Philadelphia, PA – It's been a while since there was a hearty debate regarding the offside rule.
Dialogue in the world football community tends to follow controversy. While supporters and pundits may pine for hours on end about whether or not it was the correct decision for the assistant referee to raise his flag when Johnny Q. Striker appeared to be offside only by the tips of his shoelaces, the fact is that the offside rule itself remains relatively straightforward.
World football is riddled with controversies like diving, gamesmanship, goal- line technology and the dreaded handball, but all of these took a backseat on Boxing Day when Newcastle, after some deliberation from referee Mike Dean and his assistant, was awarded a goal that did not stand without a great deal of protest from the Manchester United camp.
The moment in question came in the 28th minute when Danny Simpson delivered a low cross from the right flank. The ball skipped off the wet playing surface and was turned into his own net by United defender Jonny Evans.
Under normal circumstances, this would stand as a fair and just goal. But the assistant referee lifted his flag after he judged Papiss Demba Cisse, the intended target of Simpson's cross, to be in an offside position when the ball was played.
The goal was disallowed initially, sparking outrage on the Newcastle bench. But after conferring with his assistant, Dean pointed to midfield and allowed the goal to stand, this time inciting irritation on the Manchester United end.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, was fuming. He wasted no time berating the officials, letting them know that Cisse had interfered with play and should have been ruled offside.
Manchester United went on to win Wednesday's match, 4-3, as Javier Hernandez nabbed the winner on the stroke of full time, meaning that the controversial goal did not have an impact on the final result.
But Ferguson refused to let the incident get swept under the rug.
"The linesman correctly whistled for offside, because Cisse was in an offside position when the cross was made and he also pulled on Evans' arm," the United boss said after the match. "If that's not interference, what is interference? That's the point I was making to Mike Dean."
Newcastle manager Alan Pardew was on the opposite side of the spectrum, stating that he could see no issue with the goal.
"At the time I thought it was an own goal," Pardew said. "It doesn't matter who is offside, (Cisse) could be 20 yards offside if the defender sticks it in.
"I don't know if the striker got a touch before the defender, but I don't think so. I can't see a problem with it."
Now, Ferguson and Pardew obviously have agendas, seeking the ruling that is in the best interest of their respective clubs.
So in the interest of impartiality, longtime referee Graham Poll, currently serving as a television analyst and newspaper columnist, transmitted a tweet during the match in defense of Dean.
"Correct decision at (Old Trafford) for Newcastle second goal," Poll said via the social media outlet Twitter. "Well done Mike Dean."
Poll went on to clarify the logic behind the "correct" decision in a column for The Daily Mail, a British news outlet.
"From his excellent central position," Poll wrote, "referee Mike Dean saw Cisse had not touched the ball, which he must do to be considered to be 'interfering with play' as the law requires."
Poll's explanation only clouds the conception that a player can be interfering with play regardless of whether he touches the ball.
A precedent has been set to rule a player offside when he is standing beyond the last defender and in the line of the goalkeeper's vision, preventing him from producing a save that he would otherwise make.
While Cisse was not affecting play in that sense, he certainly interfered with play in another manner. His presence, behind Evans in an offside position, forced the United defender to make a play on the ball that he otherwise would not have had to. Had Cisse been in an onside position, Evans could have let the ball roll into the grasp of United goalkeeper David De Gea.
The discrepancy of players affecting play from an offside position is reminiscent of a debate surrounding a controversial handball decision: Was it ball-to-hand contact, or hand-to-ball? Was it intentional? Was the player's arm in an unnatural position? Was an advantage gained?
With regards to the offside rule, a player can occupy an offside position in countless different situations and capacities, but at what point does he begin to interfere with play?
So much of the decision is left up to the discretion of the referee, but that creates inconsistencies from ruling to ruling as every referee sees the game differently.
The point of whether or not Evans' own goal should have stood can be argued for hours on end.
But the fact that there is so much uncertainty regarding what constitutes a player "affecting play" means that more clarification is needed to limit the number of future controversies.