Shortly after USSF published its annual memorandum on changes in the Laws of the Game, a controversy arose regarding the element of "touching the ball" as a requirement for being involved in active play. To put it mildly, this caused something of an uproar in the international soccer community, particularly in Europe, and several national/regional associations flatly declared they wouldn't implement what were thought to be new rules about offside.
On August 17, 2005, in part responding to this debate, the International Board (IFAB) issued Circular 987 which resulted from a special meeting of several high-ranking Board representatives held several days earlier. In this Circular, the IFAB confirmed the inclusion in Law 11 of definitions for interfering with play, interfering with an opponent, and gaining an advantage (three ways in which an attacker in an offside position might become involved in active play). The Board reiterated that nothing which had appeared since then had changed either the letter or the spirit of Law 11 and it declared sternly that national associations (such as USSF) were not permitted to decide whether to implement the Board's directives. All national associations must comply with and conduct their matches under "the Laws of the Game issued by IFAB."
The basis for the controversy was an article on the FIFA website which appeared to declare that an attacker in an offside position could not be ruled offside unless and until he touched the ball. USSF, in its own Memorandum 2005, had stated that touching the ball was not a requirement for an offside violation and this was taken by some as indicating a contradiction between USSF and IFAB. In a subsequent memorandum following the publication of IFAB's Circular 987, USSF clarified and resolved the issue by noting that the requirement to touch the ball was not intended to cover all offside situations. In fact, waiting for the attacker to touch the ball would be necessary only in the rare event that no defender was moved to challenge the attacker in the offside position and there was a teammate also racing for the ball who might get there first.
USSF's guidance has established the following points regarding an attacker in an offside position:
- If the attacker is unchallenged by any opponent (including the goalkeeper) and no onside teammate could get to the ball first, the attacker should not be called for offside unless he or she physically touches the ball. This becomes "interfering with play" or (in the case of a ball rebounding from a goalpost, crossbar, or defender) "gaining an advantage."
- If the attacker gestures or moves such that, in the opinion of the referee, an opponent is impeded, an opponent's line of sight is blocked, or an opponent is caused to challenge for the ball, the attacker should be called for offside regardless of whether he or she touches the ball, particularly when the opponent's challenge might lead to a collision between the players. The offside violation in this case would be "interfering with an opponent."
- In either case of an offside violation, the offense occurred where the attacker was first in an offside position and this is therefore where the indirect free kick must be taken.
Under these circumstances, then, touching the ball would be a very uncommon requirement since, in most cases, the decision can easily be made that the attacker's actions have caused one or more opponents to become actively involved in the play and/or that there is no teammate of the attacker able to get to the ball.
MORE INFORMATION: IFAB advice on the application of Law 11, Decision 2