a tap-in.

In this instance it seems as though the linesman simply made the incorrect decision, although as Mandzukic hadn’t “interfered” with Alaba’s shot, he may have allowed the striker the benefit of the doubt regarding his position when the ball came into the box. In any event, it’s a thought process far more convoluted than necessary.

In the French capital, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was well ahead of the second-last man when Thiago Silva’s magnificent header was played in to goal. But as his movement didn’t seem to either “interfere with play” or “interfere with an opponent”—two of the three criteria for raising the offside flag—he was permitted to scamper into space and direct the ball into the back of the net.

Of course, there is a third criteria, and it is here that the Swede should have been found guilty.

While a player is not allowed to “interfere” with either the play or an opponent lest he be penalized for offside, he may also not “gain an advantage by being in the offside position.” Ibrahimovic quite obviously gained an advantage—the advantage being his closer proximity to goal when Thiago Silva’s header fell to him.

I find it ridiculous that an official must consider all these criteria—often in the space of a second or two—when a single, straightforward standard might be applied to the offside rule.

If a player advances beyond the second-last man before the ball is played, the flag goes up for offside. Every time. Continuous tweaks and re-interpretations of the law produce only confusion, and the constant revisiting of the language make Law 11 an adjustable mechanism that can be altered whenever tactics have caught up to what is commonly held to be acceptably stylistic football.

But football suffers because of it.

Football, at its heart, is a simple game, and that simplicity is part of what makes it so compelling. The offside rule should be part of that simplicity, and the sport will only continue to attract controversy until it is.

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