The handball farce: How did we get here?

Date published: Monday 28th September 2020 1:47

The handball farce is the fault of the Premier League, not IFAB. How did we get here?

The handball rule: everyone’s talking about it, everyone’s angry, everyone’s confused. For my own sanity, I decided to try and get to the bottom of the rule changes that are causing so much grief.

What’s more, I have noticed that the media coverage of all of this doesn’t appear to have hold of the full facts of the new rules/interpretations as they stand, and is muddying the waters for fans, players and managers even further. So here’s my attempt to explain how we got here. Strap yourselves in.


The rule changes from IFAB

Firstly, it’s important to remember that IFAB, the International Football Association Board, makes the rules. The Premier League then interprets them and gives guidance to its referees on how to apply them.

Ahead of the 2019/20 season, IFAB amended the handball rule to focus on whether the hand/arm position had made the body ‘unnaturally bigger’ at the time of contact. What exactly constitutes a ‘natural’ body position was left open, and presumably down to the referees to interpret. It is essentially a proxy for intent. Unnatural = deliberate.

IFAB have made further tweaks this season, but their rules still clearly make a distinction as to whether the handball is ‘deliberate’ or not, as well as the aforementioned 2019 amendment.

This amendment in itself is not particularly controversial in my view, and keeps ‘intent’ as the chief deciding factor in whether an offence has been committed. It can be considered as an additional tool to help determine intent, rather than a drastic rule change. So far, so logical.


The Premier League’s interpretation

The Premier League incorporated this guidance last season. This season however, they have quietly dropped all mention of intent, deliberation and hand/arm position.

The Premier League’s official page on the handball rule this season makes no reference at all to the body position, unnatural or otherwise. It’s all about the distinction between the top of the arm and the area below the armpit. So there it is: the handball rule is now as simple as that – if it hits the lower part of the defender’s arm in the area then it’s a handball. Referees are being given no discretion whatsoever as far as we can see, arms down by the side of the body or otherwise.

Why? It’s not clear.

The main rule clarification/change in the official IFAB handball rules for the 2020/21 season is this: the distinction between the bottom of the armpit and the upper arm has been introduced.

This was also intended as a complement to the existing guidance, not as a standalone rule to be implemented to the exclusion of all others. Despite this the Premier League seems to have interpreted it as such. In so doing, they have ditched intent and the referee’s discretion to make a call.


The media and pundits: missing a trick

Nevertheless, much of the discussion and controversy about the handball rule in the 2020/21 season is around the application of this ‘natural position’ ruling. People are perplexed that defenders are supposedly being required to keep their arms down by their sides, in a paradoxically unnatural ‘natural’ position. Here’s Gary Neville getting worked up about arm position.

That this doesn’t actually appear to be part of the Premier League’s interpretation of the rule anymore has been almost entirely missed in the coverage of the controversy. And that in itself is telling of the confusion at all levels around the handball rule.

Similarly, many people, Roy Hodgson included, are railing against the fact that ‘intent’ has been removed from the rule. “For me handball is a very simple rule. When you deliberately handle it to stop a goal being scored or to get an advantage, it’s handball. And when the ball hits you, and you can do nothing about it, it’s not handball.”

Again, this is the rule as it stands and as it is written by IFAB. The problem is simply with the Premier League’s bizarre and wrong-headed interpretation.


Deflections: mysteriously disappeared

One final curiosity remains: an amendment made by IFAB last season which stated that a handball not be given if ‘the ball touches a player’s hand/arm directly from their own head/body/foot or the head/body/foot of another player who is close/near’. This appears to be designed to explicitly exclude the kinds of close quarters and unavoidable handballs, deflected or otherwise, which are attracting such controversy right now. The Premier League appeared to interpret this particular section as pertaining specifically to deflections, and outlined new guidance on granting leniency in this regard on its website last season.

Both the IFAB guidance on this and the Premier League interpretation have now been inexplicably and quietly dropped. So while intent is still written into IFAB’s handball rules (albeit that this is being ignored by the Premier League), when it comes to the question of deflected and close-quarters handballs, intent is now inexplicably deemed irrelevant.

One thing is for sure: the whole situation is a mess and needs urgent clarification.


Max MacBride – follow him on Twitter

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