In tonight's Europa League Final, have a look out for instances of what, for me, is the single most frustrating recurring moment in football viewing: the wrongly-called offside.
Let me explain what I mean. This is when the linesman raises his flag to indicate to the referee that a player receiving the ball, generally-speaking, has strayed into an offside position before the ball was played, despite not being sure that that is the case.
Because they do that, linesmen. They guess. This is the flaw in the way the rule is utilised by officials. It doesn't matter how often they're told not to make a call unless they're sure, to give the benefit of the doubt to the attacking player, they will continue to see their lives flash before their eyes and raise a flag when there might be a chance the player was "off".
Well guess what, guys, Sralex has long gone. You don't need to lose sleep over that man raging about a goal being given thanks to you not spotting that the thickness of Papiss Cissé's heat-transferred plastic Wonga logo was ahead of the last defender when the ball was played. It's over, we can move on.
The offside rule - I'm afraid you'll have to go elsewhere if you want it explaining to you - was brought in, as far as I'm aware (and aside from its rugby-like beginnings), to stop players goalhanging. Due to a sporting mindset which equally results in cricket bowlers not aiming for the stumps, but rather coaxing batsman into lofting balls into the air to be caught out, tacticians have (ab)used the rule in order a systematically break up opposition attacks and reclaim possession through manufacturing a offence on the opposition's part. George Graham, I'm of course looking at you, but a couple of years ago hipsters were salivating over a video of Arrigo Sacchi's Milan side supposedly turning the offside trap into an art form. Let's ignore the fact that Sacchi's approach worked so well as it was deployed long before the "interfering with play" caveat was en vogue, and that many of his players thoroughly disliked his regimented methods, Milan's high-intensity game delivered great glory and was easy on the eye amongst the dour catenaccio of Sacchi's countrymen, so even clips of their own defensive cynicism should be pawed over on iPads in cereal cafés.
Even putting to one side, in the Milan clip, the obvious argument that opposition players in offside positions weren't interfering with play, and those collecting the passes had come from deeper, legal positions, the play moves so fast that you have to question the linesmen's certainty that anyone was left behind. Can the brain really work that fast? So, we come back to the modern directive: don't give offside unless you're sure. In fact, no decision should be given unless you're sure. That's the beauty of football, that play shouldn't need to be broken down by the referee's whistle unless he is sure that an offence has occurred (and not one which allows advantage to be played).
The reiteration of the directive came to the fore in the mid-2000s, in a climate of questions being asked about goal frame size - goalkeepers have increased almost a foot in height (with implications for arm span) since the dimensions were written into law - as goals-per-game ratios were apparently dropping. The idea that linesmen should stop giving defenders the benefit of doubt over their claims of offside, as difficult as it may have been for the more lily-livered of touchline runners to contemplate, was put forward - as indeed the drastic change in 1990 of being level no longer being offside was - to increase the amount of goals scored, and declare a championing of attacking play.
But then Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Small goals? Pah! Offside trap? I can be ten yards ahead of the defender when the ball is played and still get in behind! Failing that, I'll just pick up the ball in my own half - can't be offside there - and take them all on. And I score. Yep, I score. Loads.
With the worst timing - or best, depending on your take - Messi and Ronaldo appeared, as formidable goalscorers the like of which we'd never seen before, in the latter part of the last decade, and suddenly calls for linesmen to give advantage to attacking players were quelled. These supposed giant goal-frame-filling goalkeepers became damp paper bags fluttering around in the wind, and a bar raised by two was leaped at by Suarez, Neymar et al. It wasn't a change in stance, merely one which, in an age of Messi, Ronaldo and 101GreatGoals.com, and a thirst for thunderb*stards being quenched at the click of a button, didn't need to be so overbearing.
The fact is, controversy abounds when an offside goal - even when only proven to be after several television replays - is given, not when a player is wrongly called offside. Generally speaking, when a player is called offside, he doesn't put the ball in the net, and if he does, he may well be booked. So a goal is rarely disallowed for offside, and any controversy over an offside call is based in speculation over what might have followed had play gone on. Linesmen know this, and act accordingly.
It's now got to the point that I bemoan "correct" decisions. When a player's forehead, after carefully paused replays, is shown to be in advance of the defender when the ball was played, and the linesman, not through design, is technically - technically - not incorrect in flagging. Pundits will laud the official's spotting of the infringement, in real time, and congratulate this "correct call". Well done, lino. How did you see that, pray tell? You didn't. You guessed.
Other aspects of the offside law - let's remember, designed to remove a supposed unfair advantage - seem flawed. Why should, for example, a player who moves from an offside position when the ball is played, but collects well in advance of defenders, be penalised? Any advantage through positioning has arguably been lost. So it's not perfect, but the application is still the greatest issue. Football is losing goals because linesman want an easy life, and their easy lives should not be at the expense of my side(s) scoring valid goals.
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