Why The Offsides Flag Has Been "Ruud" to Italy

Two Euro 2008 games and two questionable offsides calls against Italy, one on defense, the other on offense, are still being talked about this weekend. First, in the Netherlands opener, van Nistelrooy scores from an obvious offsides position... except for Panucci, who is lying on the ground next to the goal. In fact, UEFA had to defend their referee for a correct interpretation. The call that did not get an explanation was Luca Toni's offsides on a cross from Zambrotta in the Romania match, which disallowed a first half goal. The first call was deemed correct, the second one was a blatant error.

Calling offsides correctly is one of the most difficult officiating duties in sports. In fact, some have argued that it is nearly impossible given the limitations of the human eye and the number of objects that need to be tracked by one assistant referee. Back in 2004, Francisco Belda Maruenda, M.D. of Centro de Salud de Alquerías in Murcia, Spain, took a look at the eye movements necessary along with their associated durations to determine if it was a humanly possible task. Let's look at his logic.

First, some eye physiology definitions are needed:
Saccadic movements - when we shift our eyes' focus from one object to another, we are making a saccadic movement. As an assistant referee (AR) looks from the ball carrier to the last defender to the offensive players, he needs to make several saccadic movements to take in the whole scene.

Vergence movements - there are two types, convergence (changing gaze from objects far away to objects closer to you), and divergence (just the opposite, near to far).

Accomodation - to change the focus of the eye from far to near or near to far, the convexity of the retina lens needs to change.

All of these eye movements, saccadic, vergence and accomodations take time to accomplish. Let's see how Maruenda added these up for an offsides call:

- the AR needs to keep track of at least four objects, the ball, the last two defenders and the offensive receiver of the pass. There may also be more offensive players to track as well.
- to make saccadic movements from the first object to each of the remaining objects will take about 130ms for the first object and then another 10ms per object after that. With four objects to track, that would be a total of about 160ms.
- if some of the players are on the far side of the field and some on the near side, then a vergence movement and an accomodation would be required, taking an additional 360ms for the accomodation and 640ms for the far to near vergence movement.
- of course, the players are constantly moving during the play, so their position is changing rapidly. If the speed of an offensive player is assumed to be 7.14 m/s, then in 100ms, they will have moved 71cm. This movement could be the difference between an onside position and an offside position. See the diagrams below (taken directly from the article)

Top: No offside, players in correct position.

Bottom: 100 ms later (players' velocity 7.14 m/s), offsides

The conclusion then, is that the total time needed for the AR to focus on at least four different objects in sequential order and process their positions cognitively is beyond the 100ms that would be needed for an offensive player to move from an onside position when the ball is played to a perceived offsides position when the AR finally focuses on him.

There have been some responses to Maruenda's logic, mainly centered on the fact that ARs have long known they can't watch the ball and the last defender, so they instead listen for the sound of the ball being struck while staying focused on the line of defense. This method may be used, but the sound of the crowd, the muted sound of the boot on the ball and the slower speed of sound may also have an effect on this judgement.

There is technology being developed to make offsides calls with multiple cameras, etc., but FIFA is not in favor of taking the flag away from the AR yet, just as they are against obvious goal line technology to watch for goals. It appears the debates and arguments will live on for the near future.


Belda Maruenda, F. (2004). Can the human eye detect an offside position during a football match?. BMJ, 329(7480), 1470-1472. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.329.7480.1470