Search Patterns and Misconceptions
Earlier today, in the first half of the opening game of World Cup 2010 between South Africa and Mexico, a Mexican forward scored a goal. The referee from Uzbekistan disallowed the goal because it was scored from an offside position.
It was immediately clear to me that the referee made a very big and obvious mistake, as at the time the ball was passed to the forward who scored the goal, a South African defender was standing right on
the goal line. No offside. Goal should have been counted.
At half time, I checked the game commentary on the internet and it read that the referee's decision was very correct. I was surprised. I immediately went to the official rules, looking for an obscure detail in the offside rule that made this position an offside, despite the defender clearly closer to the goal than the forward. Here's the relevant part from the official rules of the game
A player is in an offside position if:
• he is nearer to his opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the
I was staring at this part for a while, stumbled. Then it made sense. In fact, there was nothing I did not know about the offside rule. The Mexican player was indeed closer than the second-last opponent, who in this case was the South African goalkeeper
What happened here?
In the game of football, an offside situation happens many times. What usually happens is the forward being closer to the opponent's goal than the opponent's last field player
, usually a defender.
A while ago, my team mate Guy (snake catcher
) introduced me to the concept of a "Search Pattern". Animals' and humans' brains are trained to recognize specific visual patterns and react quickly. Animals use this to recognize a predator and get away quickly. As a football fan, when there is a goal scoring opportunity, my brain is trained to look for a defender between the forward and the goal at the moment when the ball is passed to the forward. If there is such a defender - no offside. If there isn't - offside. My brain got trained this way because that's how an offside situation happens 99.9% of the time, but not because that's the rule.
The rule doesn't require a defender to be closer to the goal to not have an offside, but rather at least 2 opponents. It just happens to be that one of them is the goalkeeper and the other is a defender. In the case of the disallowed goal for Mexico, the goalkeeper was further away from his goal than the defender who stood on the line.
Another hint the search pattern is in place: in case of an offside, the TV usually shows a replay of the moment, with the forward and the relevant opponent marked with lines across the field, to help the viewer decide whether there's an offside or not. In this case, the director in charge of the translation marked the forward and the defender who stood on the goal line. Just as I, he was looking for the regular search pattern his brain was trained for.Changing the Rules
In 1998 the offside rule was abolished in hockey (field hockey, not ice).
In march this year, FIFA president Sepp Blatter met with the president of hockey's governing body Leandro Negre to ask questions about hockey's experience. Turns out that hockey never looked back: the scoring went up, the mid field became less crowded and the number of highly contested (and also incorrect) referee decisions went down.
Blatter is considering abolishing the offside rule in football as well.
Of course, rules in sports are constantly being changed, in football too. The experience of hockey must be encouraging.
Will the scoring go up in football? For sure. 99% of disallowed goals are because the scorer was in an offside position.
Will the mid field become less crowded and more open? Logically - forwards who will be less afraid to be caught offside will advance closer to the goal. Defenders will have to follow the forwards. Hockey's experience also points in that direction.
Most importantly - many of referees' crucial mistakes that are "ruining" games are involving a controversial offside call. These will be eliminated.
In short: objectively, the game will probably become more enjoyable and more fair.
So should the offside rule be abolished? No way.
Football is so rich in history, so important and so widely recognized that the offside rule is not to be considered as an arbitrary man made decision. In a sense, it is closer to an axiom of mathematics, not proved and not discovered. It simply is.
I hope Sepp Blatter knows that.
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