Introduction to Offside – Law 11



The soccer offside rule is one of the game’s shortest rules and yet it is one that seems to be the most misunderstood by Americans trying to learn the sport.  An understanding of the offside rule should start with its historical context.  When the game was first played in the late 1800s by the “schoolboys” of England, there was no offside rule.  It wasn’t necessary because “gentlemen” would not have considered it “sporting” to have the ball passed to them with no opponent present who was given the opportunity to defend.  Accordingly, if a gentleman found himself without an opponent between himself and the goal, he would not take advantage of the situation.

When the masses began to play soccer, many of the previously unwritten gentlemanly understandings of the game had to be codified.  The first soccer offside rule, instituted in the early 1900s, required that at least three defenders be between the potential recipient of the ball and the opponents’ goal-line.  Subsequently, this was changed to two defenders between and then, in 1990, in an effort to try to increase scoring, to one defender between and one defender even, or “level,” with the potential recipient of the ball.   Subsequently, even this was changed to having two players level.

The impact of the rule is that it allows the next-to-last defender on a team, usually a “fullback” (with the goalkeeper generally the last defender), to essentially determine the amount of space that will be available to the attacking team as it nears the goal.  The next-to-last defender does this by moving toward midfield as early and as often as play allows.  The practical result of this movement is the beautiful, back-and-forth, alternating attack-and-defense, play for which the game is known worldwide.  Without the rule, the game would likely degenerate into two knots of players, each grouped in front of a goal, furiously trying either to score or to wildly kick the ball down to the other end of the field.

The soccer offside rule, Law 11 of the Laws of the Game, states in part that:

“A player is in an offside position if … [he] is in the opponents’ half [of the field of play] …and [he] …is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent…” and,

“A player in an offside position [is only to be penalized if,] at the moment the ball is played or touched by a team-mate …on becoming involved in active play [he is]:

      • Interfering with play …or
      • Interfering with an opponent …or
      • Gaining an advantage …”

by being in that position.

Whereas there are many nuances and additional information and interpretations associated with the soccer offside rule, the vast majority of the time it is applied during a normal game is when a midfielder passes the ball forward to a leading striker.  In these instances, the goalkeeper is in place in front of the goal and he represents the “last opponent” (last defender). The defender next-closest to the goal represents the “second-last opponent” (next-to-last defender).  It is this next-closest defender who will determine whether or not the attacker is in an offside position.

For an observer, it may help to conceptualize that this defender carries with him an imaginary, moving, “offside position line” (“line of offside” or “restraining line”).   This imaginary line runs through any part of the defender’s head, body, or feet, whichever body part is closest to the goal, and is always parallel to the goal line from sideline-to-sideline.  During the normal run of play, this imaginary line moves up and back on the field of play with the defender and switches defenders, as these players move ahead of or behind one another, so that it is always with the “second-last” defender.

The keys to first learning the application of the soccer offsides rule are, a.) the relative position of the attacker to the defenders, and b.) the actions of the attacker.   Accordingly, for the normal run of play, a simplified way to determine if the offside law has been violated is by applying the “Two-Question Test.”  The first question is:

  1.  At the instant the ball was passed by his teammate, was the potential receiving player in an offside position (i.e., beyond the imaginary offside position line)?

If the answer to the first question is “No,” then no violation can occur and you don’t go on to the second question.  If the answer is “Yes,” then the second question is:

  1.  Did the player in the offside position interfere with play, interfere with an opponent, or otherwise gain an advantage?

If the answer to the second question is “No,” then no violation has occurred.  If the answer is “Yes,” then the Assistant Referee should raise the flag and the Referee should blow his whistle to stop play and penalize the infraction.  In most of these instances the player will have gained an advantage by receiving the ball.


One reason that the interpretation of this rule is misunderstood by people first learning the game centers on the phrase “at the moment the ball… is played…”  This does not say, “at the moment the ball is received.”  At any point in time, spectators often are only concentrating on the player with the ball, while it is the position of a teammate who does not have the ball that will determine the application of an offside ruling.  In the moment that it takes for the ball to travel after it has been passed, and for the Assistant Referee and the Referee to make their decision, the relative position of the defenders will most likely have changed.  As such, a player who was in an onside position could appear to be in an offside position when he receives the ball.  The opposite is also true.  While the ball is traveling, due to player movement a player who was in an offside position at the instant the ball was passed could appear to be in an onside position when the ball is received.

Similarly, spectators often confuse a player who is in an “offside position” with being guilty of the infraction of “offside.”  It is not sufficient, in and of itself, to be in an offside position to have violated the rule.  As indicated in the “Two-Question Test,” the player must have both been in an offside position at the moment the ball was passed, and to have also interfered or gained an advantage, for a violation to have occurred.

Proceed to the next presentation in the® series on Offside at, “Offside – The Basic Scenario – Law 11.”

Soccer Coaching Tips:

– Players are not offside if they receive the ball directly from a:

    • Goal Kick
    • Corner Kick
    • Throw-In

– “Offside” has no “s” at the end.

– In the rule, “…at the moment the ball is played or touched…” has been clarified by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to mean that “The first point of contact of the ‘play’ or ‘touch’ of the ball should be used [by the Assistant Referee and Referee.]”

– The “gain an advantage” portion of the soccer offside rule is not associated with the “advantage rule” or “advantage clause” in Law 5, “The Referee.”

– Just because the Assistant Referee raises the flag, players must not assume that offside will be called.  They must continue to play until the Referee blows the whistle.

– An attacker is in an onside position at the moment the ball is passed if he is “level” or “even” with the next-to-last defender.  This gives rise to the phrases, “level is on” and “even is on.”

NOTICE:  This article is based on the soccer Laws of the Game as maintained by The International Football Association Board (IFAB).  As represented in the article, the Laws may be paraphrased, edited for “American English” readability, or quoted in whole or in part.  Supplemental wording presented by® should be provided in brackets.  Every effort has been made to be faithful to the letter, spirit, and intent of the Laws however, since the Laws are subject to modification annually by the IFAB, recent changes may not be currently reflected.  Although national associations are permitted to institute local rules changes to the Laws, particularly for “youth, veterans, disability and grassroots football,” the IFAB is the original source for the official English-language version of the Laws of the Game.  If there is any question, the Laws of the Game may be found at

© Copyright, John C. Harves