21 February, 2002 (Internetsoccer) –- There are those that would have no problem eliminating Rule 11 of the Laws of the Game altogether. That’s the one that specifies what is and isn’t offside. Or more to the point, the rule that makes it all but impossible to get that call right on a regular basis.
The rule is as old as the organized game. Though originally it required three defenders to make the play offside, that was reduced to two in 1927. That made the offside rule the friend of the defense, who can easily push up into the attack while playing what's commonly known as the offside trap.
Without Rule 11, the basic tactics of offensive and defensive play would be revamped. Something that some are convinced is exactly what the game needs.
At least in theory, those that consider soccer boring would probably prefer a game without the offside rule. Especially if it moved the game towards a free-flowing passing offense, away from the long-ball strategy that is often used to combat the offside trap. Again, in theory, it would put the emphasis on skill players and increase the number of goals scored.
The North American Soccer League almost got kicked out of FIFA for deciding they could simply set up an offside line 35-yards from goal. It was an attempt to keep the benefits of the offside rule and still allow for onrushing play. Like the shootout, it wasn’t an obvious improvement.
Apart from style questions, the offside rule can be even more fundamental. Important games are often influenced or in fact decided by an offside call. Usually when a player that appears to be in an offside position is allowed to continue a run that results in a goal. It happened to Leeds when they were pushing for the English title in 1972, and to Manchester United when they lost the FA Cup final to Southampton in 1976. The first example is more egregious, but it simply goes to show that there is a fluctuation in how this rule, apart from any other in soccer, can be missed. That’s nothing new, and with no other mechanism for preventing the kind of strategies that will park players at both ends of the field, it doesn’t make sense to alter it.
The offside rule was put in place to help the flow of the game and produce chances. Taking it out does the opposite.
And usually when the discussions about changing the offside rule are at their strongest, it’s when the game on the field is not meeting expectations.
World soccer is currently in an era where the highest level of the professional game doesn’t show what’s best about the sport. It’s an odd parity that results in the kind of “upsets” that infuriate neutral spectators because the relative quality of play is simply not entertaining.
Granted, some changes make sense. For instance, banning the tackle from behind that ended Marco Van Basten's career. But the kind of wholesale changes that some believe would “help” the game are usually just a response to the current state of it.
It’s up to teams, players, and coaches to alter the game within the rules. The Austrians in the 1930s, the Hungarians in the 1950s, Brazil in the 1960s, the West Germans and Dutch in the 1970s ... all of these teams and their great players changed the way the sport is played from the top down.
That sort of advance rather than rules should revitalize any sport, and trying to see glimpses of where the next changes might be coming from is half the fun.
In Pele’s era, players really did have several seconds longer on the ball before having to make a decision. That timeframe is currently reduced to a second, and given conditioning it will probably grow even shorter. And in response, players will emerge that can take that second and do amazing things.
The temptation to mess with the laws of the game is there, it happens every time the quality of the game dips. But even though it runs against the kind of revenue-driven thinking that has controlled soccer decision making since the boom period of the mid-1990’s, it’s a potential innovation that should be ignored.