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Opinion: Why is offside an infringement?

Masayuki Ishii
Associate Professor of Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

Offside is an infringement in football and rugby, but where did this rule violation originate? Educator and sports historian, Toshio Nakamura, has published many works on this topic (Why is Offside an Infringement? (Sanseido, 1985, Heibonsha, 2001), Toshio Nakamura Collection 8: Football Culture (Sobun-Kikaku, 2009) etc.). It was there where he investigated in detail the history of football in its birthplace of England, and found an endless supply of knowledge. But, in the end, he couldn't ascertain as to why offside is a violation of the rules.

Here, I would like to present a radical theory different to that of Nakamura. Offside is against the rules because football was originally a mock battle, "play-fighting". Mind you, this is beyond the realms of imagination these days.

In the past, football was an independent activity for students held in public schools, the elite schools of England. Until the mid 19th century, each of these schools had their own form of football, later to become rugby and association football. They had many more players than seen today, and it wasn't unusual to have teams consisting of 50 to 60 players. There was already an offside rule in place in the 19th century, but this rule stated that it was illegal to play in front of the ball. This is the same as present-day rugby.

By the way, in England, a team is called "squad", even today. It is quite a common term, with its roots coming from "square formation". The website, "The History of Battles", describes a square formation as follows. Three ranks of soldiers would be placed in four outward facing sides, forming a square formation. The square would advance with the front line carrying bayonets and forming an attacking line, while the two rows behind would alternate in firing rifles. Because this formation was solidified on four sides, it was highly effective in repelling cavalry charges. Actually, when Napoleon's French cavalry tried to storm the English square formations, they were met with a continuous hail of bullets from close range and were routed in a crushing blow. During the Battle of Waterloo, it is said that the Duke of Wellington constantly moved between formations on horseback, prompting to his troops. This scene is reenacted in the film "Waterloo".

On the other hand, football of the time was depicted in the schoolboy novel Tom Brown's Schooldays (Iwanami Shoten), set in a 19th century public school, and the games there were often likened to battle, inferring that football was thought of as a mock battle.

It is not unreasonable to conjure up images of this "play" approaching the "real thing". If square formation combat is central to the image of war in those times, and football is seen as a game imitating that, then it would be strange to have an ally forward of the front row of soldiers. Therefore, a rule to disallow players in unconceivable positions was created, rendering them "non-existent". Can't this be taken to be the concept that led to the creation of the offside rule? The ball is representative of the front line.

The term 'side' is still used often as a word to express 'team', but, as the term reads, it means 'this side' of the front line. In other words, 'offside' is the other side of the front line, meaning a position that, even if it can occur in mock battles, can't happen in actual warfare. This rule can also be said to be a plan to create a situation where the front lines of both armies are always hitting each other in square formation combat.

The anecdote attributed to the Duke of Wellington (but shown to be false) after his defeat of Napoleon stating, "Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton," may be due to football in the 19th century being portrayed as these kinds of mock battles. There are actually pictures remaining from the First World War depicting the British infantry advancing while kicking a football around.

I have tried to expand an image from the word "squad", but unfortunately there are no supporting materials.

Masayuki Ishii
Associate Professor of Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

Graduated from the Waseda University School of Education with a major in physical education. Completed a course in European cultural and regional environmental theory at the Kyoto University Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies. Assumed his current position after serving as Instructor at Hiroshima Prefectural University. Area of expertise is sports history. His major writings include "English Social History as Seen through Rugby", published in Quarterly Ethnic Studies Magazine (edited by the National Museum of Ethnology), and "Orientalism of the Field" published in Sports Magazine (Minerva Publishing).