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With the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup just around the corner, now is the time to get primed on your soccer lingo. One of the most common violations that stops play during the tournament is when a player is called offside. When you’re watching the game, it’s not always clear what happened that led to the call, and the rule is admittedly a little complicated. Even Ryan Reynolds, who owns the Welsh football club Wrexham FC, is a little fuzzy on what offside means: in a “humiliating” moment, he got schooled by David Beckham over the term, and had to defend himself, saying, “in fairness, nobody understands the offside rule.”
The good news? It’s easier to understand when you break it down. Here’s everything you need to know about what offside (sometimes called “offsides”) means in soccer — so you don’t have to worry about Beckham coming for you, too.
What Does Offside Mean in Soccer?
The International Football Association Board (IFAB) defines being in an offside position as being both in the opponent’s half of the field and “nearer to the opponents’ goal line than
both the ball and the second-last opponent.” Essentially, it means that a player on the offensive or attacking team is closer to the goal than any player on the defensive team (besides the goalie).
Simply being in this position isn’t necessarily a problem. However, if the offside player becomes involved in the play, it becomes a violation. For example, if a player in the offside position gets the ball (via a pass, for example) it becomes an offside offense or an offside penalty. An offside penalty can also be called if a player on the same team gets the ball while one of their teammates is offside. A penalty can only be called on the team in possession of the ball.
An Example of an Offside Penalty
To explain what this actually looks like during a game, let’s consider how it might play out between two teams we’ll call Team A and Team B. In this scenario, let’s say Team A is in possession of the ball and is trying to score. That means Team A is the only team that can be called offside during this play (that is, until Team B gets the ball back).
The soccer field is divided into two halves, called the defending side and the attacking side. The attacking side is the side with the goal where the team in possession of the ball is trying to score. The defending side is the other side of the field. The only place on the field where an offside can be called is on the attacking side.
The goalkeeper, who stands near the goal to keep the offensive team from scoring, is almost always the last opponent. This means the second-last opponent (as used in IFAB’s definition of offside) is the very next player on the defensive team.
To determine when a player is offside, locate that last defender (Team B player) between the team who is trying to score (Team A) and the goal, and draw an imaginary line across the field. Any Team A player who is past that line, between the defender and the goal, is offside. Worth noting: IFAB considers any part of the head, body, or feet to count as being over the line (a player does not need to cross it with their whole body).
If the offside Team A player gets the ball passed to them, that’s an offside penalty. Or if a Team A player gets the ball while another Team A player is offside, that can also result in an offside penalty.
If you’re still confused, watch this video, which breaks it down visually. (Trust, it helps!)
Exceptions to the Offside Rule
There are a few instances where a team won’t get a penalty even if a player seems to be in an offside position.
Corner kicks: If a team is restarting play with a corner kick, it’s OK for their teammates to be in the offside position. Same with throw-ins and goal kicks.
Pass timing: This one comes down to exact timing. If a player is not in the offside position when someone kicks the ball, but moves into an offside position to receive the ball, that’s not a violation. This is true as long as the player is not already offside when the ball is kicked. (See the “Timing Matters” graphic in this explanation by the New York Times.)
On the defending side: A player can not be penalized for being offside when they’re on the defending side of the field — meaning, they’re on the side of the field with their own goalie.
What Happens If a Team Gets an Offside Penalty?
If a team receives an offside penalty, the referee will award an indirect free kick to the other team. The kick will take place where the offense occurred, per IFAB rules. An indirect free kick is a kick that cannot score a goal and must be touched by two players before it a shot is taken.
— Additional reporting by Lauren Mazzo