The Hand of God knows

by Mark Godfrey

An eternal issue is becoming ever more controversial in the modern game. When is a handball, a handball?

How many times have you been at a game or sat at home watching your team slug it out in a top of the table clash, relegation six-pointer or heated local derby and been driven to the point of apoplexy when a drilled shot or cross smacks against the arm or hand of an opposing team member? ‘HANDBALL’ reverberates around the stadium from the gathered faithful. The players run screaming towards the officials, smacking hand-to-arm like crazed junkies searching for a vein, in desperation and insistence that an injustice has befallen them. Then all eyes are cast expectantly or in trepidation upon the arbitrator. Was it or wasn’t it…?

What comes next has fans, pundits, players, coaches and almost certainly the refereeing fraternity breaking out in a combination of confusion, anger and cold sweats. Whatever decision is made, there will be the inevitable opposing opinion depending on whether your fortunes have been enhanced or diminished by it. But as with many of the current laws of the game and the interpretation applied, what should be a straightforward ruling has become one of the hot topic head-scratchers debated endlessly in print, online, on screen and throughout bars, pubs, clubs and workplaces around the world . The advent of high definition TV, super slow-mo and computer graphic reconstructions have only added combustibility to the long smouldering fire. We are perfectly well equipped in the hi-tech 3D / HD era to determine whether the ball has struck a hand, arm, shoulder or other area of the body, but are the laws of the game lagging behind the ever increasing desire in the game for definitive answers and eradication of the’ grey area’?

The one thing that is clear through the whole debate is the actual ruling on handball in FIFA’s Laws of the Game. It stipulates that a free-kick or penalty will be awarded if a player “handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)”. It adds: “Referees are reminded that deliberately handling the ball is normally punished only by a direct free-kick or penalty kick if the offence occurred inside the penalty area”. Simples? Not quite.

The law is written clearly and concisely without long winded explanation or contradiction, but where FIFA have failed and left their perpetually under fire officials to fend for themselves in the cauldron of scrutiny is to have left the definition of deliberate handball up to the interpretation of the Referee and their colleagues. The laws of the game give no examples of a deliberate offence, either written or in graphic form.

The game’s governing body feels confident enough in this instance to display enough faith in their on-field custodians of fair play to use their experience and knowledge of the game to determine the exact mechanics of a deliberate, pre-meditated misdemeanour. That’s as it should be. All officials should be well trained and well acquainted with the nature of the game, and those at the highest level where these decisions are becoming defining, multi-million pound moments should be even more proficient when handling such situations. So, why the lack of clarity? Why the continuous debate? Why the disgruntlement with a ruling that pleases nobody and perplexes everybody?

How many times have you heard that football should follow the example of other sports such as rugby or hockey for one issue or another? Many of these calls are worthy while others not so valid. But one thing these sports seem to be able to adjudicate on better than football can is on matters of fact. Let’s take a look at an example. In Rugby, when a player drops or knocks the ball forward whether it’s a deliberate or accidental act, then an offence has occurred and the referee takes the appropriate action. The question of whether the foul was a simple error or intentional act does not arise. The offender has committed an act that has benefitted him or his team to the detriment of the opposition and the punishment has been meted out equally to counteract the illegally achieved gain. Let’s not kid ourselves however that the officials in other sports are any better or any less fallible than those in football. Mistakes will always occur and key instances will always be missed especially when dealing with high octane, fast paced team sports. However, the authorities charged with law making in Rugby have at least given their officials a clearly defined message. Could FIFA do the same with the handball rule? Is it time for handball to mean handball? The ‘Deliberate or accidental’ debate to be consigned to history?

What would be the effects of such a change to this law? To take a matter-of-fact approach would certainly remove the subjectivity out of the process of refereeing, a call that is being cried out from all corners of the game when decision making is the topic of discussion. So if handball meant just that, and therefore an offence, what would we see?

More free kicks. A foul is a foul whether it is intended or not, the same principal applies to other offences in football so why not this one? If benefit is gained by the use of the hand, whether deliberate or not , why should the team on the wrong end of that decision be denied their opportunity to capitalise?

More penalties. Indeed, and some may say this is a good thing and others may disagree. You might not be too pleased if your centre half makes a last ditch, body on the line attempt to block a shot and it ricochets off his arm, only to be penalised for his bravery and defensive qualities, but right now such occasions in games are being left to the discretion of one person who goes into most games knowing that damnation awaits at each blast on the whistle, and human nature may play a part in whether they are capable of making the correct decision in the heat of the moment.

Accusatory as it is, all players will always cheat and attempt to conceal it, but all players will commit offences in an honest attempt to aid their team’s cause. If all handball decisions are made a free kick offence, all involved in the game will know exactly where they stand and therefore can’t complain about matters of opinion and can only reflect on matters of fact.

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