This question, posed by one of football’s more famous adherents to a black-and-white manner of thinking, is often recited to protest modern interpretations of the offside rule, such as we saw Boxing Day at Old Trafford when an own-goal scored by Manchester United defender Jonny Evans was allowed to stand despite Newcastle forward Papiss Cissé’s apparent offside position.
Conversely, Clough’s quote is also used by tactics enthusiasts and statistical gurus to mock the sort of simple, unambiguous views the late club manager embraced, backhandedly advocating for the latest interpretation of offside—one that would seem to benefit the attacking side and limit the effectiveness of the offside trap.
Given the history of the offside rule and the myriad tweaks and re-interpretations it has endured since the Football Association conceived of it in 1863, it should be pointed out that neither school, when taking a long, contextualised view, can be said to be wrong, just as neither can be judged to be right. The language of “right” and “wrong” isn’t helpful in this matter; instead, the more useful terminology would include words such as “past” and “current.” But more on that later.
Personally, I count myself a member of the Clough school of thinking when it comes to football. I like my sport to be as clear-cut as possible, where logic rules and ambiguity is avoided wherever possible. The less room for human interpretation, the better.
For example, if a defender goes in for a tackle and strikes the ball first, I don’t care if the ball-carrier goes down in a heap with an injured ankle or knee. The defender, isolating only himself and the ball, has successfully attacked the ball and everything that happens after that is incidental.
I feel the same way about the offside rule.
If an attacking player is in an offside position when the ball is played, the linesman’s flag should go up. End of story. I see all this stuff about “interfering with play” or “interfering with an opponent” as unnecessary nuances that do little else than complicate things for match officials, who are ultimately left to decide if interference was actually committed. For me it’s needless and avoidable ambiguity.
I also recognise that when it comes to the offside rule as enforced in 2012, my interpretation is completely and profoundly imprecise. You see, interpretations ultimately override what’s written in the law. Or, put another way, the law is a living thing and its understanding changes as circumstances change.
Regarding the offside rule, which is described in Law 11 of FIFA’s Laws of the Game, modern football is, by my count, on its 10th interpretation in nearly 150 years.
In that time we have gone from a fully onside game (where forward passing was altogether discouraged) to one where first three, and then two opposing players were allowed between the ball-carrier and the goal; from one where offside was called when the ball was received to one where it was called when the ball was played. Between 1903 and 1925 the offside rule went through four re-interpretations, the latter specifically because football was thought to have become too defensive.
The offside rule, it would seem, has been used and continues to be used as a tweakable mechanism, re-interpreted whenever tactics have caught up to what is commonly held to be acceptably stylistic football.
Offside’s most recent interpretation was cast in 2005, which is where the current understanding of “interference” has its roots. Since then, match officials have been encouraged to allow a player to move into an offside position so long as he was not deemed to be “interfering” with either the play or an opponent.
Page 10 of FIFA’s Law 11 reads:
A player is not committing an offence simply by being in an offside position. Active involvement plus offside position is the offence. Being actively involved in the area of play is not the same as being in the area of active play.
While in an offside position, there are three things a player cannot do: interfere with play, interfere with an opponent, gain an advantage by being in the offside position.
It’s the first two items we’re concerned with here, and FIFA provides definitions of each in the following pages.
“Interfering with play” means: playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a teammate.
With regards to the Jonny Evans own goal, there’s no problem with this clause. Papiss Cissé had no contact with the ball while in an offside position.
“Interfering with an opponent” means: preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball. For example, by clearly obstructing the goalkeeper’s line of vision or movement.
Again, no problem here. United goalkeeper David De Gea’s view of the action was not impaired by Cissé’s positioning. But a final item:
…making a gesture or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent.
It’s here I believe there are sufficient grounds not only to render Evans’ own goal disallowed, but also to blow the understanding of offside currently in vogue to smithereens. Consider these three words: “distract,” “deceive” and “opinion.”
The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “distract” as “to draw or direct one’s attention to a different object or in different directions at the same time; to stir up or confuse with conflicting emotions or motives.” “Deceive” is defined as “to cause to accept as true or valid what is false or invalid; to fail to fulfill.”
Within both definitions are contained every conceivable outcome of a player running into the offside position without touching the ball (for which he would be called offside, anyway). If a defender’s attention is not outright distracted by the “different directions” or “confused with a conflicting motive”—the natural motive being to remain in an onside position—he will have been “deceived” by the attacker’s “failure to fulfill” what his ultimate objective should be: looking for an opportunity to score a goal.
By their own definitions, FIFA has essentially annulled the very idea of non-interference as permissible offside. But by turning the rule over to the “opinions” of the match officials they are providing the ultimate escape clause, if not the means for the outright circumvention of what they, themselves, have laid down as the Laws of the Game.
That little word “opinion” allows for the tweakings and re-interpretations of the offside rule as various associations, or the International Football Association Board, itself, see fit. And as match officials communicate on the field of play what has been communicated to them by those associations or their guidebooks, their opinions are constantly evolving—as they have done on 10 occasions since 1863.
Under the latest interpretation of the offside rule, Papiss Cissé was not interfering with either the play or an opponent in the buildup to the Jonny Evans own goal and, as such, the goal was allowed to stand.
That the interpretation goes against both FIFA’s own language and my personal opinion is beside the point. The Laws of the Game are a living thing, logic be damned.