Let’s start this assessment of the handball law with a quote from Mike Riley, general manager of the Professional Game and Match Officials Limited, given to BBC Sport in July 2019:
He said: “I actually think handball is in a really good place in this country [England]. We have a philosophy that says we want handball to be something that has an impact on the game.
“We are not looking for the ball to be striking arms and we do accept, when we are looking for what is an unnatural position for the arm, that arms move. We don’t expect players to defend with their arms behind their back, nor do we expect forwards to try and drill the ball to the hand to win a free-kick.
“The way we’ve actually implemented handball for the past two or three seasons is the way we are going to continue to do it in the future.”
Riley then referenced the Netherlands versus Japan match at the 2019 World Cup, a game in which the Dutch were given a late penalty, as an example of a handball that would not be given in the Premier League. You can see the clip here:
Have you watched it? Are you 100% convinced that the on-pitch referee and VAR would have awarded a spot kick if this had taken place in the Premier League?
If you answered yes, you’ve got to the heart of the ludicrous situation that is the current handball law. A doctrine designed, first and foremost, to stop players from carrying the ball in their arms like a rugby player, has been contorted beyond all recognition into a situation where natural silhouettes and denial of intent have clouded the situation.
British football has always had a slightly different interpretation to some of the fundamental laws of the game; incidents such as challenges with ‘high feet’ and, particularly, what constitutes a handball, have always been met with the age-old ‘that wouldn’t have been given in the Premier League‘ defence.
But the introduction of VAR has attempted to remove interpretations altogether and implant a catch-all set of regulations to ensure that referees, independent of the competition are seeing the game in the same way. This even includes drawing a little line across a player’s arm, in an arbitrary position, to try and distinguish between arm and shoulder (hint: this solves nothing).
There are many, many things wrong with a situation where a forward can blast the ball at a player’s arm and fully expect to be given a spot kick. But arguably the biggest fundamental change has been to the concept of the attacking handball, rather than the defensive one.
The two incidents that have occurred this week border on the farcical. Firstly the decision to disallow Harry Kane’s goal after a falling Lucas Moura inadvertently moved the ball into Kane’s path as he fell:
— The Spurs Web ⚪️ (@thespursweb) July 2, 2020
Then you have Riyad Mahrez running clean through after the ball deflects off a prone Phil Foden’s arm, despite it looking like he was fouled from behind.
VAR📺⚽ isn’t the biggest problem, the unhinged rules and its interpretation are!
Foden was clearly fouled by Fabinho, No one cares!
Handball, goal cancelled👏@genakhena @chaplinez70 @calvinemeka @olywal @theyomikazeem @thewaleagbede @larryeghosa @theofficialIJE @seunajidagba pic.twitter.com/zkeIfBei6X
— Luigi Riva (@TundeVorm) July 3, 2020
And the most famous one of the season came when Aymeric Laporte’s unseen handball was used to disallow a Gabriel Jesus goal in the final minute of a 2-2 draw between Manchester City and Tottenham last September.
THE HANDBALL RULE
IFAB recently made amendments to the law and have contrived to remove any thought process on the part of the referee, leading to more illogical decisions.
The rule is currently as follows: “Accidental handball by an attacking player (or team-mate) is only penalised if it occurs ‘immediately’ before a goal or clear goal-scoring opportunity.
“If an attacking player accidentally touches the ball with their hand or arm and the ball then goes to another attacking player and the attacking team immediately scores, this is a handball offence.”
This is what happened in the Laporte, Foden and Moura incidents: three players not seeking to gain any advantage but are punished anyway.
The original purpose of the law, to quote former EPL referee Mark Halsey, was to eliminate ‘the real howlers’, referencing Thierry Henry’s control with his hand for France which eliminated Republic of Ireland from World Cup qualifying in 2009.
But now players are being punished without even knowing what they have done, and certainly in the case Laporte and Moura, not even facing the ball when the supposed offence occurs.
Uefa Head of Referees, Roberto Rosetti, has long been an advocate of the handball law in its current form and was keen to remove the idea of ‘deliberate’ handball altogether, but he even confused himself.
At the briefing ahead of the introduction of VAR into the Champions League last season, he initially said that VAR would intervene ‘where there was clear evidence of a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm.’
But he then followed this up with: “There is the concept of ‘deliberate’, but it is not easy to see that because I can’t say I have ever seen a defender deliberately doing a handball.
“The big challenge is the position of the arm. When the arm is totally out of the body above the shoulder it should be penalised, If the defender is making the body bigger in order to block the ball it is not fair.”
What IFAB is trying to do is quite clear. They are trying to remove subjectivity from one of the most subjective elements of the game and they are failing utterly in their attempts to do so.
From a referee’s perspective, they are now more than happy to cede to VAR or these handball regulations bestowed upon them, giving them limited liability to the game taking place in front of them. And it’s been very obvious that in 2019/20 much of the ire of pundits and supporters has been directed at VAR and the handball law, rather than the officials themselves.
But if, as reported in the Times, the Premier League are furious about this amendment and want it removed for next season, it may lead IFAB to get back around the table and address the chaos their tweaks have brought to the game.
Because this isn’t fun. These decisions ruin the game. Legitimate goals are being stricken from the record – and for what?