It is time for Peter G to vent about handball…

Sarah Winterburn

Peter G continues his series on the laws of football. You can find the rest here

At nine pages without diagrams, Law 12 – Fouls and Misconduct is the longest law in the book. It’s also the most frequently ignored. That’s because over time referees have evolved relatively consistent standards for calling fouls and issuing cards, so that it’s no longer the letter of the law which is followed, but the practice developed by interpretation.

As an example, let’s take the difference between yellow and red cards. For most types of fouls, you get a yellow when the foul is ‘reckless’, and a red when the foul uses ‘excessive force’. For this section of the law, here are the official definitions:

reckless: ‘when a player acts with disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, an opponent’

using excessive force: ‘when a player exceeds the necessary use of force AND endangers the safety of an opponent’ (emphasis mine)

Take a look at these closely. Note that the yellow card asks the referee to assess the intent behind the action, but the red asks the referee to assess the action itself and the effect of that action. These are totally different standards. In other words, red is not a greater degree of yellow, but a different animal altogether.

And yet that’s not how the game appears to be called. In many cases a red certainly looks like a greater degree of yellow. Was the elbow harder? Was the kick stronger? Was the collision more forceful?

Moreover, even a cursory reading will tell you these aren’t the standards referees consistently apply. Many yellow card fouls are committed not with ‘disregard’, but with active intent. When a player chops down an opponent, he often knows exactly what the danger and consequences may be. Plenty of fouls that routinely get only a yellow use excessive force and endanger the safety of an opponent – how about all those times a centre-half goes crashing into a striker while challenging for an aerial ball?

To add to the confusion, later on the law says that ‘serious foul play’ is a sending-off, and that’s defined as a tackle or challenge ‘that endangers the safety of the opponent OR uses excessive force or brutality’ (emphasis mine again) Before it said ‘and’, now it’s ‘or’. So which is it – both or either?

If that weren’t bad enough, we’ve got a third option here – ‘brutality’ – which is defined in the Glossary as ‘an act which is savage, ruthless, or deliberately violent’. But lots of yellow card fouls are ruthless – that’s why they get yellow cards. Look at the provision again, and see that either ‘excessive force’ or ‘brutality’ is enough for a red. Now compare the wild-men-with-clubs definition of brutality to the very different accompanying definition of excessive force:  ‘using more force/energy than is necessary’. No savagery here, just stroking a white cat: “Mr. Bond, I’m afraid we’ll have to use more force than necessary to get the truth out of you.” What a mess.

And yet we, as fans, know instinctively what’s a yellow and what’s a red. When our man gets tripped or elbowed or rugby-tackled, we know exactly what card to call for and how loudly to barrack the referee when he doesn’t give it. We don’t think to ourselves the challenge was ‘reckless’, or ‘used excessive force’, or was ‘serious foul play’, or ‘brutality’, but that it was a yellow or red. And most of the time we’re right.

In other words, in most cases it’s not the letter which is followed but the body of interpretation amassed over the years. This would undoubtedly have upset Martin Luther – and I’m sure one of the 95 Theses involved the handball rule – but equally undoubtedly is a good thing.

This is even clearer when you read the definition of the basic fouls themselves. It’s a direct free-kick if you charge, jump at, kick or attempt to kick, push, strike or attempt to strike, tackle, challenge, trip or attempt to trip, in a ‘careless’ manner. ‘Careless’ manner is defined as ‘a lack of attention or consideration’ or acting ‘without precaution’.

You’ve got to be kidding. So many, many fouls are intentional, not careless. Oh Ander, you’ve been a bit careless there, you should use precaution when putting your leg in front of an opponent.  Oh Joey, shame shame shame, show more attention when you kick others. Oh, Charlie, please be more considerate, that’s the way, slide in more gently.

Enough said. Next time you tell the ref “you don’t know what you’re doing”, remember that he knows exactly what he’s doing, in these cases at least. He’s calling the game the way it should be called, not the way the laws tell him to.

Which brings us to handball violations. And now I have a confession to make: when I asked F365 if they’d let me do this series, I had an ulterior motive. I wanted a platform to vent about handball.

About ten thousand words later, I’ve earned it, and you’re the unlucky audience. But hopefully it’ll all be over before you feel the need to flee.

The way Premier League referees interpret handball is BAD. But before we get to why, let’s look at the relevant parts of the law itself:

‘Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm. The following must be considered:

the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)

the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)

the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an offence’

The third consideration merely reminds us of the other two, so there are only two criteria for deliberate handball: movement of the hand and distance/expectation.

Note, though, that the second criterion uses two different standards. Distance is not the same as expectation. A guy may only be a yard in front of me, but I may still expect him to kick it. If I know he’s going to kick it and I stick my arm out to block, is it a violation or not? I assume it is, because it’s clearly deliberate. So I interpret the distance/unexpected criterion to mean that the defender doesn’t have time to get his hand out of the way.

So WHY THE HECK do Premier League referees allow defenders, knowing a shot is coming, to turn their bodies and hold one arm up at a 90 degree angle? I don’t care if they’re only a few yards away, and I don’t care if it looks like ball to hand. The defender knows the ball is coming, so it can’t be ‘unexpected’, and the reason he can’t get his hand out of the way is that he’s deliberately positioned it in a spot the ball may hit. In fact, I’d even argue it’s hand to ball, because he’s moved the hand to a spot where he knows the ball may go. It’s really no different from the example in the previous paragraph.

Like Martin Luther, I’ve got 94 more theses of my own, but that’s top of the list. If the purpose of the law is to prevent players gaining an advantage by deliberately using their hands, Premier League referees are not enforcing the law properly. In fact, I’d make the law much stricter: if a player gains an advantage by the ball hitting hand or arm, it’s a violation unless the hand/arm has been deliberately placed as close to the body as possible under the circumstances.

That may be too much for most fans. But whatever your view, watch closely this year, and see how many times players get away with handballs, 90-degree or otherwise, when they’ve deliberately positioned themselves and their limbs to increase the chance of a block. Unless Mike Riley has proclaimed the Reformation, you’ll see where I’m coming from.

Now to a few special cases. We’ve already mentioned that Law 12 is the least followed of the laws. Seen anyone call the obstruction rule lately? Or the six-second rule for goalkeepers? They’re both very much on the books, but somehow haven’t been violated at any time in the last ten years. The refs have simply excised them from the laws. If you want them back, do what I did and sucker F365 into letting you do a series. (Although I expect Winty’s got her guard up now.)

Then there’s the yellow for a cynical foul or extra-obvious handball. I hadn’t known this, but the standards for the two are the same. These are both cautions for ‘unsporting behavior’, and you get the card if the offence ‘stops a promising attack’, except for certain penalty-kick fouls. It’s a provision the referees seem to enforce pretty consistently.

Here’s one worth a laugh, though. An unsporting yellow goes to anyone who ‘verbally distracts an opponent during play or at a restart’. So when Fraser Forster got 10 extra inches and 50 extra pounds up close and personal with James Milner…

…it was perfectly OK because he didn’t yell “Boaty McBoatface!” during the run-up. But to be honest I think we’re all better off not knowing what players say to each other during the match.

Somewhat related is the sanction for improper celebrations that involve ‘gesturing or acting in a provocative, derisory or inflammatory way’, which is chiefly interesting for the unannounced jump in vocabulary level on the part of the rulemakers. ‘Derisory’? ‘Inflammatory’? I think the drafters slipped in the A-levels guy that day. As for ‘provocative’, let’s please hope they have identical standards for women and men, although I wouldn’t bet the autographed Kelly Smith poster on it.

There are a few more interesting cases, but you’ve been patient with me, so we’ll call a halt and finish up Law 12 next week. It’s all downhill from here.

It’s also the only law to have an ‘FAQ’ attached to it, which if you’ve been forced to read online retail shipping policies or mobile phone contracts, isn’t a good sign.

Peter Goldstein