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Saturday, June 14, 2014
The Economics of the Offside Rule

The recently begun World Cup allows us to think about soccer (or football, for those of you reading outside the United States) as a source of laws and rules, as opposed to our usual focus on baseball. Well, for all the complaints about the technicality and incomprehensibility of the Infield Fly Rule, it has absolutely nothing on Offside (Law 11 of Football's 17 Laws). I could not explain the rule in the space of this post, although I think I now sort-of  understand it thanks to the videos embedded after the jump.

Offside (note the singular: people get persnickety if you add an 's' at the end) is soccer's counterpart to the infield fly rule as being what marks you as someone who really knows and understands the game--you know baseball if you can explain the infield fly, you know soccer if you can explain Offside. But is Offside a limiting rule as I have defined that term--is it soccer's logical and policy counterpart to the infield fly? I am not sure.

Offside is an anti-"cherry-picking" rule, preventing teams from having one or more players hang around the goal and doing nothing but kicking long balls up the field pitch. It also prevents the defense from having to keep multiple defenders back by the goal to guard the cherry-picker. The result is to push the action up the field and keep more players involved on both ends. The underlying logic is aesthetics and the look of the game. The rulemakers did not want what one soccer web site called a "ping-pong match" of long kicks back and forth, as opposed to short passes and runs up and through the middle of the pitch. It also avoids what many would regard as "cheap" goals.

But Offside does not seem to be about extreme cost-benefit disparties, as is the IFR. I suppose it would give the offense an advantage--the cherry-picker could  get the ball in position to go one-on-one with the goalkeeper, a big advantage to the offense. Importantly, however, the opponent is not helpless. Absent Law 11, the defense simply counters the cherry-picker by moving a defender back to his area. The opponent also might be able to prevent the long pass to the cherry-picker or otherwise prevent the team from taking advantage of the loitering player. More importantly, the cherry-picker is not intentionally failing to perform the expected athletic skills. The infield fly rule aims at a play in which the infielder might otherwise intentionally not catch the ball (the thing he is expected to do). In being in offside position, a soccer player is trying to succeed as expected--he is trying to score a goal by getting into the best position for himself. (Note: I know little about soccer, so please correct me if I miss anything here).

Lastly, the complexity of the rule likely reflects an attempt to calibrate it and the game. As written, the rule allows for long balls, so long as the player was onside when the pass is made. And it only penalizes if the offside player is involved in the play (itself subject to a detailed definition). Again, check out the videos below if you want to learn.

In Esquire's Father's Day edition, there is an article about fathers and sports, with a sidebar giving the approximate ages that kids typically can do certain sports-related things (e.g., sustain a game of catch--8). The last entry: "Understand the Infield Fly Rule--34." I'm 46--what does that say about Offside?

Now for the videos:

Watch this one if you like PowerPoint:

Watch this one if you like British accents, bad graphics, and cheesy music.


I am very sorry but Offside and the infield fly rule are not related, similar, equivalent or otherwise two concepts that belong in the same sentence. And if you are paying attention to the World Cup, perhaps as somewhat of a novice you now understand that Offside calls are done in the blink of an eye, are frequently controversial not to mention dead wrong. The infield fly rule is not only routine and unspectacular but is obvious to everyone in the park.

Anonymous Derek Howard -- 6/17/2014 9:18 PM  

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