Peter Corrigan: The offside flaw - Fifa risk goal-hanging offence

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The Independent Online

Goal-hangers are not a popular breed in the lower reaches of football. They certainly weren't in the days when I used to chase the ball around the public parks. They were just bone-idle glory seekers who loitered as close to goal as they could in the hope of scoring with the least possible effort and inconvenience.

Goal-hangers are not a popular breed in the lower reaches of football. They certainly weren't in the days when I used to chase the ball around the public parks. They were just bone-idle glory seekers who loitered as close to goal as they could in the hope of scoring with the least possible effort and inconvenience.

Since they were playing at a level that didn't merit linesmen or, often, referees, the only curb on their activities came from their fellow players. "Stop goal-hanging and do some bloody running" was a common cry among football's hoi polloi.

Now, it has taken the mightiest organ-isation in the game to make goal-hanging a cause célèbre capable of forcing the Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League to hold hurried talks on Friday and issue emergency advice about the offside law to all referees and their assistants in action this weekend. If those worthies don't know what the hell to do with their flags and whistles, it will not be the slightest surprise, because confusion has been raging through the game over the past few weeks.

Not one word, dot or comma of Law 11 relating to offside has changed in years but Fifa, as is their wont, have been dabbling with the interpretation. They have already given modern attackers more scope. A forward used to need to have two defenders nearer to the goal when the ball was played to him. In the mid-Nineties, Fifa decided he needed only to be level with the second defender, which is a significant advantage. Back in October, football's lords and masters decided that attacking sides needed more assistance, and thought up fresh guidelines about players interfering with play.

The law states that a player is offside if he is "interfering with play; interfering with an opponent; gaining advantage by being in that position". Football's old administrators might have been pompous old sods but they used to knock out a plain and simple law. Fourteen words, that's all it took, and they've done decades of service and everyone knew what was what.

In November, Fifa passed on the new guidelines to all concerned. I don't intend to repeat them but they number 87 words, throw all manner of confusing scenarios into the pot about whether a player is active or inactive and contradict previous conceptions of what constitutes interference. Accompanying the guidelines was this priceless postscript: "With these clearer instructions, the referees will be in a better position to make informed decisions based on uniform criteria."

It is impossible to prevent the words "total bollocks" invading your mind and, sure enough, chaos has ensued. Even after Friday's attempt to get some consistency back into offside rulings, nobody knows where it is going to end.

Why there was a delay between November and the first manifestations of this new approach in January is difficult to establish. Unless it involves a transfer, an elbow or an agent, news doesn't travel fast in football, but the main reason must have been the difficulty in taking it all in.

First mass sighting of the confusion came when Ruud van Nistelrooy scored in Manchester United's 3-2 win over Southampton. The United striker was clearly offside when a free-kick was delivered into the penalty area, but then moved onside before scoring from close range. Understandably, the then South-ampton manager, Gordon Strachan, was furious. "Of course he was interfering with play," he claimed. "As soon as the ball was touched he was moving towards it. You may as well scrap offside altogether." As the great Danny Blanchflower once observed, if you're not interfering with play you have no business being on the pitch.

It was also noted that Thierry Henry had become prone to standing offside during the early build-up of an attack and moving onside as the ball was played through, making him even more difficult to mark. But the most blatant cashing in on the new interpretation came from Sam Allardyce, the Bolton manager, against Leicester last Tuesday. At one free-kick, Bolton placed two men several yards offside and close to the goal. They ran back onside as the ball was sent on its way, but they had already done their distraction damage, and in the ensuing mêlée the Leicester goalkeeper, Ian Walker, freakishly bundled the ball into his own net.

Allardyce admitted taking advantage. "I think Fifa have got it horribly wrong. There is nothing I can do except use it in our favour, but I don't like it. It adds nothing to the game other than confusion. Sooner or later, we are going to get 22 players in the six-yard box when a free- kick comes in."

Perhaps it was the realisation that a tidal wave of advantage-taking was on the way that persuaded the authorities to move rapidly to prevent the offsiders running amok. The new advice they've issued to officials is that if a player is "deceiving or distracting" an opponent he can be judged offside. Wasn't that the case beforehand? Fifa's judgement in bringing in these guidelines is profoundly depress-ing. It betrays a distressing naïvety about how ruthlessly professional the game is. Teams will squeeze the utmost out of any change of emphasis.

In fact, the present law was introduced in 1925, prior to which you had to have three players between you and the goal. Billy McCracken, the Newcastle United and Ireland left-back, operated such a devastatingly efficient offside trap that the authorities were forced to make the change. It revolutionised tactics all over the world, especially here. Centre-half, previously more of an attacking role, was brought back to be the stopper, and the game's shape was dramatically altered.

The latest tinkering is another blatant move by Fifa to promote more attacking play, but it could have the opposite effect. Their president, Sepp Blatter, left no doubt about his intentions to sex up the game when he suggested that women's football would be more popular if they wore scantier clothing. Perhaps, he intends one day to promote mixed football, and likes the thought of a lady striker standing in an offside position wearing a bra and thong - but not interfering with play, of course.

The Brighton side of life

Last weekend, Brighton fans staged an emotional 30-minute sit-in after the game at Wycombe. Joined by directors, staff and their still-muddy players, they were protesting against a local planning decision to turn down plans for a new stadium, on which their existence depends.

Only John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, can now rescue the project, and he is being bombarded with pleas from all over the game. Coincidentally, last week saw the All Party Parliamentary Football Group issue a series of proposals for the game which included levying the rich clubs to help the lowly ones, a wage cap, greater transparency on agents' fees, a return to 3pm Saturday kick-offs and a quality test on new directors.

All worthy suggestions, of course, but the Premier League clubs are probably still laughing. It was as plaintive as a letter to Father Christmas. There must be a more powerful way of making their points. Meanwhile, why don't they make a real contribution to the game by persuading Prescott to help Brighton fulfil a dream the entire community is behind?

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