Handball: The Absolute Bane of Our Lives

The new handball laws have caused such a mass of controversy since the Premier League season began. Liam Rowsell assesses the new laws and looks at the impact they have had on the Premier League games already played. 

The football world has seen some very questionable decisions in the past three weeks in relation to the handball offence. At the start of the season, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), who call themselves ‘the independent guardian of the laws of the game’, sought to bring clarity to this aspect of the game. In doing so, they introduced the new ‘T-shirt’ rule: the upper boundary of the arm is now in line with the bottom of the armpit.

However, it is not really this aspect of the offence that has caused the controversy. Almost every time the ball strikes part of the arm inside the penalty box, the referee awards a spot-kick regardless of proximity, intention and body position and it’s this that is angering football fans, players, coaches and pundits up and down the country. So what are the official handball laws?

What are the handball laws?

IFAB directly state the laws of the game on their website. In relation to the handball offence, the current laws are as follows. It is an offence if a player:

  • deliberately touches the ball with their arm, including moving the arm towards the ball;
  • scores in the opponent’s goal directly from their arm, even if accidental;
  • scores in the opponent’s goal or creates a goal-scoring opportunity after the ball has touched their or a teammate’s arm, even if accidental, or
  • touches the ball with their arm when the arm has made their body unnaturally bigger or when the arm is above/beyond their shoulder level.

The law states that in these circumstances, there will be an offence even if the ball touches a player’s arm directly from the head or body of another player close by. The rules then state that except for the above circumstances, it is not an offence if:

  • the ball touches a player’s arm directly from the player’s own head or body or directly from the head or body of another player who is close;
  • the hand is close to the body and does not make the body unnaturally bigger, or
  • a player falls, and the arm is between the body and ground to support the body, but not extended laterally or vertically away from the body.

On the face of it, these handball rules appear very difficult to understand. They can only be deemed fair if all referee’s and players acknowledge and understand every aspect of the offence, therefore making the law much easier to apply in a match situation, creating much less controversy. Given the amount of debate and frustration caused in the Premier League already this season, it’s safe to say that few people do understand these rules.


Why have these handball laws created so much controversy?

It’s the rules regarding the ball hitting the arm directly from another player and making the body unnaturally bigger which have caused the most controversy so far this season. What exactly constitutes an ‘unnatural position’ doesn’t seem to have been clarified. When a player is jumping to win a header, they will naturally use their arms for elevation, meaning that the arms may well end up in a position above shoulder level. But, according to the rules, if the ball strikes the arm whilst in this position, a handball offence has occurred. This is regardless of where the ball came from, even if another player headed the ball onto the arm from two yards.

We have seen the same with players attempted to block a shot or a cross. If the arm is down by the side but not immediately next to the body, this seems to contribute an ‘unnatural position’. Again, football players, just like any other person, need their arms to run, to balance and to adjust their bodies. However, with the arm just slightly away from the body, they’re taking a massive risk and the moment the ball strikes the arm, they’re almost certain to have conceded a penalty.

With this in mind, players must make a choice between sacrificing a cross or shot that needs blocking or not winning a ball in the air, both of which could have negative consequences for the team, or taking a massive risk by attempting to win the ball in the normal way, knowing that if the ball strikes the arm, there’s a high chance they’ll give away a penalty. There is also the risk that players could start deliberately playing the ball onto the arm of an opponent, knowing there’s a good chance they’ll win a penalty if they succeed. This is not the game we’re used to as football fans, and it’s not the game we want to watch.

It says a lot that these controversial handball incidents, which look perfectly fine on first viewing in real-time, are not picked up by the referee but given as penalties after a lengthy VAR check. Referees are only human, and when they play on after the ball hits an arm, it suggests that they interpret that incident as being perfectly natural and legitimate and don’t want to have to be giving penalties for such ridiculous offences. Once a referee heads over to the pitch side monitor though, they never seem to change their mind because they know the harsh reality of these laws.


How have these handball rules affected the Premier League?

Several Premier League matches have involved handball incidents already this season and more often that not they’ve resulted in a penalty.

In the 95th minute of last weekend’s Premier League clash between Tottenham and Newcastle, Eric Dier and Andy Carroll challenged each other for a highball into the Tottenham penalty box. The ball came off the head of Andy Carroll before striking the arm of Eric Dier, who wasn’t even looking at the ball. The two were at such proximity and Dier had no choice but to challenge the Newcastle man with his side leading by just one goal but, in trying to compete with the 6’4 striker, had to use his arms for maximum elevation. After a lengthy VAR check, referee Peter Banks awarded the penalty and Callum Wilson scored from the spot to snatch an undeserved point.

Handball controversy also marred last weekend’s match between Crystal Palace and Everton when Joel Ward blocked a Lucas Digne header inside the box. The ball struck the arm of Joel Ward, but there was no movement towards the ball and the arm was relatively close to the body, in what most would describe as a perfectly natural position. Again, the referee waved play on but was promptly instructed to look at the pitch side monitor, where he changed his mind and awarded Everton a penalty. Fans would’ve asked serious questions of the Crystal Palace defender had he not have tried to block the headed pass, but ultimately, this incident cost his side the game.

At the time of writing, there have been 20 penalties awarded inside the opening three Premier League match weeks. Last season, they awarded 96 throughout the entire season. If this current rate continues, we’re on track for 271 spot kicks by the end of the campaign, about 2 and a half times the Premier League record of 2009/10 and 2016/17 (106) and almost three times as many as last season. (Source: My Football Facts)

This begs the question of just how many handball offences there are in a game with only incidents inside the penalty area being checked. If VAR checked incidents all over the pitch, we could spend the entire 90 minutes looking at replays of footballs inadvertently striking arms. If this continues, we’re going to see a very bizarre and ineffective style of defending come into play with players afraid of having their hands away from their bodies at all. As a football spectator, we really don’t want that to happen and we all sincerely hope we see a change to the game we know and love soon.

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