With the rugby now very much behind us, the focus of the sporting world has swung inevitably back to the football.
For the non-football fan, still having to endure cab rides and trips to the hairdressers, this constitutes something of a problem. Being casually asked by your barber : “Did you see the game?” and being unable to muster a reasonable response, tends to result in an uncomfortable 20 minutes of staring silently at your own reflection in a mirror, as you receive a pretty terrible haircut.
It is an established fact that the jewel in any bluffer’s crown is the ability to explain the offside rule. It is famous for being simple to understand — unless you are a Premier League linesman — but very hard to describe.
Never ever attempt to explain the offside rule at a dinner party using wine glasses and salt cellars to represent players. Others before you have tried and ruined not just their evenings but their marriages in the process. These attempts normally start with someone setting up one side of a place mat to symbolise the goal line. They end, several hours later, with at one member of the party in the bathroom crying and everyone else standing around the table screaming things like, “No, the pepper pot is the defender, you moron!”
The real trick to explaining the offside rule is to first explain why it was introduced (no one is quite sure when, so you can pretty much make this up). It was to counter the problem of ‘goal hanging’; where one attacker simply stands on the opposition’s goal line, waiting for the ball to be knocked forward to him, which allows him to score the simplest and least challenging of goals. (At this point, the bluffer should, of course, make mention of the TV presenter and crisp salesman, Gary Lineker.)
Once this fact has been grasped, everything else falls into place. At the moment the ball is played forward to an attacker he must have at least two opposition players (normally the goalkeeper and a defender) between himself and the goal line. Otherwise he is deemed to be offside, and a free kick is granted to the opposition.
Teams playing a defensive style of football can take advantage of this rule to ‘spring the offside trap’. This is when the entire defence moves forward at the very last moment, thereby stranding the attacker with only the goalkeeper ahead of him. All the defenders then raise their arms in appeal to the linesman. The Arsenal team of the 1980s became so adept at this tactic that their back four usually looked like the front row of the Nuremburg Rally.
In recent years, the rule has been altered subtly to allow someone to be in an offside position as long as he isn’t ‘actively involved in play’. This broadly means either that he’s not trying to score, or is not distracting the attention of a defender who would otherwise be dealing with the attacker who really is trying to score. In practice, the whole question is clouded in uncertainty and obfuscation (a word little used by professional footballers). If required to deliver a verdict on whether a player was ‘actively involved in play’, raise a cynical eyebrow and venture: “As much as he ever is.”
If you want to know more about how to bluster your way through the Beautiful Game, buy The Bluffer’s Guide to Football. Otherwise, try to learn to wear your terrible haircut with pride.