Do referees know how to apply the offside law?

A common sexist joke is that women don’t understand how the offside law in football works.

Trouble is, with an increasingly convoluted addition to the basic concept of how offside works, its questionable if referees know how to apply the same law.

In recent years, FIFA have modified the offside law to include the phrase “a player can be offside if he is not active or interfering with play”.

Some decisions require this interpretation of the law. There was footage from an Arsenal v Chelsea game around 8-or-so years ago when Thierry Henry had a goal disallowed due to Robin van Persie being offside despite the Dutchman not getting a touch on the ball at any moment in play.

Despite, or most likelihood, because of this change, problems with offside are beginning to rear their head a lot more, and its certainly not helpful for referees at a time when refereeing competence across the English divisions is being questioned more than ever.

The debate has been largely provoked after a controversial incident in the game between Newcastle United and Manchester City on Sunday afternoon (12/01). With the score at 1-0 to the away side, a Newcastle corner was cleared out to the Magpie’s midfielder Cheick Tiote, who hit a 25-yard volley into the top corner.

The moment of controversy had arose because the ball had flown over Yoann Gouffran, who was stood in an offside position and had to duck out of the way to avoid the ball taking his head off. Despite this, Gouffran’s position was not in a place to cause Joe Hart problems diving – not that the England number one could’ve reached it.

It had looked like a superb equaliser from the midfielder, who hadn’t scored for the club in almost three years. But his joy was cut short when, after protests from City players, referee Mike Jones disallowed the goal and restored Man City’s advantage.

Curiously, this is reminiscent of a similar incident earlier in the season, when the first goal for Spurs in a clash at Fulham saw a low strike from Vlad Chiriches go into the bottom corner after Jermaine Defoe, who was offside, had jumped over the ball to let it pass.

Birmingham manager and one-time Newcastle captain Lee Clark was also keen to talk about an example that has gone against his team, arguing Burnley striker Sam Vokes was interfering with an opponent in the lead up to a goal in the fixture between the two sides at Turf Moor in September.

Beyond condemnation for the referee at the Newcastle match – both for the offside and a litany of errors following on that left both teams annoyed – and further focus on Alan Pardew’s fairly unnecessary language used in the direction of his opposite number are three points to the offside rule that should be determining factors.

They are:

1. Does the player make an effort to touch the ball?

2. Does the player attempt to interfere with an opponent, either by blocking him, his vision or his ability to move while offside?

3. Does the player attempt to gain an advantage i:e. supposing the ball hits the bar, does he try to net the rebound?

The criteria mainly applied to this incident is point two, with Gouffran apparently seen as attempt to block either the vision of Hart or his attempts to dive for the ball. This is a very pedantic at best application of the law given that Gouffran was not in Hart’s eyesight when Tiote struck the shot and his presence did not prevent the England goalkeeper from diving. If anything, the eyesight of Hart was blocked by three City players in front of him, with a slight touch from Martin Demichelis pointed out by Sky Sports’ analysts.

The other two factors certainly don’t apply, although had Tiote’s shot hit the post, any attempt Gouffran would have made to touch the ball would have been flagged for offside.

But in the sequence of play as it happened on Sunday afternoon, the offside call was incorrect because it failed to meet the three criteria. City fans and their manager can bleat on about how the referee was right to overrule his linesman to make the call, but the fact was it was not.

This had led to accusation of referee bias in favour of the Citizens, given dodgy offside calls also went their way when they played Arsenal and Liverpool in December, although City fans have pointed out controversial goals that were scored against them earlier this season by Villa and Sunderland.

Another thing is that some referees either need help working out the correct interpretation of the offside ruling or it needs a bit of redrafting. While the rule seems fairly clear in theory, its work in practice is less so, and even seems to have the effect of distorting what should be the simplest interpretation of that rule. So some cleaning up has to be done by FA rulemakers to avoid another calamitous misinterpretation.


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