What Is Offside in Soccer? A Complete Guide to the Rule

Soccer linesman with yellow and orange flag keeps up with the play.

There’s nothing more exciting in soccer than rushing down the field on a breakaway as your teammates fill the outside lanes. And there’s nothing worse than in that same moment when you make one last forward pass and hear the dreaded sound of the whistle. Sounds like someone was offside.

So, what is offside in soccer?

A player in soccer is offside if any part of their body is past the last defender (not counting the goalie) when the ball is played to them. The rule is in place to prevent teams from cherry-picking and scoring easy goals. You can’t be called for offside on a corner kick, goal kick, or throw-in.

Offensive players can be in an offside position on the field without it being a penalty. A penalty only occurs once the player that is in an offside position becomes involved in active play, starts interfering with an opponent, or gains a field advantage in that position. An offside penalty results in an indirect free kick for the opposing team.

Offside is one of the most controversial calls in the game of soccer and one of the trickiest for most people to understand. Beyond the definition, we’re going to take you through the basics, the background, and the strategy involved with offside.

Why Is there Offside in Soccer?

View of the soccer field from a corner flag with buildings in the background.

Before the offside rule became a thing, players were often known for cherry-picking.

This involved offensive forwards hanging around the penalty box, waiting for a long ball to be kicked over the heads of the defenders to set themselves up for an easy 1-on-1 scoring opportunity against the goalie. While lots of goals were scored, there wasn’t much finesse involved.

The old way of playing did not require a lot of skill and certainly didn’t provide a whole lot of entertainment. Pre-offside, soccer forwards typically did not move on the field unless they had possession of the ball.

Offside increased their level of engagement, making forwards valuable playmakers across the field. Forwards today often clock the same mileage as the average midfielder, depending on each team’s offensive strategy. 

The offside rule within soccer creates a more dynamic game overall. With the offside rule in effect, teams must use skill and strategy to move the ball forward in their attempt to score a goal.

Players without the ball, on both offense and defense, must have awareness of where they are to the ball, the goal, and opposing players at all times. Offside helps even the playing field.

The addition of offside in soccer was a game-changer. The rule forces players to be involved in active play beyond individual ball possession; if an offside player isn’t involved in active play, offside shouldn’t be called on them.

Players are challenged to work together to stay onside in their offensive attacks and catch opposing teams offside while on defense.

Can You Be in an Offside Position and Receive the Ball?

Being in an offside position is a common occurrence within an average soccer game. Players tend to be in an offside position in a combination of legal and illegal ways. As mentioned earlier, there are times throughout the game that you can be in an offside position and NOT be penalized. 

As stated in the official FIFA rule book, there is no penalty for offside in the following scenarios:

  • The player receives the ball directly from a goal kick
  • The player receives the ball directly from a throw-in
  • The player receives the ball directly from a corner kick

Being in an offside position, ironically, can place you at an advantage in most of the scenarios mentioned above. For example, positioning yourself so that a defensive player is behind you while gaining control of a throw-in could place you closer to the goal.

With a quick trap-and-go move, you’re on your way to taking the goalie head-on. You will find that throughout the game players can be found offside, even beyond the examples spelled out by FIFA.

Another example of an offside offense includes the following: During a quick change in ball possession, the defense pulls their last line of defense forward, leaving an attacking player(s) behind them in the transition

What Happens After an Offside in Soccer?

Women's soccer player about to kick the soccer ball.

An offside call results in an indirect free kick for the opposing team, taken where the offside offense occurs. 

Upon the offside violation, the referee will blow their whistle, verbally call out the offside offense, lift their hand straight into the air to indicate a free-kick, and wait for the offensive team to reset.

Once the teams are appropriately positioned, which should include the defending team 10 yards away from the ball, the referee restarts play at the sound of their whistle.

How Do Referees Call Offside in Soccer?

Referees call offside based on where they’re located on the field and need an appropriate line of sight to identify the infraction and justify the call.

There is so much riding on the referee’s line of sight and where they are to the offside player in violation, that there is almost always an assistant referee that flanks both sides of the field and provides an extra pair of eyes.

These referees move back and forth, along the sidelines, keeping pace with the furthest back defender. Assistant referees have the authority to signal an offside offense by raising their flag.

Once this happens, the central referee will blow their whistle halting play, and then raise their arm to signal an indirect free kick for the opposing team.

Throughout the game, both the central and sideline referees can officially signal offside penalties. When both the central and sideline referees are in the line of sight of a play in question, the central referee’s decision overrules the others.

How to Teach Offside in Soccer

Youth soccer player in blue passes to his teammate, while the team in neon green looks to intercept it.

Teaching offside to young players can be tricky. Players are often confused with the language used in the FIFA rule book regarding the offside rule.

It’s unbelievably valuable to attach visuals to the words through diagrams on clipboards or whiteboards, but the most effective training will take place during live practices.

Simulating game-like situations gives players a good sense of the definition of offside, but more importantly provides a visual as to when they are out of position on the field. It’s important to move through both offensive and defensive roles when demonstrating offside. 

A simple way to move through offside with a group of players is to divide them into two teams and set up an offensive line and a defensive line. A goalie can be included if you want.

You can then move through multiple game-like situations. As the ball moves around the field, stop players in motion to call out any players in an offside position and talk them through how they can stay onside.

For players without the ball, it’s important to communicate to them that they cannot be or move in front of the last defender until the player with the ball plays the ball. Once the ball is kicked, any player can move towards the ball.

As a coach, your job is to make sure each player is engaged in the play and no one is anchored near the goal, cherry-picking. 

Threading offensive passes through defenders throughout the demonstration serves as a great way to practice offensive attacks and tandem runs while continuing to understand offside violations.

FIFA Offside Law

The official offside law (FIFA Law 11-Offside) defines offside and an offside violation, or offense as used in their terminology, as follows:

Offside Position

It is not an offense in itself to be in an offside position. A player is in an offside position if:

  • He is nearer to his opponent’s goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent when the ball is kicked

A player is not in an offside position if:

  • He is in his own half of the field of play or
  • He is in his opponent’s half and level with the second-last opponent or
  • He is level with the last two opponents

Offside Offense 

A player in an offside position is only penalized if, at the moment the ball is played by a teammate, he is, in the opinion of the referee, involved in active play by:

  • interfering with play or
  • interfering with an opponent or
  • gaining an advantage by being in that position

While there have been a few tweaks over the last decade, the latest and greatest ruling shows that as long as the attacking player is even or in front of the last defender at the point the ball is played, the player is legally onside.

Once you get the offside rules down, you can begin to understand when and where it happens on the field, as well as how to teach young players to position themselves on offense and defense. 

History of the Offside Rule in Soccer

View from the nosebleeds of a soccer match before the game.

The history of the offside rule is woven through a combination of sports, including hurling and rugby for over a century. Early laws cite players’ inability to stand too close to goalies and often used the term “sneaking” when referring to offside-like positioning and goal scoring.

The most concrete set of rules around offside was established by the Football Association Laws of 1863. Here the term offside, as we know it today, began to take shape. The rule states:

“A player is ‘out of play’ immediately [if] he is in front of the ball and must return behind the ball as soon as possible. If the ball is kicked by his own side past a player he may not touch or kick it, or advance until one of the other side has first kicked it or one of his own side on a level with or in front of him has been able to kick it.”

By 1866, the offside rule was deemed too strict and revisions were approved for the “three-player rule” in connection with the offside penalty. The revision meant that if offensive players had three or more defenders in front of them, they would not be considered in an offside position.

After decades of proposed changes, in 1925 the offside rule was revised to a “two-player rule”, meaning that only two defenders had to be in front of the offense to remain onside. 

And in 1990, the offside rule was revised once again and those changes are represented in today’s game legislation. This latest revision changed both the number and position of players, and it reads that as long as the attacker is in line with the second to last defender (goalie being the last), they will not be considered offside.

What Is an Offside Trap in Soccer?

While it’s important to understand offside from an offensive stance, it’s just as important to understand how a defending team can leverage the offside rules to their advantage.

With a little bit of strategy and a lot of hustle, defensive lines can catch offensive players off guard and capitalize on the subsequent free-kick opportunities. The offside trap is when the defense attempts to draw the opposing forwards in an offside position.

They do this by moving forward right before the offensive team kicks the balls, catching attackers offside. Because these attackers are left standing behind the last line of defense without possession of the ball, they are offside.

It’s important defenders know how to execute an offside trap and for attackers to know how they can avoid getting caught in an offside position.

Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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