Romero ‘handball’ proves once again that VAR has no sense of natural justice

John Nicholson
Cristian Romero had no chance of moving hand
Cristian Romero had no chance of moving hand

Cristian Romero could not do anything about the ball bouncing up and colliding with his hand; can nothing be accidental anymore?

Do you know what version of the handball rule is currently being applied? No you bloody don’t – you can’t – because it changes all the time.

In what is just the latest ludicrous decision at the Emirates on Sunday, it would appear that even if you can’t do anything to get your hand out of the way of the ball, even if the ball is kicked into the ground and up onto your hand at close range, it is still a penalty.

This comes after a directive that made blasting the ball at a hand not handball. But such directives come and go, are applied and not applied seemingly arbitrarily. Cristian Romero could not do anything about the ball bouncing up and colliding with his hand; it was the very definition of accidental handball. But does accidental handball even exist anymore?

Matt Stead disagreed in 16 Conclusions, writing:

‘It was a handball; Romero was unfortunate. Those two views can be simultaneously held without feeling the need to say silly things about how defenders now need to have their limbs removed, or how no-one knows what a handball is anymore.

‘The laws can be difficult to interpret, self-defeatingly unclear and inconsistently applied. But also inadvertently blocking a goal-bound shot – inadvertently or otherwise – probably shouldn’t be allowed.’

But it would be interesting to hear what Romero was supposed to do in those circumstances, what sort of handball would not have resulted in a penalty because there doesn’t appear to be any. If you are blowing up when a ball is hammered at close range into the ground and it hits a defender who can’t get out of the way, there is literally nothing you won’t give a handball penalty for.

There is talk of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ positioning of the arm. Quite what a ‘natural’ position is remains a mystery. If like Romero you are lunging to block a ball, his arms were in the entirely natural position for a human. If he’d had them strapped to his side, that would’ve been plain weird.

There’s nothing ‘natural’ about playing football in the first place, it is fundamentally contrived, so there is no ‘natural’ arm position in an unnatural sport, no place it really should be and no place it shouldn’t. That’s not an opinion, that’s just counting.

And it is important that it really is deliberate. The original law was designed to prevent someone gaining an advantage by wilfully handling the ball. However, Romero would have needed the reactions of a cat to think about deliberately handling the ball at the Emirates. The annoying thing is that while a few decisions will always be hard to call, mostly they just aren’t. That was not deliberate and deliberate is the prism everything has to be viewed through. It was obviously not deliberate. And that should have been the end of it.

It’s just the same with the VAR adjudicating marginal offsides which are so marginal the attacking side can’t possibly be said to have gained an advantage if half an inch of a toe is ahead of the ball, which is the whole point of the offside rule in the first place.

The rules of Association Football were not drawn up to be adjudicated in this manner. While inconsistencies will always happen in the application of any system, the officials are just making it harder for themselves under the pressure caused by the VAR.

Slow it down and stare at it. It literally hits his hand. Over and over and over it is played. It hits his hand. Imagine the pelters you’ll get if you don’t give this. It hit his hand. He hasn’t meant it to but it hit his hand. The VAR thinks it’s a pen. But it wasn’t deliberate. I’m not supposed to give it if it’s not deliberate but the crowd are baying at me to give it. Oh God, help me. Under this level of scrutiny it is easier to give the penalty than not and so he does. Well, it hit his hand, after all. That’s your get-out right there.

If it is so marginal as to need spending three minutes working out if the marginal offside is marginally offside, that is anti-football. No-one gains from it, least of all the paying punter. The game doesn’t benefit from being governed in this manner. To equate the Romero ‘handball’ with a situation where someone punches it off the line, which the decision effectively does, is simply unfair. One is intentional, one isn’t. To punish both in the same way makes mockery of the law and takes the pish out of us, the fans and makes things difficult for the players.

You might argue that it doesn’t matter if it is accidental. Okay, it’s a position you can take, but not one that the majority think is fair. Getting penalised so heavily for something you have no control over goes against all laws of natural justice. But of course software and a TV screen doesn’t have any sense of natural justice, and that’s part of the problem.

The irony is that it really isn’t hard to discern deliberate handball in almost all cases. If you have the ball blasted at your hand at a relatively short distance, or if it bounces up and hits your hand and you’ve made no attempt to block the ball with the hand, that’s not a penalty. Easy. Stick your arm out in order to deliberately deflect the ball away, then it is a penalty. How hard is that?

Unfairly, not only does the interpretation change from game to game, but from month to month and season to season thus abandoning the idea of a level playing field across the competition, this despite VAR being sold to us as a system to provide consistency. Clearly, it doesn’t.

One of the unintended consequences of this fear of accidental handball being penalised is that defenders are now obliged to play like Irish dancers with both hands behind their back with their legs kicking out when in the area, which not only looks very silly but is surely dangerous in that it means you are not properly balanced.

I mean, to state the obvious, arms are there in part to help the human not fall over. It is unfair and unreasonable to effectively demand that players ignore the basic thermodynamics of physiognomy so as to not inadvertently let the ball touch their hand. More than that, it is ludicrous to have to do so.

That alone is illustrative of the suspicion that defenders have, not of the laws of the game but of the current interpretation of the laws of the game. They just daren’t risk trusting an outbreak of common sense by the officials and so the Riverdance goes on. Sometimes it feels like the officials and those that govern them are just messing with us all in order to make themselves feel important.

They deserve our criticism and our contempt for these perversions of the rules. They are not just spoiling how games are being governed but altering results while doing so but everyone is so weary of VAR, so weary of the endless churn of rule interpretation, so weary of waiting for them to bloody well decide which way they’re going to jump, we just accept the unacceptable.