The handball rule in football has long been one of the most debated rules in the increasingly less beautiful game. The rule has been broken for decades, and each year attempts to fix the law only seem to make it more dubious. This year in the Premier League (2020-21), it seems as though the law has changed to enforce a policy in which any time the ball strikes the arm, and the arm is away from the body at all, it’s going to be called as a handball. Unfortunately, this is the dumbest thing they could have done to try and solve the handball mysteries of seasons past, and has no regard whatsoever for the biomechanics of how footballers move on the pitch. Here are a few reasons why the law needs to change for good and why handball is currently ruining the game for everyone.
THE PUNISHMENT DOESN’T FIT THE CRIME
Before getting into a long debate about all the handball related penalties given this season so far in the Premier League, you have to say that in almost all cases throughout history, the punishment given for a handball does not fit the crime. The distinction between deliberate and indeliberate handball needs to be more distinct and the lawmakers in charge of creating these rules should have changed the distinction in the punishment between the two some time ago. Obviously if you Luis Suarez the ball away, it’s a red card and a penalty. Nobody’s debating that. But in most other cases, awarding a penalty for a handball in the box is simply unjustified, especially given the area of the box that most of these incidents take place (within a few meters of the eighteen yard box’s initial lines).
Take the Joel Ward incident from this weekend’s Crystal Palace loss to Everton. The ball comes off Lucas Digne’s head from two yards away and hits Ward on the arm, with the arm at his side, not stretched away from his body and the player making no attempt to make himself bigger. It does not fit any of the criteria set for giving handballs this season, yet it’s given. Okay, so referees make mistakes and the law clearly isn’t clear-cut enough still, but how on earth should a penalty shot be rewarded for that? It’s come off him at the top of the box, with the ball travelling at snail speed. If it doesn’t hit Ward’s arm, it rolls to the goalkeeper and the keeper picks it up with ease. If this is the rule change, and any time it strikes the arm it’s going to be an infringement, a penalty kick is not justified for indeliberate handballs like Ward’s. Instead of a penalty kick, an indirect free kick should be rewarded, and everyone can move on with their lives. Regardless of if it’s handball or not (it shouldn’t be in these instances), at least the punishment is more suited to the crime. Such as when the ball accidentally strikes the referee, and the referee gives an uncontested drop ball to the team that was in possession.
We can also take a look at the Matt Doherty example from last week against Southampton. In this situation you had three players (Doherty, Harry Winks and Moussa Djenepo) within a few non-socially distanced feet. Doherty reached out his arm to touch Djenepo on the shoulder. The Southampton man attempted to pass the ball, which ricocheted off Winks and then onto the arm of Doherty at the top of the box from about a millimeter away. And this is rewarded as a penalty? They’re 18-yards away from goal and it’s ricocheted off him from a millimetre away. And suddenly the other team gets a free shot on goal? It’s just not fair. It’s not justified and it needs to change if indeliberate handballs like this are to be given in the future.
WHAT IS A DELIBERATE HANDBALL?
There’s always been somewhat of a discrepancy in the rulebooks between a deliberate and indeliberate handball. And that discrepancy has often been enforced in seasons past (although unreliably). However, with the rule change this year, whether or not the handball is deliberate seems to be out of the question. Now, it’s more of a question of “unnatural position” on steroids where if you make any attempt to make yourself bigger (a.k.a. if you run or jump like a normal human being), it will be called as a handball (at least in the Premier League anyway). This is absurd.
You have to think back to the reason this rule was probably created back in the early days of football. With football being a game played with your feet, using the arms or hands gives a player an unfair advantage. Lawmakers of the game did not want people just picking up the ball and running with it, nor did they want people punching the ball into the net, catching the ball to stop breakways, etc. These are deliberate attempts to cheat the game by touching the ball with the hands. This is what referees should focus on abolishing.
But over time, the unnatural position discrepancy started to arrive and suddenly you started to get dubious penalties. If the arm is raised clearly above the head and it touches the arm, that makes sense. But otherwise, the unnatural position argument was always one for debate and it’s unsurprising they tried to change the language to “the player has made an attempt to make him or herself bigger”. But, as I eluded to at the start of this article, this has no regard for the biomechanics of how players actually move on the football pitch.
In fact, what constitutes as an “unnatural position” has now become lost in the new rule as you cannot possibly say that either Joel Ward this past weekend or Victor Lindelof against Crystal Palace the week before, had their arms in an unnatural position. Victor Lindelof conceded a penalty simply because the ball struck him on the arm while he was running. Joel Ward conceded a penalty simply for having arms. In both cases, there was nowhere else for their arms to be. Yet somehow, both were given as penalties. This has been three of weeks of probably the most consistently outrageous calls in Premier League history, all pertaining to handball. So something clearly isn’t right. Commentators and pundits are baffled by it, as are players and coaches. Nobody is having fun. Football is an entertainment business and we are seeing games ruined by these moments. In all honesty, the Joel Ward incident ruined the entertainment of a great game for me this weekend and it ruined the game, as that was the deciding goal in a 2-1 Everton victory that otherwise would have been a very fair result for both sides. Referees should be focusing more on what is deliberate handball and what is not. If it is not a deliberate handball, it makes no sense to award a penalty kick unless it denies a clear goal-scoring opportunity from happening. Otherwise it’s completely unjustified and the punishment does not fit the crime.
WHERE WE’RE HEADED
So that brings me to where we are potentially headed in the modern game. If you continue to allow these kinds of outrageous decisions to be given as penalties, you will start to have clever players flick the ball off of defenders hands at the top of the eighteen yard box, when they have nowhere else to go, to win a penalty. The moment Matt Doherty put his hand on Djenepo’s shoulder, the Southampton player could have easily just flicked it up onto Doherty’s arm to win a penalty the exact same way he ended up doing accidentally. Lucas Digne could have done the same thing against Joel Ward this weekend. Another example is that of Fran Kirby in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, who won a penalty while flicking the ball up in the air onto the defender’s arm. It undoubtedly was not intentionally designed to happen this way, but it happened and her country won a penalty. After the game, Kirby told reporters that the penalty was undeserved and that she worried it could give attackers an unfair advantage if that kind of situation continued to be awarded as a penalty. Unfortunately, Kirby’s prophecy could soon turn to reality if the Premier League keeps on going the direction they’re headed in. In fact, given the fact that FIFA or FA lawmakers seem to have no sense of biomechanics whatsoever, this is exactly where we are headed in as the progress of the modern game continues to be halted by an outdated handball rule that only seems to get worse with time.
So what do you think? Is the current handball rule ruining the modern game? Are Premier League referees right to award the penalties they’ve been giving so far? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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