The evolution of the offside rule in football

Barcelona's Lionel Messi has taken full advantage of the offside rules this season. Image: AP

Regulations matter – whether they be the constraints placed by governments on culture, or the rules by which we play a popular  game.

In The Guardian‘s SportBlog, Jonathan Wilson explains why the modern revisions to the offside law have helped shape the exciting modern style of play seen in the top leagues of Europe.

The first laws of the game drawn up by the Football Association in 1863 stipulated that a player was offside if he was in front of the ball: “When a player has kicked the ball, anyone of the same side who is nearer to the opponent’s goal-line is out of play, and may not touch the ball himself, nor in any way whatever prevent any other player from doing so, until he is in play…” That effectively militated against passing and the assumptions that underlay that culture continued to shape English football for the following decade. English football in those days was all about head-down charging, which is why England were so startled when they encountered the passing approach of Scotland, who had had no such law, in the first international in 1872.

The history sicne then has been one of constant liberalisation of the offside law:

Although the FA’s variant of offside when adopted in 1863 was predicated on a dribbling game, the variants further north – in Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield and Scotland, for instance – where a passing game prevailed, were designed to stop goal-hanging, and prevent the game becoming about endless hoofs into the danger area where a goalkeeper would battle with a handful of forwards who could legitimately stand straight in front of him.

The modern law stops that, but brilliantly it does it without the side-effect of legitimising the offside trap.

There’s plenty more in this thoughtful article.

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