Offside or not?

WHEN Real Madrid scored their winning goal through Roberto Carlos versus Juventus in the Bernabeu, it opened a great big can of worms, which has yet to be closed.


Real Madrid's Guti celebrates with Roberto Carlos after the latter had scored against Juventus during their UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg. No fewer than three and may be even four Real players were quite plainly offside when Carlos' shot beat the Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. — Pic. REUTERS-

WHEN Real Madrid scored their winning goal through Roberto Carlos versus Juventus in the Bernabeu, it opened a great big can of worms, which has yet to be closed. When the Brazilian of the explosive left foot shot, from the left, to beat Gianluigi Buffon and make it 2-1, no fewer than three and may be even four Real players were quite plainly offside. The Norwegian referee, Mr. Hauge, went over to consult his linesman who had duly flagged an offside decision; only, then, to point to the centre for a goal.

Now, the law as it stands gave Hauge the dubious right to decide as he did. Let us examine it. Despite waffling talk of active and passive offside this season, things haven't changed, at least in respect of what constitutes an offside position. Though it must be recollected that whereas in the past an attacking player who was level with the defenders was deemed offside, now he is deemed onside. Which should surely be more than enough of a concession to attacking play.

The Laws of the Game state, however, that a player be offside if he is deemed to be seeking to gain an advantage, or interfering either with the play or an opponent. Apropos of which Bill Shankly, the flamboyant little Scottish manager of Liverpool, was wont to say, "If a player isn't interfering with the play, then what's he doing on the field?" Plainly Mr. Hauge decided that the three clearly offside players were not doing any of these things.

I find such an opinion highly contentious. In the first place, surely, by standing where they were when the Juve defenders moved up, rather than running back upfield, they were indeed seeking to gain an advantage. And interfering with the play. Here implicitly it is obvious Hauge had decided that none of the three, or four, was blocking Buffon's line of vision when Roberto Carlos shot, from a position behind them. Maybe not, but how does he or anybody else but a mind reader know whether the mere presence of the offside three could have been a distraction to Buffon?

The most alarming feature of Hauge's decision is the potential effect it could have on defenders. From time immemorial, for better or worse, and at every and any level of soccer, defensive lines, once a ball has been cleared, move up as fast as they can to put opponents in an offside position and at least to see that they too have to run back upfield to avoid being caught. But what now? A defensive line, which moves up and leaves opponents offside can surely have no confidence that the laws and the referee will protect them. The corollary of which could well be that they don't move upfield at all, that they simply place themselves behind the offside players, even in and around the six-yard line, to make sure that they be not caught out by an eccentric, however marginally legal, decision by the referee.

My mind goes back to an occasion when "passive" offside at least led to a logical if explosive decision. That was some seasons ago when Leeds United, in line to win the Championship, played at Elland Road against, West Bromwich Albion.

A long ball was cleared from the Albion half and pursued all alone, not a defender between him and the Leeds goal, by Tony Brown, inside left and ace goal scorer for WBA. But in the meantime, like flotsam washed up on the shore, there loitering without evident intent in the middle of the Leeds half was the Albion centre forward, the late Jeff Astle. On and on ran Brown, eventually shooting past the 'keeper; the goal that decided the game, virtually robbed Leeds of the title and led to an invasion of the field by irate home fans. Referee Ray Tinkler stuck to his guns and gave the goal, which he legally and lawfully could. Astle beyond doubt wasn't interfering with the play and he was far too far from the goal to confuse the 'keeper.

But the offside law has ever been a bone of contention in soccer. The law of course was changed in 1925 quite radically but almost casually. Let me explain. The two Newcastle United full backs, wily Ulsterman Billy McCracken and his companion Hudspeth — backs played in the middle in those days — had craftily perfected a system whereby time and again they moved upfield to put opponents offside. The joke went that when a visiting team arrived in Newcastle station and heard a train guard blow his whistle, one of their players wearily remarked, "Blimey! Offside already!"

It couldn't go on but the way the English Football Association dealt with the problem was cavalier, to say the least. The FA were then very much in the driver's seat so far as world football was then concerned; they and the other British associations were not even members of FIFA. So the FA decreed a trial of the offside law at Arsenal Stadium. One half would employ the existing law whereby a player had to have at least two opponents between him and the opposing goalkeeper (three if you count the goalkeeper himself); for the other half there would be an experiment whereby only two opponents would be required to put an attacker onside; in effect, by and large, one man and the 'keeper. On that slender basis, it was decided that the second alternative be adopted.

The result was cataclysmic. Suddenly the balance had been tipped towards attacking teams and goals flowed in abundance. But very quickly the trend brought forth what you might call a counter revolution, Arsenal, just taken over in 1925 by that phenomenal manager, Herbert Chapman, introduced the so-called third back game, the previously roving centre half becoming a mere stopper, the full backs moved out to the flanks, the wing halves inside. Counter attack became increasingly, at least in England, the name of the game as club after club fell into line.

Indeed, breakaway football became a reductio ad absurdum long afterwards, with Helenio Herrera's Inter Catenaccio teams of the 1960s. Yet, all this when, not long ago, a scientific study in Valencia established that it was literally impossible for a linesman, bound to swivel his gaze from one end of the field to the other, to give a valid offside decision. As we know, he must decide whether an attacker was onside when the ball was kicked.

All in all, it seems that after Hauge, subjectivity rules. But for how long?