The offside rule and its purpose – Why do we need an offside?

offside rule

The offside rule is currently one of the most commonly used words when it comes to football. Why does this rule even exist? What is the meaning of the offside rule? Why is it the way it is today? And since when?

In short:

The offside rule is thus not only a fairer variant than no offside or a strict offside, it is also closely linked to the standardisation of football rules across national borders. This standardisation was made necessary by the football boom of the 1880s in England, comparable in moderation to the 1920s in Germany. Standardisation was preceded by the transformation of the game of football from an entertainment game to a competition: the game of football was recognised by various entrepreneurs and professional groups as a source of income. It was now all about winning, income, prestige – and that was also the beginning of “cheating”.

One could say: the offside rule is just as necessary in modern football as an independent referee on the field. It’s no longer enough that, as was the case here in the schoolyard in the past, people briefly discuss whether it was a foul, a handball or offside and then continue playing.

But we can also see from the offside rule, how laws and game influence each other: The 1866 law change at the FA influenced the game of combination play. This was later felt to be too defensive, so the law was changed as a consequence.

The offside rule in the 19th century

Some of the English public schools of the 1860s had an offside rule, e.g. the Eton Field Game or Harrow Game and the football of the public school in Rugby. Also the FA Rules, first published in 1863, took over the offside typical of the rugby game, where no one is allowed to be between the ball and the opponent’s goal. In contrast, the Sheffield FC Rules did not mention offside in our sense, but simply stated that everyone outside the field was “off-side”.

So until 1866 there were two types of offside: a strict offside or no offside at all.

The first change to the offside rule

In the FA there were discussions about a relaxation of the offside rule. But there was no discussion about the usefulness of the rule. Rather, Westminster and Charterhouse were the reason for the considerations. These public schools wanted to become members of the FA, but not with this strict offside rule. They were the two schools that knew a moderate form of offside.

That’s how it came about: A more open offside rule. They insisted on it because they thought it was fairer.

So it adapted its offside rules to those of the two schools:

“When a player has kicked the ball, any one of the same side who is nearer to the opponents’ goal line is out of play, and may not touch the ball itself, nor in any way whatever prevent any other player from doing so, until the ball has been played, unless there are at least three of his opponents between him and their own goal.”
(Source: FA Rules 1866)

Even twenty years later Montague Shearman argued in his 1887 book “Athletics and football” that offside now meant more universal satisfaction (“universal satisfaction”, p. 335). Before 1866, only the dribbling game described above was possible: many strikers close behind each other and the ball leading in front. If he loses the ball, the players behind him may be able to regain the ball and dribble forward. The new offside now made a combination game possible.

The One-man-offside of the Sheffield FA

In 1867, another football association was formed from the Sheffield area. The Sheffield FA Rules knew in contrast to the Sheffield FC Rules. But it was different from the FA offside in the same year. They did not know a three-man offside, only the one-man offside, so that an even more agile game was possible, similar to the way the Scottish Profs played.

“Any player between an opponent’s goal and goal-keeper (unless he has followed the ball there) is off-side and out of play. “The goal-keeper is that player on the defending side who for the time being is nearest to his own goal.
(Source: Sheffield FA Rules 1867)

Prior to its adoption of the FA Rules in 1877, the Sheffield FA repeatedly attempted to include its offside rule of “less than two players” in the FA Rules – unsuccessfully.

The key points of the evolution of offside rule in the 20th century

In 1886, after the IFAB had been formed from the four British associations to avoid having to discuss the rules each time before international matches, the Scottish FA repeatedly tried to change the offside rule.

In 1894, 1902, 1913, 1914 and 1922 the proposal did not receive the required majority, in 1923 and 1924 it was postponed – and the proposal was accepted in 1925.

This was the last major change to the offside rule. According to Sir Stanley Rous – long-serving FA Secretary, responsible for the first major reform of the Laws of the Game in 1938 and FIFA President in the post-war period – it was introduced to ensure that more goals were scored and make the game of football more attractive.

In 1990, the provision was added that a player at the same level cannot be offside.