Handball: The straw that breaks VAR camel’s back?

If you’re wondering why the handball rule was changed to something frankly unworkable, look no further than our old friend VAR.

Football is governed by people who seem to know nothing about football, about what made it great, what stops it being great and what is just outright stupid. Okay, maybe there’s nothing new in that, but add VAR into the mix and the levels of toxicity reach a fatal level and it begins to kill the game.

We’ve all heard many managers, players and pundits saying the handball rule is ridiculous, that VAR is killing football and spoiling the spectacle. Even those benefiting from the new rules, like Steve Bruce this weekend, are saying it is spoiling the game.


There is no way anyone who understood or cared about football would have legally facilitated the sort of handball decision that Everton benefited from against Crystal Palace, or Newcastle against Spurs. The refs are really not to be blamed, they’re merely carrying out the rules guided by the VAR voices in their ear. Their autonomy is now wholly and totally undermined.

Joel Ward’s hand was in an entirely ‘natural’ position at the side of his body, though frankly, even understanding what a ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ position is ridiculously subjective. When do your arms make your body unnaturally large? Your hands do naturally move around in the process of running and turning. Who is to say what an unnatural position for your hands/arms is when stretching a leg out, or jumping? No diagrams are provided by IFAB.

Your arms do make your body bigger. Arms do go up and out when you jump: that’s natural. What are you supposed to do with them? Pogo? And anyway, what is a natural position for one person may not be for another, depending on your height, weight and body proportions. What if you’ve got very wide arms? After all, there’s nothing natural about playing football; it is, by its very nature, a contrivance: unnatural.

Ward had not deliberately moved a hand towards the ball and ‘deliberate’ is in the law and is supposed to matter, but in the era of VAR only what the camera can film matters and you can’t film deliberate, you can only interpret it. VAR is useless at that because it just involves a human watching a TV and doing what the referee on the pitch was there to do in the first place, with no greater understanding available.

Even if Ward was minded to handle it, he didn’t have time to react. It just hit his hand and as such not a penalty in any sane version of football.

Same situation for Dier, he could do nothing to prevent the ball hitting him. It was not a penalty. In any sane world, no.

But we are not playing sane football any more. We’re playing VAR football. If you wanted it, you got it. Sorry, but this is all on you. You put the wrong people in charge of the game.

VAR football is as insane as many of us always said it would be, back when it was just a passing notion in FIFA’s weinerville of officiousness. The camera is now king. And that’s why they changed the handball rule, I suspect. VAR wasn’t sorting out handball decisions satisfactorily, as it turns out VAR isn’t able to read the electrical impulses in a player’s brain that constitute consciousness and thought.

And in the VAR-obsessed world of Getting Things Right At All Costs, we can’t have that now can we? So by making it a penalty when the ball touches the hand or arm below the armpit (where does the feckin’ armpit stop or start?) in the area, they hoped to take away the criticism of their precious VAR. Taking out ‘intention’ took away something VAR couldn’t film.

Now you could slow the replay down and see even if it disturbed the hair on the back of a player’s hand and make a penalty decision. No ifs, no buts. It touched the hand or it didn’t. Pen or no pen.

That’s exactly the sort of decision someone who is an outsider to the game would come up with. It sounds almost sensible if you know nothing about football. Ball hits hand = penalty. What could be more straightforward? Except they left ‘deliberate’ in. Oops. So what to do?

Well, it has simply been ignored.

But of course, had they even the slightest nous about football and how it is played, they’d have known that not only would this lead to hugely unfair situations like Ward’s and Dier’s but also soon enough to players deliberately kicking the ball onto defender’s hand and arm and setting off the VAR alarms for a penalty. Why wouldn’t anyone do that?

When you’ve upset a man as fair-minded and reasonable as Roy Hodgson, who was fuming after the game about this “nonsense ruining football” you know you’ve made the wrong choice. Except, they don’t. They probably still think it makes sense. That’s how they see the world. They don’t want vague, they want right or wrong, black or white.

This is why VAR happened in the first place. It was the triumph of officiousness over reason and practicality, using TV’s omniscient eye as justification for an uptight need for perfection. A small percentage of decisions were wrong and the officious minds can’t accept that, so it has adapted rules, like handball, to try and iron out errors, but in doing so has just made more errors and is making the game more, not less, unfair.

It may have been forgotten already, but football was fine without all these poindexters sticking their noses into the game and trying to outlaw human error, subjectivity and uncertainty.

Didn’t they understand that trying to get everything right, whilst simultaneously accepting mistakes will be made, is the very essence, not just of sport, but of the entire human condition? No they didn’t. They wanted facts. Did it hit the hand or not? Well if it did, that’s illegal, it’s a penalty. Nuance, context, understanding is lost to the black and white world of VAR.

Didn’t they understand that all they would do is create a whole new raft of problems and thus satisfy no-one? No they didn’t. If they had got anyone who had played football, coached football or indeed had even watched football, to cast a gimlet eye over their adaptation to the law on handball, they’d have been put right immediately. But that didn’t happen because they presumably thought they knew best and blindly applied an entirely inappropriate criteria. Everyone knows it is wrong except those who are responsible for it.

We need to get rid of these clowns at IFAB (International Football Association Board). They are f*cking with football in an entirely unnecessary way for no good reason at all and even the people who play the game and manage the players are largely in agreement. More and more just want it all scrapped. They will be lobbying the authorities en masse soon enough. They’re sick of it.

Those that cling to the idea that VAR will somehow improve and that these are all teething problems and we are on the way to a new nirvana of fairness, are fooling themselves.

We are not.

The lunatics have taken over the asylum and are bending the game to reflect their own insanity. VAR was sold on a false prospectus, it was always going to lead to situations like this on handball because the principle it is established on is wrong and unworkable.

The war against refereeing mistakes that VAR is meant to win, can never be won while fallible people are involved, so it’s a pointless war to fight, not least because the cost of fighting that war is so high. So high it has already institutionalised a sort of coitus interruptus every time a goal is scored, robbing football’s greatest feeling from each and every one of us. Nothing is worth that.

In a fit of crazy illogical circularity, it is trying to outlaw imperfection with an imperfect solution being governed imperfectly by imperfect humans. This should show them that imperfection, per se, is innate to human activity and that most certainly includes football and we just accept that as a truth. It won’t.

The Ward and Dier incidents, and God knows how many others, have made an ever growing amount of people realise that football wasn’t broken, and it didn’t need fixing with such terrible rule changes provoked by the introduction of VAR, which itself was a response to TV’s intrusion into the sport and to the complaints of those managers and fans who used a small percentage of refereeing errors as a scapegoat to excuse and lay off their own team’s inadequacies.

There was never a need to placate those who couldn’t see that games do not hang on any one decision, they hang on an infinite number of decisions made by everyone, all the time, in every second of every game in a dense interconnected everything-affects-everything-else web that cannot be sliced and diced into linear causal relationships, in an arbitrary time frame by a sweaty bloke in the fetid Stockley Park Tactics Truck.

Sadly, too much has been invested in this chronic state of affairs for anyone to admit they got it wrong, reboot the game back to how it was before VAR (or how it still is everywhere else outside of the top flight) and quietly forget they made such an almighty bollocks of it all.

Rather, the opposite seems more likely as people at IFAB who do not understand the game continue to make decisions that profoundly change it, charged with righteousness but blind to the damage they’re doing, arrogantly assuming they know what is best for the game. They obviously do not and the revised handball rule should be the straw that breaks the VAR camel’s back.

John Nicholson