Fifa defends new offside ruling

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The Independent Football

The head of the Professional Game Match Officials Board, Keith Hackett, has called for patience while the latest interpretation of the offside rule works its way into the game.

Although the directive from the world governing body, Fifa, on how to the apply the law was sent out late last year, it is still leading to confusion.

The extremes of the situation were highlighted in the 1-1 draw at Leicester on Tuesday night when the Bolton Wanderers manager, Sam Allardyce, deployed two men to stand on the edge of the six-yard area whenever his side won a free-kick in the opposition half. As the free-kick was taken, the pair would then run back into the pack of players but as they were not interfering with play they were not flagged offside.

The tactic created confusion in the Leicester defence and, though it was not directly responsible, one such free-kick saw the goalkeeper, Ian Walker, fumble the ball into his own net for the equaliser. Allardyce admitted he had studied the revised interpretation and used it to their advantage but did not agree with the changes.

"I think they [Fifa] have got it horribly wrong," Allardyce said. "There is obviously nothing I can do about it apart from try to use it to my advantage. I don't like it, I don't think it adds anything to the game whatsoever, other than confusion. It's not the referees' fault, it's Fifa's. Hopefully they may change it back."

However, Hackett, who took over as head of the referees' board last year, said the sooner players and fans came to terms with the changes the better. "I have been involved in the game for 40-odd years and the offside law is the one that creates the most debate and discussion," he said. "When there is a change in law it is always a difficult time. I can remember times when the pass back to the goalkeeper [being outlawed] caused a fair amount of furore.

"This [the new interpretation] was communicated to the clubs in November and it is about getting the true interpretation down the line. It is only in the last couple of weeks this has come to light."

Hackett explained that a player had to be actively seeking an advantage by being in a certain position for him to be offside and that it did not matter whether or not defenders perceived them to be a threat.

"A player is interfering with play if he is clearly obstructing the goalkeeper's line of vision," he said. "With the players at Leicester, if there was a direct shot on goal they were deemed as passive because they were not interfering. You can't apply psychology to it. You have to ask whether they were obstructing the goalkeeper's view and the answer is no."

The new offside interpretation was brought in after a meeting of Fifa's International Board on 29 October. The aim, according to Fifa, was to "protect attacking play intended to lead to a goal, which is the ultimate objective in football".

It did not change the original wording of the offside rule, but urged referees and assistant referees to use their judgement in certain situations. This has led to confusion and controversy in some matches since then but Hackett said that as soon as everyone accepted the change the less fuss there would be.

"We were all brought up on [the principle] 'If in doubt, give the offside'. Fifa deemed not enough goals were being scored so they are now saying the attackers get the benefit," Hackett said. "If the assistant referee is in any doubt about the decision he does not flag. The instructions they are receiving are to 'wait, wait, wait and see'.

"We heard spectators three or four months ago moaning about the flag being delayed but the assistant referee has to delay still further now to make the judgement, 'Is there interference, is the player active?'. The plea to spectators is that you have to be patient, because the very nature of this law encourages the assistant referee to delay his flag."

Hackett admitted the change has made the job of the officials more difficult, especially for the assistant referee. "Fifa send out these interpretations and we have to apply them, whether it makes life more difficult or not. It takes great skill and great courage for the assistant referee to hold the flag down before he makes his decision.

"At the moment the ball is passed he has got to delay and see if that player is in an offside position and whether that player is active. That is the skill of the assistant referee. He is now involved in some pretty crucial decision-making."

Fifa declined to comment, referring back to their October statement: "A player in an offside position is only penalised if, at the moment the ball is touched or played by one of his team, he is, in the opinion of the referee, involved in active play by interfering with play or interfering with an opponent or by gaining an advantage by being in that position."