Offside was never meant to be about body parts: toes, armpits, shoulders, hips. That’s video stuff, a complication of our modern age. John Logie Baird gave the first demonstration of what we now call television on January 26, 1926; offside had been around in its various forms more than 60 years by then.
So when the Football Association clarified offside for the first time in 1866, it was very clear. Players were offside. Not bits of players. Whole ones.
Rule 6: ‘When a player has kicked the ball, any one of the same side who is nearer to the opponents’ goal-line is out of play and may not touch the ball himself nor in any way whatever prevent any other player from doing so until the ball has been played, unless there are at least three of his opponents between him and their own goal…’
Sheffield United had a goal ruled out against Tottenham by the slightest of margins last week
The codification of offside was a giant step in football’s evolution because it coincided with the legalisation of the forward pass.
Until then, football was like rugby; backwards only. Offside was such a big deal, we even know the identity of the first man to fall foul of it: Charles W Alcock in a match between the FA and Sheffield on March 31, 1866.
Through the years there were modifications. In 1873, it was decided offside came into effect when the ball is received. Goal kicks became exempt in 1880, corners in 1881, in 1907 offside was limited to the opponents’ half. Interfering with play dates from 1920, throw-ins are exempt from 1921, and three opponents become two in 1925.
Around this time Newcastle are credited with developing the first offside trap. From 1956, offside begins when the forward pass is made, not when the advanced player gets the ball.
There were many tweaks in the decades that followed but not until 2003 does some genius break footballers into sections. ‘Consideration should be given to the position of the attacker’s feet and body in respect to that of the second last defender…’ is the sentence that is the beginning of the end for common sense.
By 2005, this had evolved further. ‘Football is played with the head, body and feet. If these are nearer the opponents’ goal line, there is a potential advantage. There is no advantage to be gained if only the arms are in advance of the opponent.’
Now 14 years on, enter chaos. Enter the slicing of an offside call like it is an MRI scan, the deliberation over toes and shoulders and whether an armpit belongs to the upper torso or the arm, the dicing of players into active and non-active components.
After a lengthy delay it was deemed that John Lundstram was offside by a toe in the build-up
Just like those handballs that are an offence if a forward does them, but not a defender, so individual limbs can now be illegal or irrelevant.
Only referees can do this. Only people obsessed with rules and regulations can mess them up so badly. Ask the players, the coaches, the fans, and they would endorse modern technology with the wider brushstrokes of the Victorian age. They want clear and obvious. Not four minutes to achieve clarity, or a best guess.
They want to eradicate blatant mistakes, not attempt measurement by millimetres. Sheffield United’s disallowed goal at Tottenham was a case in point.
At any other stage in football’s evolution that would have stood without a murmur of complaint. Nobody was judging toes. We are applying a ludicrously rigorous and refined level of investigation to rules that were intended to be broader and fairer. What is now being attempted is divorced from the spirit of the game. Golf had the same problem. The first standardised rules were published by the R&A on September 26, 1899 and contain this simple distinction: ‘a stroke shall be any movement of the ball caused by the player…’
No super slo-mo around then, obviously, so no consideration that a golfer might ground his club and, imperceptibly, move his ball half of one dimple — an infringement identified only on a later invention called television.
The original rules addressed movement that could be seen by the naked eye.
So the rulemakers had to step in when snoops started calling from their sofas having spotted miniscule movements that no player could have noticed, and demanding stroke penalties or disqualifications for signing the wrong score.
Ashley Barnes scored from a corner against West Ham that was incorrectly awarded to Burnley
These were not the rules, as intended. This was a product of modern technology, unimagined in 1899. The original rule on what constituted a stroke was designed to stop cheating — a player improving his position by manipulating the terrain around his ball. It had never been envisaged that by the 21st century machines would detect accidental, inconsequential, infringements beyond the capability of human sight.
Clear and obvious is a concept rulemakers from any century would recognise; so why has it become such a foreign concept now? At Turf Moor on Saturday, a corner was given to the home side for a shot that had clearly come off a Burnley player.
Radio commentators called the mistake in real time, it was that plain. It would have taken a second for VAR to correct the referee’s mistake. Nothing.
Then Ashley Barnes scored from the corner. And all goals are referred to VAR. And again, it would have been the work of a moment to reveal the corner itself was an error. But no.
So the goal stood when everyone knew it was unfair. And it didn’t influence the result because West Ham were poor and would have lost anyway.
Yet it perfectly highlighted the difference between what was expected of VAR — fairness — and what has been delivered, which is madness.
We have become so sophisticated that we have forgotten what the rules were for, and how they came to be. They evolved to ensure the fairest play, based on logic and common sense. They were based on what could be seen and practically applied.
This is why our interpretation of VAR has lost its way. It is not just divorced from history, but from reality, too.
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