February 10, 2014

What "challenging an opponent for the ball" means

To ensure that the new version of the offside rule is understood in the appropiate way, this blog will continuously spotlight match situations that serve as paramount examples to explain the differences and partly similarities between Law 11's old and current version. Having already examined the terms deliberate save and deliberately playing the ball, this post focuses on interfering with an opponent by challenging an opponent for the ball.

Offside! © The Third Team

The relevant part of Law 11 in written form:
Interfering with... (old version)
- “interfering with play” means playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a team-mate.
- “interfering with an opponent” means preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or movement or making a gesture or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent.
Interfering with... (new version)
- “interfering with play” means playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a team-mate.
- “interfering with an opponent” means preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or challenging an opponent for the ball.

Comparing the term challenging an opponent for the ball, it must be pointed out that this means much more than the old interpretation which settled for the quire woolly circumstance, when a player makes a movement or a gesture which deceive or distract an opponent. While it surely goes further than that, the new term stays comparably vague. What is meant by challenging an opponent? Do players have to touch him/her? And if they touch their opponent, is that enough for raising the flag? Even though the precise wording of the law does not specify this challenge, their are clear instructions and guidelines that achieve further clarification. We can quite freely understand this challenge as a fight for the ball. The attacker must show the will to reach the ball and is bount to fthe following two criteria:

1) physical interference
2) being in playing distance (UEFA defines that as maximum 1 - 1,5 metres)

As emphasized above, challenging an opponent for the ball means a real fight for the ball. So, it is already clear that physical interference with an opponent having been in an offside position at the moment when the ball was touched is not enough for the assistant referees to raise their flag. This physical interference must happen in the context of fighting for the ball, i.e. in playing distance. But physical interference is not essentially necessary to deem the player as guilty of "active" offside - we can utilize the flowery term "active offside" here. There does not have to be body contact between the forward and his opponent. Being in playing distance (< 1,5 m) is enough. This was actually similar in the old formulation of Law 11, too. 
Therefore, criteria 1) is only fulfilled for active offside by requiring criteria 2). If the physical interference happened far away from play, i.e. (the scenery around) the ball, nothing has happened in the sense of Law 11 (of course, if no foul happened with regard to the body contact). But when a forward player is challenging an opponent for the ball being very close to the ball, i.e. being in playing distance, the assistant referees have to consider this as active offside. So, criteria 1 depends on criteria 2, but criteria 2 is independent from criteria 1.

After this quite arid theoretical explanation, you can check two very current examples of the practical application of this facet of Law 11 on the pitch.

This situation happened at the start of February 2014 in Germany's Bundesliga. After a defensive clearance of the red-dressed team, blue-dressed #12 made a high shot on goal. The ball would have reached the goal, if it had not been obstructed by a deliberate handball on the goal-line of red #31. Referee Michael Weiner first awarded a penalty kick in favour of the blue team and sent off #31 with a direct red card. However, upon consultation with his first assistant referee Norbert Grudzinski, he changed his decision and accepted his assistant referee's advice, who had seen an offside position of blue #20, who was crossing the goalkeeper's path and had physical interference with him (no foul). The German association, DFB, has in the meantime made an official statement declaring this decision as wrong. Why?
As stressed in the previous theoretical part, physical interference is not enough to classify it as a sufficient criteria for an active offside position. The assistant referee should have considered whether blue #20 and the goalkeeper are in a fight for the ball - as the ball was approximately 7 or 8 metres away instead of the recommended limit of 1,5 metres, this is surely no active challenge for the ball. In addition, there was not any player who could have interfered with the offender of the handball (#31), who was the one who had to be challenged for the ball by any opponent (and not the goalkeeper). For this reason, the correct decision would have been to let the flag down, to award a penalty kick and to send off the defender. If the handball had not existed, the goal would have been legally scored. Despite the courage proven by the match officials, the decision was consequently wrong. Personally, I am quite surprised that, in the opinion of DFB, the phrase "by clearly obstructing the opponent’s [...] movement" was totally irrelevant in this situation - actually, the goalkeeper's movement was indeed obstructed. Anyway, it is surely good to have a precise and official statement of a football association on this matter. More statements of this format are needed in future - they merely lead to more comprehension and will not undermine the associations' referees and their authority.

Next example.

In this video example taken from the Italian Coppa Italia, you can see the black-dressed #6 while delivering a long and high direct free-kick into the penalty area. By coming out of his goal, the goalkeeper was able to clear the ball with his hands and collided with one of his team-mates. Assistant referee Nicola Nicoletti raised his flag and ruled black #5 offside. Was that correct?
Well, at first, it must be said that the commentators were apparently not capable of making a well-reasoned judgment on that, since they did not understand the officials' decision at all. Then, we can consider whether the two relevant criteria were fulfilled or not.
Contrary to the situation in Berlin, there was no physical interference between the forward, who was in an offside position, and an opponent. But as reinforced above, this is not essentially required. The fight for the ball is decisive. And this existed. The forward, #5, was in immediate playing distance; he was very close to the ball and challenged the goalkeeper in order to get it. Or, simply said, the goalkeeper had to clear the ball due to the presence of this attacker, whose offside position had become active by that. He feared the attacker, he was challenged by him, he had to do something for this reason. Or, in the formally more correct wording, the forward was in playing distance. In conclusion, the decision was absolutely correct - and would have been correct in the old form of the Laws of the Game as well.

As you see, the same passage in Law 11 can be pretty much taken for granted for years and hence goes without saying, but - at the same time - creates confusion and a visible difference to the old version of the rule, too. Assistant referees are still struggling with putting the theory into praxis on the field of play and are not less confused than common football fans. It once again shows that world federation FIFA has rather managed to make things more complicated by failing to explain the changes in an adequate manner to referees, players and fans, than simplifying it. The responsible men have contributed to further confusion about this perpetual issue of dispute in football. Certainly, this does not mean that the new rule is bad in its principle - but its communication and internalization have been close to poor for now.


  1. Anonymous11/2/14 05:04

    Niclas,One thing I'm still confused about 'deliberately playing the ball'.In FK situation,what if a player in the 'wall' jumps and touchs the ball,could this be considered as 'deliberately playing the ball'?Cause it's a clear movement towards the ball.

    1. That's indeed a very good question. I would rather say deliberately playing the ball..but as a deliberate save is often defined as being similar to a goalkeeper's save preventing a shot on goal, this would partly count for it as well...I try to find that out.

    2. Anonymous11/2/14 08:54

      If we pose the hypothetical question that there was no handball on the line in example 1 above, would that be considered a save and the player who puts the ball into the net would be considered offside?

    3. Well, a deliberate save means preventing a goal from being scored. A deliberate play requires a clear movement of the player towards the ball (= his intention to play the ball). Two criteria are colliding, but the deliberate save should actually be pre-dominant here. Nonetheless, good questions by our anonymouses and I am not sure whether there is one clear answer. Maybe FIFA knows it..but they did not tell us.

    4. Niclas, thanks for the subject and the thread...
      I disagree on video 2 and would say "no offside" due to the "goalkeeper's role" in it. I see his reaction as deliberate play, as the ball did not go directly into the goal and was not difficult to handle. Actually, it was a poor handling of the ball.
      In situations similar to video 2 "being in the playing distance" should not be enough reason to call an offside. In addition to that position, the offender should have made a move (jump, reach out the leg, foot, head, etc) which indicated he wanted to play the ball and therefore interfered with the opponent. Neither one oft he two black players made that move.

    5. Hi Shearer, please check this official FIFA video example:
      I hope it works. It is Slovenia-England with Stark / Salver. It is the same situation like in no.2, I think.

    6. Niclas,
      To me those two situations are not the same. In Slov – Eng match video the attacker was obviously heading for the ball and his intention was to intercept it before the goalkeeper, i.e. he has made a clear move within the playing distance of the goalkeeper which should be considered as challenging the opponent/offside.
      Just to add, I really appreciate your efforts, and superb comments and reliable information posted by the people/experts on the blog to which, in most of cases, I have nothing to add. As someone with limited access to updated information/explanation I find the blog an excellent opportunity to learn more about rules of the game and their application. However, it seems to me the recent amendments to the rule 11, the offside, require more attention and that is why I am being persistent on it.
      Thank you for your understanding.

    7. You are correct. These situations are not comparable. They look comparable, but the offside offense behind it is not 100% the same. In the second video, I would however still argue that the goalkeeper and also the yellow-dressed defenders are prevented from playing the ball (in a controlled manner) due to this forward who was offside.
      I agree that this rule is not only confusing us. The feedback I am getting from FIFA officials are clear alert signals that this law and its explanation is a real mess.

    8. Niclas,I posted my question on this site http://www.asktheref.com/Soccer%20Rules/Question/28131/
      and then got refs' opinion.But I'm not sure they are fully understand 'deliberate PLAYING the ball'.One ref replied:“There's a difference between deliberately playing the ball, and attempting to play the ball. Heading the ball back to your keeper is playing the ball. Jumping to head the ball and having it skim off the top of your head would be attempting to play the ball, which is why the ball skimming the head of a defender in the wall won't cancel the offside.”English is not my mother language,but I suppose If we take PLAY this way(something like controled pass or header),then it's difficult to explain videos I saw on http://www.garcia-aranda.com/eng/.I agree with your opinion,we can't take PLAY literally.

    9. I've noticed that UEFA's interpretation of the new law11 has been deleted from Mr.Garcia's website.I don't know why,and I'm not so sure it's UEFA's official interpretation now...I suppose you too got the info from this site.I do not agree a clear movement towards the ball is the only factor to identify a deliberate play.The speed of the ball,and the distance between the coming ball and the defender... should also be taken into consideration.

    10. Check this document, I think it can clarify it.

      Clearly moving towards the ball and playing it, regardless whether successfully or not, is deliberate play.

  2. Anonymous11/2/14 18:32

    CL observers not ready?
    sorry for the off topic, can you repeat the ones you have mentioned in a previous post?

    1. LEV-PSG Lemmer (LUX)
      CIT-BAR Dallas (SCO)
      MIL-ATL Brummeier (AUT)
      ARS-BAY Mejuto González (ESP)
      S04-RMA Vautrot (FRA)
      ZEN-BVB Marko (SVK)

      I don't know the others for now.

    2. olympiakos-man utd jokic
      galatasaray-chelsea Krondl

    3. Hi Kika.
      It would be nice to read also the delegates for each match: if you have the names... thank you

    4. lev-psg foster
      cit-bar kessler
      mil-atl thierrichter
      ars-bay minasyan
      s04 rma listkiewicz
      zen-bvb mezeckis
      oly-man luchinger
      gal-che piette

    5. In Milan - Atletico Madrid UEFA referee observer and UEFA delegate from the same country (Austria)?

    6. so far yes.thats what i know

    7. kika, who is Kessler? Do you have a full name and nationality please?

    8. henk kessler ned

  3. dnipro tottenham de bleeckere
    betis-rubin young
    swansea-napoli koopman
    juve-trabzonspor fandel
    maribor-sevilla Przesmycki
    plzen-shaktar Karlsson
    chernomorets-lyon tutk
    lazio-ludogorets elleray
    ajax-salzburg collina
    esbjerg-fiorentina allaerts
    maccabi-basel frojtfeldt
    kiev-valencia ormandjiev
    anzhi-genk ... (it was tsahilidis but they changed him)
    paok-benfica sarvan oguz
    porto-eintracht snoddy
    liberec-az casha

    1. Excellent!
      Always the best Kika :D

    2. Thanks KIKA!

    3. Many thanks Kika! Wow! Four committee members in the EL, including PLC himself.

    4. Thank you very very much, kika.

      Actually every observer in EL is very important if we read their past games. Specially in Porto-Frankfurt with Snoddy we will see an interesting referee team, maybe Bebek's. Collina in Amsterdam...maybe for a final candidate or a future Elite official.

  4. The EL-observers maybe indicate important games for promising young first group officials (Boyko, Kulbakov, Marciniak, Sidoropoulos, Göcek, Madden, Makkelie, Oliver, Turpin, Zwayer) or possible new elite refs (Aytekin/Gräfe, Hategan, Karasev, Nijhuis, Orsato, Bebek, Jug, Mateu Lahoz, Stavrev, Aydinus, Gautier, Vad) .
    Therefore I think, that we will see other committee members in second legs.

  5. Brilliant, Kika :D
    Is it safe to say that Collina's presence means a straightforward up/down decision for one referee? Perhaps Karasev, Hategan or Bebek? Or maybe Benquerença or Undiano?

    1. Anonymous12/2/14 00:06

      Benquerença / Stark / Lannoy
      Nosense to think about a demotion for them, since they are going to spend the last months as Elite officials.

    2. Remember Meyer? I believe he was demoted half a year (or at most a year)before retirement.

    3. I thought of Gautier in Amsterdam.

  6. and 2nd leg matches...

    dnipro tottenham de bleeckere-pedersen
    betis-rubin young-bikas
    swansea-napoli koopman-hamer
    juve-trabzonspor fandel-nobs
    maribor-sevilla -Przesmycki-Vagner
    plzen-shaktar Karlsson-briakos
    chernomorets-lyon tutk-kapitanis
    lazio-ludogorets elleray-gifford
    ajax-salzburg collina-kelly
    esbjerg-fiorentina allaerts-ellingham
    maccabi-basel frojtfeldt-koho
    kiev-valencia ormandjiev-plautz
    anzhi-genk ... (it was tsahilidis but they changed him)-vitcovic
    paok-benfica sarvan oguz-batta
    porto-eintracht snoddy-paniasvili
    liberec-az casha-steinborn

  7. Anonymous5/3/14 11:35

    http://space.btv.com.cn/video/VIDE1352340461616436 13:13 could this be seen as 'interfering with an opponent'?

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