The worst and least worse ways to explain the offside rule to football dummies, ranked

Two of the many tyrannies of being a football fan are the existence of the offside rule and the existence of people who don’t know what it is. Thus comes a solemn duty: to be the explainer. How else are they supposed to understand why the forwards don’t just wait around the goal and wait for a teammate to lob the ball down there? How else will they appreciate the beauty and skill of a perfectly timed race? How else are they going to know why we just threw the remote at the TV in a VAR-induced rage?

With each major tournament that passes, I am worn out by my mostly ineffectual ministrations aimed at explaining the rule to less experienced fellow viewers. And it always goes the same way: an otherwise beautiful goal is called offside, and as the players move on with play, I find myself sputtering about a-defence-here and if-she-just-waited-half-a-second, I have a bit that sticks with me.

This is my looming fate as we advance in this World Cup, especially as the referees will be live announcement of VAR calls on a microphone, NFL style. I foresee that this will only increase the focus on the offside rule and on my responsibility to explain it.

In anticipation of this task, I consulted with my fellow Defector soccer fans about their preferred techniques. You can see the rankings we settled on below, but first some considerations:

We debated whether you should mention that the rule isn’t actually about one defender, but two, because the goalie counts as a defender. Luis said that no, you just have to say that the striker cannot be behind the last defender, and if something strange happens in a match with two defenders behind a goalkeeper, you can correct it at that moment. I’m ambivalent about this, so I say: Know your audience.

The other very confusing element is if you have to delineate between being called offside and simply being in an offside position. My advice is to explain what it is to be in an offside position (having only one or zero opponents between you and their goal), then look into saying that if you are in an offside position AND influence play – most often it is when the ball is passed to you, but there are nuances – you will be called offside.

With all that said (and not very gracefully; for a simple rule, it’s certainly fiendishly difficult to explain), here’s our ranking, from very bad to slightly better, but still bad.

1. Verbally. So naive of you to try. For what it’s worth, here’s how I typically explain the rule:

A player on the attacking team must have at least two defenders from the other team (usually one defender and the goalkeeper) between himself and the goal line when a teammate passes the ball. The exceptions to this rule are during a throw-in when you are in your own half or when the ball is behind the last or penultimate defender, in which case the ball becomes the offside line. If you are in an offside position and affect the play, the play will be called offside, even if you do not actually touch the ball.

But it never really works because it’s obviously very convoluted and confusing. We trudge on.

2. With the arms. Albert shared, “I kind of use my hands/arms? One forearm represents the back line of defense and my other hand points to where you CAN be and where you CAN’T be. (This has like a 20% success rate.)” I can’t say I recommend it, but at least there’s some hint of visual aid involved.

3. Drawing on a piece of paper. Whipping out the trusty paper and pen is a good instinct; you can mark a clear field and mark your players as well as an actual offside line. But showing movement is difficult, and movement is what makes understanding the rule so difficult. Next.

4. Salt and pepper shakers or other random objects. Now you can move your players around the field (table) and use e.g. a bottle cap as a ball. But for some people, it can be hard to remember whether the anthropomorphized salt is the attacker or the defender, because salt and pepper shakers, cups, or other objects you use don’t really do that. face in one way or another. This leads me to…

5. Using real people and a ball. If you’re really committed, pulling very confused people onto a patch of grass is a bold move that can be useful. You could go crazy and set up a little Pugg net to really establish your context, get three offside-savvy friends to help you (two players on each team do), and literally demonstrate the rule in action. The problem here is that while you’re doing your pretty little run, there’s no way to guarantee that the weary souls you’re getting into so much trouble for aren’t admiring the pretty little daisies growing next to the net.

6. Point it out in the game. This technique works best if you have the ability to rewind the channel you are watching. The explanation at the moment, with pauses and pointers, may be effective, but of course one game will only lend itself to explaining one aspect of the offside rule. It is credible, but not wide.

7. Just give up and show one damn youtube video. Don’t feel ashamed. You tried your best.

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