Football’s lawmaking body is to undertake a “philosophical” review of the offside law, which could result in a root-and-branch reform of one of the game’s most controversial rules. The year-long piece of work was part of a number of initiatives announced at the International Football Association Board’s annual general meeting, which was held in Belfast on Saturday.
Partly inspired by the advent of VAR, and further pushed along by the way the rules of video refereeing have been pushed into sharp focus since its adoption by the Premier League, the aim of the research is to move the offside law further towards encouraging attacking football.
Ifab is made up of representatives from Fifa and each of the UK Football Associations, with responsibility between them for maintaining and reforming football’s laws. Other outcomes from their 134th annual AGM included: trials for concussion substitutes in football, with the Tokyo Olympics almost certain to be amongst the test competitions; further research into the causes and effects of concussion among footballers; and action taken to reduce the practice of players mobbing referees after officials have taken controversial decisions. The Premier League will also be expected, as of next season, to ask its referees to consult pitchside monitors in the case of all subjective VAR decisions.
VAR has provoked many of the proposals, the biggest change in the sport’s rules for a generation bringing with it some unintended impacts, including on the offside law. With players now being judged offside by previously undetectable distances, some influential voices in the sport – including Fifa’s new chief of global football development, Arsène Wenger – have called for the law to be updated, to say that an attacker is only offside if there is “daylight” between themselves and a defender. Ifab has said it will now consider this proposition.
“[The daylight law] has been received very positively and this is why we have decided to investigate”, said Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa. “The philosophy of fostering attacking football always has to guide us. We also have to be very aware and wary of tradition. It is true that now is the right time to look into it and see if we can do something positive for attacking football and providing strikers with more goalscoring opportunities.”
David Elleray, the former Premier League referee who is now technical director of Ifab, said that the offside consultation would look at every aspect of the law but would primarily ask what purpose those running the game want it to serve.
“We don’t like to change the laws,” Elleray said, “but football evolves and some things change because we’ve changed the way the game is played.The offside law has steadily moved in favour of the attacker but now it’s moved a bit back and football doesn’t want that.
“Assistant referees are always being told, if in doubt give the benefit of the doubt to the attacking team. What VAR, but also other technology, has done is to take that doubt away. Football is saying to us that having your toe two centimetres in front of the defender is not enough of an advantage to be penalised. It’s not questioning the fact that you can see it, but whether if you can see it, it should be offside.
“This is where we’re going to go into a proper consulation. Football has a habit of throwing up one line solutions to complex problems and when you go into them, they’re all quite complicated. But in principle if we could have more goals, more excitement, but without making it too much in favour of the attackers then people would like that. It’s that balance.”
On the subject of pitchside monitors, Elleray’s colleague Pierluigi Collina, chairman of Fifa’s referee committee, said the Premier League’s practice of not encouraging their use is unlikely to continue. “We did a survey of about 6,000 matches from top competitions and the average was that 75% of reviews went to a pitchside monitor,” Collina said. “So any competition that is significantly below 75% is clearly out of step. The English situation … I think you should expect that there are some changes next year.”
The next year is likely to see the extensive trial of concussion substitutes, with different alternatives – from temporary substitutes to a permanent extra substitute favoured both by the Premier League and Fifa. A protocol regarding the trial is to be developed, and would likely then be followed by a first test during this summer’s Olympics.