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How to Understand Offside in Soccer (Football)

Two Methods:Understanding the Offside RuleExceptions and Edge Cases

Despite being one of the shortest of the seventeen Laws of football, the offside rule, Law 11, is probably the most misunderstood of all. The law dates back to secondary schools in the 19th century, which created it to stop players "sneaking" near the opposing goal and waiting for a pass.[1] The offside rule has changed several times since then to adjust the pace of the game, but the purpose remains the same. Most recently, FIFA adjusted the rule in 2005 to avoid offside penalties for players not involved in the current play.[2]

Method 1
Understanding the Offside Rule

  1. Image titled Understand Offside in Soccer (Football) Step 1
    Check for offside only on the opposing half of the field. A player can only be offside if they are on the side of the field that contains the opposing team's goal. The purpose behind the offside penalty is to prevent attackers from waiting too close to the goal.[3]
    • You are on the opposing half of the field if any part of your head, torso, or legs are over the line. Arms and hands do not count.[4]
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    Compare the player's position to the ball. A player can only be in an offside position if she is between the ball and the opposing goal.
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    Look at the two defenders closest to their goal. The attacker is "onside" as long as there are at least two defenders level with him or in front of him. If there are one or zero defenders between the attacker and the goal, and the attacker also meets the two conditions above, he is in an offside position.[5]
    • The goalkeeper is usually one of the two defenders closest to the goal, but any two defenders count.
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    Only check for offside at the instant a teammate touches the ball. There is no penalty just for being in an offside position. The referee checks an attacker's position only when one of their teammates touches the ball. As soon as an attacker releases a pass, the offside and onside status of each teammate "freezes." Each player will remain officially offside or onside no matter where they move. This only changes when the ball touches another teammate (causing offside to be "calculated" again), or when an opponent makes a deliberate play with the ball (removing all offside statuses).
    • This is why you often see attackers sprint past defenders as soon as the ball is played. Even if someone is past the defender when she receives the ball, she is still considered onside if she was behind the defenders when the ball was released.
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    Expect a penalty only if the offside player interferes with the area of play. A referee can only penalize a player for being offside if he interferes with the play or tries to gain an advantage from being offside. A player can be penalized for this at any point until the opposing team takes control of the ball. Here are a few examples of situations where a referee would call an offside penalty:[6]
    • Teammate passes to an offside player.
    • Teammate kicks the ball, it bounces off a defender, and reaches an offside player.
    • Offside player gets in the way of a defender trying to reach the ball.
    • Teammate shoots at goal, offside player places himself near the goal hoping to get the rebound.
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    Watch the referee. If you're spectating a game and think a possible offside penalty is coming, watch the assistant referee (AR). If he spots an offside player interfering with play, the AR will raise his flag straight in the air. The referee may then blow the whistle to stop play, and raise his arm to indicate that an indirect free kick is awarded to the defending team. If the referee does not do this, he disagrees with the AR and has decided to overrule him.
    • If the referee blows the whistle, the AR will lower his flag by a certain amount to signal which player was offside. He will lower it by 45º for a player across the field from the AR, 90º for a player near the center, and 135º for a player on the near side.[7]
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    Understand the penalty. An offside penalty awards an indirect free kick to the opposing team. This kick takes place where the penalty occurs, and the team that received the penalty must stay at least 10 yards (9.15 m) back until the ball has been kicked.[8]
    • If the penalty occurred inside the penalty area, the attackers must remain outside the penalty area until the ball has left it.
    • If the penalty occurred inside the goal area, the defenders may take the free kick from anywhere inside the goal area.

Method 2
Exceptions and Edge Cases

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    Know the situations where an offside penalty is impossible. A player cannot receive an offside penalty for receiving the ball directly from a throw-in, a corner kick, or a goal kick.[9] In these situations the ball has left play and reset all offside statuses.
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    Understand offside resets. When the defending team takes control of the ball, the offside status of the attackers gets reset. Any attackers who were offside for the last play are now free to interfere with the play without penalty. However, there are some edge cases where it may be unclear whether this has happened. The ref always makes the final call, but these are the general guidelines:[10]
    • If a defender accidentally deflects the ball or it rebounds off her, there is no offside reset. This includes an instinctive reaction to deflect the ball, although this can be a tough ref call.
    • If the defender makes a save to prevent a goal, there is no offside reset. (This prevents offside players from gaining an advantage by waiting at the goal.)
    • The defender must gain control of the ball before the offside player can interfere. (This can be subjective, but the offside player is usually safe if approaching from some distance away.)
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    Take into account defenders who have run off the field. If a defender runs off the edge of the field due to his own momentum, he still counts as a defender when working out onside and offside positions.[11]
  4. Image titled Understand Offside in Soccer (Football) Step 11
    Consider offside players interfering from afar. An offside player who does not approach the ball can still receive a penalty if she blocks the vision of a defender in a way that impairs her play. Since a rules tweak in 2013, this is the only way an offside player can receive a penalty without coming into contact with a defender or the ball. Gestures and shouting do not violate offside rules, though they may receive a penalty for unsporting conduct.[12]


  • The offside rule can apply to any player. It is not restricted to the forward line.
  • A commonly misunderstood use of the offside rule occurs when the keeper leaves his line on a set piece and there is only one defender on the line. If an attacking player receives the ball behind the keeper then he or she is offside. An example of this rule is the disallowed goal by Carlos Vela for Mexico against South Africa in the 2010 world cup.
  • In some minor soccer games with younger kids, the referee might not call offside or might be less strict about offside rules.
  • The offside rule has been revised several times in football history, with major impact on the way the game is played.[13][14]


  • Never argue with the referee. He will not reverse a call because you disagree. More likely you will just annoy him, and he will be less likely to cut you slack later.
  • If you play forward, beware an "offside trap" where the opposing team moves past you as the ball is about to be played.[15] If you keep moving and face your own goal while waiting for a pass, it will be more difficult for the defenders to surprise you with this trap.[16]

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