It spans just a single page in FIFA's 'Laws of the Game' book, so how on earth can such little text cause so much confusion? Yes we're talking 'Offside', Law 11. To give you a comparison, the law surrounding the ball needs twice the space in the referee's bible.
A lack of text no doubt, yet offside is arguably the hardest of the laws to grasp. Even within refereeing circles Paraguay's no-goal against Spain at Ellis Park is causing great angst. Outside of the whistling fraternity it has left media experts openly disagreeing and Paraguay calling for an apology.
I don't normally subscribe to player or coach bleatings as ignorance to the laws at that level is prevalent, but, this time I have great sympathy for Gerardo Martino and would-be goalscorer Nelson Valdez. Everyone agrees the striker with the tidy finish was not in an offside position but the focus of the great debate surrounds Oscar Cardozo, the Paraguayan who tried to get his head to the cross a second earlier.
Let's look at the hook that most hang their views on, and some passionately, it has to be said, after what I've read on discussion forums around the world. Cardozo's a busy guy, he has to have been as it's been said he was interfering with play, interfering with a player, involved in active play and he was singlehandedly responsible for Paraguay gaining an advantage.
So what does FIFA say in its 'Laws of the Game' publication? First it states "a player in an offside position should only be penalised if the referee deems the player to be involved in 'active play'." It then states to be involved in active play a player has to be doing one of the following three things - "interfering with play, interfering with an opponent, or, gaining an advantage by being in that position."
Now what constitutes the three categories? Well to shed further light we must consult the additional FIFA document called 'Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees'. This clearly states the following:
• "'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 movements or making a gesture or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent."
• "'Gaining an advantage by being in that position' means playing a ball that rebounds to him off a goalpost or the crossbar having been in an offside position or playing a ball that rebounds to him off an opponent having been in an offside position."
So was Cardozo involved in active play? He has to have been to be adjudged offside (not offsides - note to our good US friends). Let us plough through the three previous criteria to determine how he was involved.
We can easily jettison the 'gaining an advantage' category as this is purely focused on the player in an offside position receiving the ball from a deflection, rebound, etc. He didn't, so received no advantage at all. And please don't fall into the trap of thinking Paraguay gained an advantage, this category refers specifically to the player in question, not a team or a team-mate.
So the argument to the affirmative against Cardozo has to come either from his obvious attempt to head the ball (which is confusing commentators as they see this as him being involved in active play) or his close proximity to Spain's defending player Sergio Busquets (which is confusing less experienced referees who see this as interfering with an opponent).
Was Cardozo 'interfering with play'? - Let us take a brief walk down memory lane. In an attempt to give an attacking side more of an advantage, FIFA's International Board issued a change to this very interpretation on 29 October 2003. It is this change from which the present day text comes, which states that a player has to 'touch the ball' passed or touched by a team-mate to be 'interfering with play'. Cardozo didn't, so he wasn't. I know the argument is that he tried desperately to, but that is not what FIFA preaches in this scenario.
In support of this the United States Soccer Federation has attempted to expand on its interpretation of such scenarios for US referees in its excellent publication 'Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game'. There on page 41 it clearly states to US officials, "Because an attacker could decide not to play a ball passed in his direction, it is important to note that 'interfering with play' must involve actual contact with the ball."
There is one much-taught scenario which you will not find in the 'Laws of the Game' which allows for one instance where a player is considered to be 'interfering with play' without him touching the ball. This is where the attacking player, who is in an offside position, makes an active run in space towards the ball - an example of this is him being alone chasing a long through-ball and no other player is anywhere near him.
Assistants are taught that they can flag early to avoid the farcical situation of having to chase the player 50 yards up the field and only to then raise the flag for offside as he first touches the ball. However before doing so the assistant must be certain no other player is also chasing the ball, as the 'offside' player could decide to stop his run at anytime.
Was Cardozo 'interfering with an opponent'? - This is probably the most contentious category, but first another quick bit of history. Do you remember 2004 and Sam Allardyce's Bolton team at an attacking free-kick situation? If not, they intentionally placed two defenders in offside positions behind the defending wall, but in front of the goalkeeper. As the kick was taken, the two players would run away from goal distracting the 'keeper. In one of these incidents Leicester City's Ian Walker ended up pushing the ball over his own goal-line in the confusion. Well it was as a result of the fall-out surrounding this that FIFA further amended their newly polished offside interpretation to include 'interfering with an opponent'.
Back to the Ellis Park incident, the International Board now states a player is considered to be in active play if he prevents an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent's line of vision or movements or making a gesture or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceived or distracted an opponent.
This issue is taught to normally surround incidents where a goalkeeper has his vision obstructed, however neither of the two FIFA publications state it is 'keeper only territory so we can apply this to outfield opponents and hence the argument the decision against Cardozo was correct.
Let's look at the action. At the time the ball is played for the cross, Sergio Busquets is at least two yards ahead of Cardozo, with the Paraguay striker clearly behind him. Then as the ball travels through the air Busquets is seen to backtrack as he watches the ball in flight. As the ball drops and Busquets continues his backward run he eventually attempts to jump to head the ball but gets nowhere near to making contact and the ball sails behind both he and Cardozo who is also jumping. The ball is untouched by either. It's also worth noting that at no stage does the defending player look at, or for Cardozo.
At no time in this process does Cardozo obstruct Busquet's line of vision or make gestures or movement to deceive the player so he can't be considered to be 'interfering with an opponent'. US Soccer's bible to American referees seems to offer backup - page 42 clearly states to US officials, "Mere presence in the general proximity of an opponent should not be considered a distraction for that opponent."
Having watched this incident over and over and over again, the key factor to me is the timing of the assistant referee's raising of his flag. At higher levels of refereeing we are taught to delay raising the flag until we are absolutely certain of the offside situation. At the highest levels of the game this is expected of us.
The assistant does indeed delay his flag; he delays it a very long time. There's no twitch even when the ball clears Busquets and Cardozo. He only 'pings' it once the ball reaches Valdez, whose momentum makes it look that at that moment in time he is at least two yards offside. Far be it from me to suggest that having gone through all of this, it is a simple error in judgment by the assistant on Nelson Valdez's offside status that has led to the big debate and Paraguay demanding an apology.
Dave Roberts hosts ESPN Soccernet Press Pass. He was also an international referee.