November 09, 2020

New Handball Rule Needs a VAR Check

The beauty of football has a lot to do with its simplicity. The basic idea is two teams of 11 players each trying to put the ball in the opposite goal, and this simplicity is one of the main reasons for the game's unrivalled popularity. But a closer look into the Laws of the Game will tell you that professional football is anything but straightforward. And, the latest handball rule and its interpretations are definitely not. 

The handball rule has been around for a while. Formerly, the rule defined the offence as a deliberate hand to ball action for which the offending player/team would be penalised. For the 2019-20 season, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body that determines the Laws of the Game, made changes to include penalties for 'accidental' handballs. The rule was tightened and clarified in time for the 2020-21 season. The clarification defined a handball offence as one where the ball touches anywhere from the tip of a player's fingers to their upper arm, directly in line with the bottom of the armpit.  So, anything below the shoulder is considered a foul. 

But what does the new rule actually mean? Why is it contentious? And, how is VAR (Video Assistant Referee) helping, or hindering, the implementation of the rule?

Handling the Ball

Under the new rule, a free kick or penalty will be awarded if a player: 

  • Deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm;
  • Scores in the opponents’ goal directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental;
  • Scores or creates a goalscoring opportunity immediately after the ball has touched their’s or a team-mate’s hand/arm, even if accidental; 
  • Touches the ball with their hand/arm when: 
    • the hand/arm has made their body’s silhouette unnaturally bigger, 
    • the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level (unless the player deliberately plays the ball which then touches their hand/arm). 

Additionally, under the new rule, there will be no penalty if:

  • After an accidental handball, the ball is dribbled or passed some distance, or several passes have taken place before a goal or a goalscoring opportunity;
  • The ball touches a players hand or arm immediately from their own head, body or foot, or the head, body or foot of another player who is close or nearby;
  • The ball touches a player’s hand or arm which is close to their body and does not make their silhouette unnaturally bigger;
  • A player is falling and the ball touches their hand or arm when it is between their body and the ground (using the arm for support but not extended to make the body bigger);
  • The goalkeeper attempts to clear a throw-in or deliberate kick from a team-mate but the ‘clearance’ fails, and the goalkeeper then handles the ball.

Confusion and Chaos in the Premier League

However, as the Premier League tried to strictly implement the new rule at the start of the 2020-21 season, confusion and chaos reigned despite the detailed interpretation. One of the main reasons for the confusion is the definition of a ‘deliberate’ handball and the difference between natural and unnatural actions. Without a definitive definition, there is plenty of scope for subjectivity.

In the final week of October, a header from Everton's Lucas Digne struck the left hand of Crystal Palace defender Joel Ward, who was in close proximity and had little time to react. The referee Kevin Friend decided to award Everton a penalty after a lengthy VAR review. Everton striker Richarlison converted from the spot to help them to a 2-1 victory. Palace coach Roy Hodgson was livid, describing the interpretation of the rule as "a nonsense ruining the game of football."

The next day witnessed even more drama deep into the injury time. Newcastle United striker Andy Carrol's header hit the arm of Tottenham Hotspur’s defender Eric Dier. Dier was at the time facing the other way and was fairly clueless about it. Though play continued, there was a long VAR check before a penalty was eventually awarded. Newcastle's Callum Wilson scored from the spot to make it 1-1. Even Newcastle's coach Steve Bruce was unhappy about the decision, "It's nonsense, a nonsense of a rule. It's gone for us today – however, it's ludicrous.". 

On both occasions, it could be argued that the referees went by the book - Ward's hand made his body unnaturally bigger, and Dier's hand was above his shoulder level. But Crystal Palace and Tottenham must feel unfairly treated. Not just because both fouls were unintentional, but also because neither team’s players had a chance of avoiding it. 

The series of controversial incidents led to Premier League club executives endorsing a change which would give referees more leeway in interpreting the law. Referees have now been instructed to take a subjective decision after taking into consideration the proximity of the player to the ball, his arm position, and, crucially, the amount of time he has to react. This change in interpretation would at least have helped Ward escape the harsh punishment, but Dier's case still would be unresolved. 

It is only a half solution if any at all. Mourinho has already voiced his displeasure saying, "I don't like subjectivity in football because subjectivity normally goes to the suffering side.".

Indeed, there seems to be one rule but different interpretations. While Ward and Dier saw VAR decisions go against them, in the FIFA 2022 World Cup South American qualifiers between Paraguay and Chile, the latter were denied a penalty in a similar situation, resulting in a 1-2 away defeat. A shot by Chile substitute Victor Davila's struck the hand of Uruguayan defender Sebastian Coates in the box. However, on this occasion, the VAR panel decided that Coates' hand was in a natural position, to the utter dismay of the visiting side.

The Importance of VAR

It’s not that the new rule has brought trouble all of a sudden, the handball law has always been a murky area of the game. One of the most high-profile incidents in the recent past happened in the 2019 Champions League match between Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. The Premier League giants were awarded a penalty in added time when their substitute Diogo Dalot’s shot hit PSG defender Presnel Kimpembe’s arm. Kimpembe was showing his back to the ball as he jumped to block the shot. However, VAR ruled in favour of United and Marcus Rashford scored to put them in the quarterfinals on away goals. UEFA defended the referee’s decision, saying that the distance that the ball travelled was not short, and the impact could therefore not be unexpected.

VAR has made handball rulings more complex, but there were plenty of controversies even before that, mostly because of referees failing to spot blatant offences. 

The biggest ever controversy of the pre-VAR era would undoubtedly be Deigo Maradona’s hand of God in the 1986 World Cup when the Argentina captain rose above Peter Shilton to nudge the ball into the net "a little with his head, and a little with the hand of God". Replays showed it was a clear handball, but the referee had already allowed the goal. Argentina moved into the semis with a 2-1 victory and went on to win the World Cup, leaving England fuming. 

In 2009, Thierry Henry also came under criticism after his deliberate handball against Ireland. The resultant goal helped France to a 2-1 aggregate victory and sealed their spot in the 2010 World Cup. Though Henry later apologised, Ireland was robbed of a place in the World Cup.  

Costly refereeing blunders which ultimately show the value of VAR and that, had it been in use, it would undoubtedly have changed the fortunes of England and Ireland.

Indeed, VAR has definitely helped eradicate some errors from the game. Some offside and red card rulings still raise a few eyebrows, but VAR has made sure that ‘hand of God’ and ‘hand of Henry’ are things of the past. However, as VAR has joined forces with the new handball rule, it has become a potentially game spoiling combination.

VAR was supposed to provide clear evidence of handball offences and thereby help the referees make objective judgements. But with the new handball law carrying confusing clauses and leaving scope for different interpretations, things have not worked out that way and there are many grey areas to look into. Former England star Gary Linekar recently suggested that, while VAR is important to the game, it was also important to watch things in real time. After all, the bigger picture is as important as the minute details.

Handball Rules at the World Cup 2022

As the instances in the Premier League and South American World Cup qualifiers show, there have been different interpretations for similar offences. Subjective rules are bound to blur the lines of enforcement, and the emphasis should be on making it as fair as possible. 

Dier, who was at the receiving end of a harsh call, said there was consensus among players and managers for a change in the law. Roy Hodgson has also joined the argument saying that there was nothing wrong with the old rule. A hand that moves the ball deliberately is penalised. One that doesn’t is not. However, former US defender, Alexi Lalas believes that the rule should be simplified - a ball that hits the hand or the arm, whatever the circumstances, should be a foul. This way, subjectivity is removed, and everyone knows where they stand.

Whatever the lawmakers decide, there has to be a consensus in enforcing the law and consistency in implementing it, and the lawmakers need to sort it out before the World Cup in Qatar. If the Premier League decides to continue with the lenient approach till the World Cup while other leagues take up a strict stance, one of them will have an undue advantage, depending on what FIFA decides should be the norm at Qatar 2022.

New to VAR technology? Find out more about how it works and its place on the football pitch in our VAR Technology article.

Published: November 06, 2020
Last updated: November 09, 2020
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