Friday, 28 October 2016

Football without Offside - a German experiment

Can you imagine football without offside? 11 Freunde magazine was so inspired by a rant on TV from actor Til Schweiger about the need to abolish Law 11 that it turned theory into practice. It staged a 60-minute game between two Berlin Oberliga (fifth tier) sides to see if the game would really be as exciting as some people suppose.

Bruce Willis stars in: The Hardest Call
The game is described in its latest issue (#180), outlining the presumptions beforehand. Abolishing offside would 1. Give players more space. 2. Encourage wing play, as happened when field hockey abolished the rule in 1998. 3. Teams would be prompted to give up the midfield. 4. There would be more shots and goals and 5. The game would go nuts! One interested observer was the manager of second division Union Berlin, Helmut Schulte, who criticised what he called the "crush football" of the modern game - characterised in his view by too many tight midfield battles.

The referee was 24-year-old Hüseyin Erol Özadali, who was looking forward to a quiet game. "Offside is one of the most difficult decisions for a referee," he understated. Because of course the
players, the coaches and the spectators all think they've got better eyesight than the referees. Meanwhile, his two linesmen spent the game in line with the ball instead of the second to last defender. Liberated from offside, they were able to focus more on looking out for fouls.

Imagine no longer having to
explain this to your great-aunt
The outcome? There was only one goal, scored after five minutes by an offside player. Indeed the game was stretched, creating extra space, the midfield became largely irrelevant, and there was more wing play. There were also too many unsuccessful long balls as the teams attempted to play the ball over the top to strikers standing in what would normally be offside positions.

Worst of all, as the two sides got used to the absent rule, the encounter evolved into something more resembling a handball game (a sport which abolished offside in 1953). As soon as a team lost possession it would hunker back and pack the defence - in the same way that under normal rules a weak opponent will try to eke out a draw against a much stronger team. Except in this game it was end-to-end defence.

In other words, the "crush football" was transferred from midfield to the penalty areas instead. The coaches of both teams were unimpressed by what they'd seen. One thought the game would regress to lazy forwards hanging around up front just waiting for the long ball. The other also bemoaned the surplus of long balls and said it would kill the short passing game that he preferred to coach.

Most surprising of all was the opinion of the referee. "I enjoy the game more with offside," said Özadali. "There was no stress like there usually is when people are yelling, Ref, where are your glasses?" It was precisely this moaning about offside calls that he missed during the game.

After the final whistle, Union's Schulte also agreed that abolishing offside completely was not the way forward, but advocated trying a 35-yard offside line, as used in the North American Soccer League during the 1970s. Players there enjoyed more space, and there were generally more goals, although the 'handball' criticism applied there as well.

Özadali's remarks about missing the moaning that offside provokes made me think that the law is now so entrenched as a part of football's history and character that we can no longer live without the controversy, hype and discussion that it generates. Take away one of football's major 'if only' factors, and you take out one of the elements of chance that are fundamental to any kind of game. We can no more do without it now than we could do without the referee.

Final score: Tennis Borussia Berlin 0 FC Hertha 03 Zehlendorf 1

Ian Plenderleith's next book, 'The Quiet Fan', will be published by Unbound in 2018. Click here to pre-order an e-book or paperback copy.

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