What is the offside rule in football, and how does offsides work?

The offside rule is one of the most crucial and yet controversial football rules. Causing trouble to understand for many, the offside rule came into effect over a century ago. 

In theory, the offside rule is simple, but in the history of the sport, it has caused debate not once or twice.

A prime example was when Arsenal were denied a certain win against Brentford in the 2022/23 season. Ivan Toney was in an offside position for the equalising goal for Brentford against Arsenal. VAR Lee Mason failed to do his job properly, and this cost Arsenal three crucial points.

The offside rule might be confusing at times. This guide will explain in detail what the offside rule is according to Football Association (FA) and FIFA provisions.

What is the offside rule in football?

The offside rule was implemented in game in 1883 by FA. The goal was to discourage players from constantly lurking near the opposing team’s goal. 

Imagine the offside rule as a guardian of fairness.

Without the offside rule, teams could exploit the strategy of launching long passes directly towards their teammates positioned within the opposing team goal area. This would reduce the importance of skill and strategic play.

The simplest way to explain the offside law is: 

A player is offside when he/she is positioned in the opponents’ half, and any part of his/hers head, body, or legs is closer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent.

Usually, one of those two opponents is the goalkeeper, so if either the ball or an outfield opponent is not between the footballer and the goal line, it will be considered offside.

The rule changed over the years. In the past, the rule required the attacking player to have three defenders between them and the opposing team’s goal to avoid being offside.

To make it clearer, let’s imagine Team X playing against Team Y:

Player A from Team X passing the ball.
Player B from Team X to whom the pass is being played.
Player C is the closest player from Team Y (usually the goalkeeper) to Team Y’s goal.
Player D is the second-closest player from Team Y to Team Y’s goal.

At the exact moment when Player A kicks or heads the ball to make the pass, Player B needs to make sure that their entire body, including arms and legs, is not positioned ahead of Player D.

Player B must have both Player C and Player D between themselves and Team Y’s goal. If he touches the ball if the players of the opposition are behind him, it will be an offside.

When is offside offence?

Here are the situations in which offside can be penalized:

Interfering with play

This happens when a player in an offside position plays or touches a ball passed or touched by a teammate, thus affecting the game. 

Interfering with an opponent can occur in the following ways:

  • Clearly obstructing an opponent’s line of vision, preventing them from playing or being able to play the ball.
  • Challenging an opponent for the ball.
  • Clearly attempting to play a ball that is close to them, impacting an opponent.
  • Making an obvious action that significantly affects an opponent’s ability to play the ball.

Gaining advantage

Gaining advantage after the ball has rebounded or been deflected off the goalpost, crossbar, or an opponent

When is offside not an offence?

Being offside is not an offence alone. To be an offence a player must have interfered with play, an opponent, or gained an advantage from a rebound, save, or deflection.

There are situations where even if you’re in an offside position and you play the ball, it won’t be considered an offence.

No offside offence is committed when a player receives the ball directly from the following situations:

  • Goal kick
  • Throw-in
  • Corner kick

VAR offside calls

Offside decisions are typically made by the the linesmen, who are assistant referees positioned on the sidelines of each half of the pitch. Their job is to assist the referee in every match.

When there is an offside by the attacker the linesmen rises their flags.

Determing an offside is hard sometimes. Almost everytime it’s a close call, with mere millimeters separating the two. And as you can imagine human errors happen. 

The linesman have made some mistakes that cost much. Modern football has a solution for that problem. It has embraced technology to assist in making more accurate decisions.

The technology is called Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and was introduced in 2016.

There is now an extra match official who sits in front of a video screen and can review decisions made by the on-pitch officials when necessary.

During moves that could potentially lead to goals, linesmen often withhold signaling offsides. If a goal is scored, the linesman can subsequently indicate an offside and nullify the goal.

The VAR then assesses the linesman’s call by examining video footage and utilizing technology. If replays indicate that the linesman made an error, the VAR has the authority to overturn the decision and reinstate the goal.

The VAR also checks for any potential offside offenses after every goal. If the VAR identifies an offside that was missed by the linesman during the initial assessment, the goal won’t count.


Understanding the offside rule is essential for players, coaches, and passionate fans of the game.

It brings an extra level of complexity and strategic depth to football. The offside rule ensures fair competition and balance between attacking and defending teams. 

By grasping the fundamental principles of offside, familiarizing oneself with the exceptions, and acknowledging the impact of VAR, one can fully appreciate the intricacies that make watching a football match such a fascinating experience.

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