It’s Time To Look Again At The Handball Law

by | Jan 13, 2016

Well, at least no-one could accuse them of being boring last night. In front of a skittish crowd at St James Park, Newcastle United and Manchester United played out a rollercoaster three-all draw in the Premier League which did little good to either team in terms of their league position, but might have alleviated a little criticism of Manchester United as being the Premier League’s biggest dullards – which certainly seemed like a valid criticism following their anaemic performance against Sheffield United in the FA Cup on Saturday – and of Newcastle United being football incompetents running headlong towards the relegation trapdoor.

Throughout the course of the ninety minutes, this match came to hinge upon a moment of brilliance from a player on each team – Wayne Rooney, who seems to finally be regaining some of his poise as an attacking player, for Manchester United and the arguably even more unlikely figure of Paul Dummett for Newcastle – and two penalty kicks. Newcastle’s came midway through the second half as a result of Chris Smalling wrangling Aleksandar Mitrovic to the ground as a corner swung into the Manchester United penalty area and there wasn’t too much debate over the whistle blowing that time around.

An hour or so earlier, though, the award of a penalty kick to Manchester United caused some degree of controversy and consternation. It came from another cross, and a header at the far post from Marouane Fellaini that bounced away off the arm of the Newcastle defender Chancel Mbemba to safety. With Mike Dean refereeing the match, it should come as no great surprise that the whistle blew immediately, and as Wayne Rooney stroked the ball into the bottom corner of the goal we had our first talking point of the evening. But was it handball in the first place? The answer to this question, as with so many others, feels more complicated than it needs to be.

The literal answer to the question is deceptively simple. According to Law 12 of the game, which deals with “fouls & misconduct”, a direct free-kick is awarded – and, by extension, a penalty kick if the offence occurs within the penalty area – if a player “handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)”. There is, however, no provision within the laws of the game for what constitutes “deliberately” in this case. In this absence, referees have to make do and mend with guidance that is given to them, taking into consideration the proximity of the potential offender to the person last playing the ball, the speed of the ball and importantly – critically, so far as current interpretations of the laws are concerned – whether the offender’s arms are in a “natural” or “unnatural” position.

This somewhat clunky language has come about, we can only presume, as a necessity on account of the murkily vague definition of what constitutes handball in the first place. The notion of intention is unique to handball. No other transgression on the pitch is forgiven on the basis that the player who committed it didn’t mean to carry it out, and this is completely understandable. Serious foul play is serious foul play and the potential ramifications of committing any sort of foul are obvious. Yet somehow or other handball is excused from this and continues to exist within a weird bubble of its own in which fair play, somehow or other, still counts for something. And when we pause to consider just how few professional players ever admit to having committed this offence on the pitch, we might consider that there’s something missing from the current interpretation of the laws of the game.

We live within a world in which we expect professional footballers to habitually cheat. Players appeal every blow of the referee’s whistle, no matter how tiny the perceived advantage to be gained might be, and the proportion of occasions upon which a player will ever admit to an infraction of the rules is vanishingly small. Expecting any degree of honesty from them is something that nobody would expect for a single moment. If it’s reasonable to presume this, then the question of why asking a referee to have to decide something as subjective as the intention of somebody else feels like a valid one. Furthermore, we are all tying ourselves into semantic contortions over the laws’ quaint idea that handball can only come about with a degree of intention. We examine video footage in a bid to try and establish whether players are looking in one direction or another for a split second, and concern ourselves with illogical debates over what may or may not constitute an “unnatural position” at any moment in time.

There may be solutions to this, which offer a little more clarity to this muddy situation. Handball could be refined as the ball striking the arm of a player, changing the trajectory of the ball to the advantage of that player or his team’s advantage, for example. Alternatively, any contact whatsoever with the arm could be deemed handball. Either of these solutions could be considered more harsh under certain lights, but they would at least be consistent with the other laws of the games. No other infraction that takes place on the pitch requires intent. Why should handball be an exception to this? Simple tweaks to one law of the game could leave everybody knowing exactly where they stood and prevent these arguments from arising in the future.

Perhaps, though, this clarity isn’t even what anybody particularly wants these days. Such is the nature of modern football that, whilst cloaking itself in the language of allowing referees a little space to “interpret” events, causing these “talking points” might be exactly what it’s all about. If the authorities wish to keep the idea of intent in the laws of the game regarding handball, then perhaps the FA should be trialling a portable lie detector machine in conjunction with the video technology that they’re planning to use the FA Cup as a guinea pig for next season. Because even video technology alone isn’t going to end this obfuscation over what determines handball and what doesn’t, and at the moment we’re all wrapping twisting ourselves into extremely unnatural logical contortions in order to accommodate a law of the game which is admirable in principle, but hopelessly impractical out there in the real world.

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