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Deliberate handling -- just what does that mean?
by Ahmet Guvener, June 29th, 2017 6:48PM
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TAGS:  neymar, referees

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Many years ago -- more than 30 to be exact -- I took a graduate course at University of Texas in Cognitive Sciences titled “Decision-Making Processes." The course in general analyzed how humans make critical decision-making processes based on perception. For example, how do you decide to brake or change course once you perceive that the car in front of you suddenly stopped. I chose to write a term paper on “How does a Soccer Referee Decide on Intentional Handling."

In those days, there were nine offenses under Law 12 all of them classified under the precondition of “intentional.” The Laws of the Game (LOTG) then said: “A player who intentionally commits any of the following offenses… (i) handles the ball, i.e., carries, strikes or propels the ball with his hand or arm (this does not apply to the goal keeper within his own penalty area)”

I must have developed a decision-making model based on various visual/audio cues using “if-then-else” type of logic. It was a good exercise for me who was refereeing and instructing in those years. Then and until a few years ago, I thought with a good amount of certainty that I could tell what was accidental contact of the hand with the ball and what was “deliberate” handling. Now things are bit different.

First of all, the letter of the LOTG have changed a lot since then. It has been decades since the wording for Law 12 has been changed. Now we have 11 offenses punishable by a DFK or PK.  The word “intentional” is not associated with any of the 11. Just for handling the word “deliberate” is used. “…handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within their penalty area).” I am not going argue about the semantic differences between “intentional” and “deliberate.”  The linguists can. One thing is clear; with either use of the words the spirit of the Law did not change. The use of the hand/arm was prohibited from the days of the inception of the LOTG in 1863, making it distinctive from rugby.

Although in the case of “deliberate” handball, the contact between the ball and the hand does not have to be intentional -- with the intent of playing the ball -- but if it is avoidable or careless, then the player is still penalized.  A good example is when a player expands his body with his arms and the ball hits the arm -- even though he did not intent to play the ball with his hand -- it is considered to be deliberate handling and penalized.

So what has changed that does not allow me and others to judge a “deliberate handball” as easily as before. Why are there different shades of gray for this decision that did not exist before?

About 10 years ago, a prominent member of the UEFA Referee Committee showed a clip to the professional referees in Turkey. In the clip, a defensive player falls down on the goal line. He is on the ground with his hands on his side in a very natural position. The ball is kicked from a few yards away and hits his arm. The ball is deflected on to the field of play. The referee continues the game. The instructor told the referees: “The letter of the LOTG tells you not to penalize this, but football -- the coaches, the players, the spectators -- expects you to call a penalty kick."

He never mentioned whether the player should be sent off or not based on DOGSO. This was my first introduction to the concept of “what football wants/expects.” I could see the confused referees in the room then and I still see the confusion around the globe. The confusion about one of the most basic LOTG continued. At one point, the Turkish referees were asked by the Referee Committee to penalize any contact between the hand and the ball if the arm was more than a few inches away from the body. They thought they saved the day. But a good number of penalty kicks were called that should not have been called and the results of the games have changed due to this inappropriate interpretation.

Recently during the 2015 Champions League final between Barcelona and Juventus, a Turkish referee team was assigned to referee the final. At the 70th minute, a ball was centered from the left side, Neymar headed the ball, and the ball hit his right hand and entered the goal. The right arm was in a natural position and he did not expand his body with his left arm to be able to play the ball. So it was neither “intentional” nor deliberate. With the help of his additional assistant referee (AAR), Huseyin Gocek, one of the best referees in the world, Cuneyt Cakir, nullified the goal for “deliberate” handling. Although the purists of the game thought that the goal should have counted, UEFA never reprimanded Cakir or Gocek. They thought and believed that football wanted the goal to be nullified.

This is from the most recent LOTG: “The Laws cannot deal with every possible situation, so where there is no direct provision in the Laws, The IFAB expects the referee to make a decision within the ‘spirit’ of the game – this often involves asking the question, 'what would football want/expect?'" The phrase “what would football want /expect” is now in the LOTG. Whether the “spirit” of the LOTG and “what would football want/expect” are mutually inclusive is another topic for another article.

The LOTG in Law 12 gives the following criteria to judge deliberate handling:

“Handling the ball:
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 offense
•  touching the ball with an object held in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.)  is an offense
•  hitting the ball with a thrown object (boot, shinguard, etc.) is an offense.”

None of these explain “what football would want/expect “for a deliberate handball. One should understand that the level of play is another important factor in judging deliberate handball. An under-13 boy’s and a professional player’s coordination levels cannot be compared. Hence there might be more non-deliberate hand and ball contact at the under-13 boy’s level.

At UEFA’s Referee’s Development Program 2014 -- Practical Guide for Match Officials, the following guidelines are given to judge deliberate handling:

•  Does he use his hand or arm to intentionally touch the ball?
•  Was it hand to ball situation or a ball to hand?
•  Are the player’s hands or arms in a “natural” position?
•  Does the player want “to make himself bigger “by using his arms?
•  Distance the ball traveled before striking the player’s hand
•  Does the player try to avoid the ball striking his hand?
•  Is the player able to avoid the ball striking his hand?

Although this is a more accurate “litmus test” for judging deliberate handling, it still has some flaws like the subjectivity of the natural position of the hand. According to UEFA’s or the LOTG criteria, neither the disallowed goal in the 2015 CL final nor the instructor’s clip described at the beginning of the article are cases of “deliberate handling.” But the bosses of international soccer might prefer those “what football would expect/want” decisions.

What is promising is that IFAB in this year’s LOTG version promises that “In the coming months, The IFAB, working with its expert panels, will consult widely on a number of important Law-related topics, including:

• Player behavior, with special focus on:  
-- the role of the captain  
-- measures to tackle time-wasting  
-- effective playing time
• A potentially fairer system of taking kicks from the penalty mark
• Potential use of red cards for red cards for non-playing members in the technical area
• Handball.”

At the end of these deliberations, I believe either IFAB will either remove the word “deliberate” from Law 12 or define what “deliberate handling” is which is universally applicable and conforms to “what football would want/expect.” So the ongoing confusion about deliberate handling will hopefully end.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of the Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.


26 comments
  1. Kent James
    commented on: June 29, 2017 at 10:58 p.m.
    I think the rule (sorry, "law") is reasonably clear; the problem is that referees defer to players and coaches who know the it incorrectly. Players should not be punished for having arms. If they are in a natural position, and the ball strikes them, even if it denies (or scores) a goal, it should not matter, and play should continue. But for "what the game wants" to align with "the spirit of the game", referees at the highest levels must enforce the laws properly, so that "the game" can be educated. There probably should be some clarifying IFB rulings, such as when the ball strikes the arm of somebody who has it outstretched for balance (while making a slide tackle, e.g.); that should not be handling (since the it is natural), but I could live with them saying that an arm more than half its maximum distance away from the body will always be considered unnatural and therefore should be called. Guidance in gray areas would lead to more consistency, which again, would help "the game" align with "the rules".
  1. Kent James
    commented on: June 29, 2017 at 11:07 p.m.
    I sincerely hope they change the kicks from the mark. Nothing more heartless than a player who has played his heart out for 2 hours, and maybe even is the reason the team makes it to overtime, and becomes the goat because the keeper guesses correctly and stops his kick. To break a tie, kicks should be taken from far enough back that most kicks (more than half, but ideally around 75%) will be stopped (top of the 18? top of the arc?). The keeper could even be allowed to come out to the six (or maybe even as far as he wants (starting from the line) to avoid the (unfortunately important question of whether he came off the line). Then it would be a good kick wins it (and good, rather than lucky, goalkeeping can also help win it).
  1. Fire Paul Gardner Now
    commented on: June 30, 2017 at 10:36 a.m.
    It works fine as is. I've coached plenty of teams that have been on the losing end of shootouts and they get over it. It's part of the game.
  1. R2 Dad
    commented on: June 30, 2017 at 1:09 a.m.
    Great column, thx for dissecting this issue.
  1. R2 Dad
    commented on: June 30, 2017 at 1:15 a.m.
    "One should understand that the level of play is another important factor in judging deliberate handball". THIS. I am continually harped on by parents--primarily hispanic--for my reluctance to whistle Handling by U10s and below. They're not adults--Ahmet's point here is relevant and pertinent. BTW, at least the hispanic parents know this law, they just disagree on the implementation. Most non-hispanic parents at the youth level don't know the lOTG at all.
  1. Nick Daverese
    commented on: June 30, 2017 at 2:12 a.m.
    So he wrote a paper in college on it :) I was going to write a paper on how not to get caught by the police at 13 after I was sent to the youth house as a kid for stealing something. I learned how not to get caught. Always how multiple ways to escape and act like you belonged their if you got caught. I am bad on dates and just dont feel like looking it up. The United States men's teams had one of their best WC tournaments under Bruce Arena. We were trailing late in a game against Germany. One of their backs was on the far post. He was touching the far post. The ball hit his arm he saw it hit his arm and did not try to move it out of the way. If he did the US would have equalized. I remember our players calling for a hand ball. Alas no call and we were knocked out of the WC that year. So I guess the German back learned how to hit the ball with his arm and not get a hand ball if he just does not move his arm to the ball.
  1. Kent James
    commented on: June 30, 2017 at 9:57 a.m.
    This is a classic example of how it is supposed to work. As a US fan, I (and "the game") want a pk and a red card for handling "his arm prevented a goal!". But from a neutral perspective, his arm was by his body, and as much as I watched in slow-motion replay, I could not detect him moving his hand to the ball, so the ball hitting his arm should be no different than if the ball hit his leg. One of the toughest calls ever, but I think the ref (Hugh Dallas, if I recall) got it right.
  1. Miguel Dedo
    commented on: June 30, 2017 at 8:34 a.m.
    Meaning-changing typo. In the 10th paragraph: “The phrase ‘what would football want /expect’ is now in the LOTG.” The author likely meant to use the word “not” rather than “now.” “Not” is the correct word, the typo reverses the meaning from “No” to “Yes.”
  1. Ahmet Guvener
    commented on: June 30, 2017 at 10:25 a.m.
    To: Miguel Dado. the LOTG NOW has the phrase "what football want/expect". So there is no typo in my statement.
  1. frank schoon
    commented on: June 30, 2017 at 9:16 a.m.
    I wonder how the VAR or the next step in the future of soccer refereeing is the computer will judge this...Sorry guys but ,to me, I accept that this world is not perfect and learned one thing and that ,so often, well intentioned actions trying make something more perfect usually has the effect of making it worse. As a coach when I come to the soccer field , I have calculated that the referee will make mistakes and the game is not perfect and thereby I accept the consequences as such. The game has been played for over a hundred years and it has done pretty well, as far as I'm concerned, and it has made some changes to further it but now with the advancement of technology were getting the 'bean counters' involved. You know what I would like is more tougher refereeing during corner kicks for you wouldn't believe what defenders get away with in the box. Now ,THERE , I find, we should ENFORCE foul calls that are so often not done. Can one remember a referee ever calling a foul inside the box, which I call a wasp nest of fouls, during a corner,HARDLY EVER! Other than that there will always be gray areas in soccer which ,I think, should be left alone for a computer or VAR could only make it worse. LET IT BE!
  1. Nick Daverese
    commented on: June 30, 2017 at 11:28 a.m.
    On that German back he could have put his shoulder against the far post and then no handball. But he wanted to cover more area.
  1. Bob Ashpole
    commented on: June 30, 2017 at 5:46 p.m.
    I started and deleted 2 different comments on this article. I have played under all of the versions of Law 12 mentioned above. While I am sure referees should be concerned with the finer points and the advice, through all the years the importance of the referee to the success of the match has not diminished. While we don't have enough licensed officials, the ones we have in general continue to amaze me with their ability to support the game. I have seen slight differences in foul recognition between officials, which I think is mostly due to grade and experience. I expect referees to be consistent, but perfection is not expected, although some officials manage to come pretty close. Regarding handling, I don't think the Law 12 changes have made any significant difference on the field over the years. Ahmet, if you wrote a similar article on Law 11, it would be a book. Officials don't get enough recognition and appreciation. Good article.
  1. Nick Daverese
    commented on: June 30, 2017 at 7:04 p.m.
    When I learned the game my coach told me don't want to get a hand ball. If you see the ball is going to hit you in the arm get your arm out of the way. If you don't see it and it hits your arm it's not a hand ball. But I never covered a post I covered a man. Years ago I watched the gol channel. They had a game where they took free kicks against the other countries keepers. I loved it everyone was keeping track of goals scored. I was watching how the wall was set up in different situations on the field. Also how the players in the wall protected them selves. No player did it the same way. I just found that interesteing. I protected the jewels that's it. Some of the guys in the wall also protected their hearts and chests. Others protected their noses and faces and they just peered over their forearms. After seeing that I started to teach our kids to protect them selves in the wall using their forearms.
  1. James Madison
    commented on: June 30, 2017 at 8:03 p.m.
    The core question is whether a player is using a hand to cheat or try to cheat. To know the answer requires reading the player's mind. The world would be different if CRs were mind readers, which they are not. All the various clues and cues have been devised to help a CR divine, i.e., infer or make a judgment about what is going on in a player's mind and thereby decide whether the player is cheating, i.e., intentionally or deliberately handling the ball.
  1. Nick Daverese
    commented on: July 1, 2017 at 2:21 a.m.
    James do you think the poster on top of your post is trying to cheat one of us. I can read his mind and he is :)
  1. frank schoon
    commented on: July 1, 2017 at 10:23 a.m.
    Nick, LOL, you're too much....
  1. Geren Nichols
    commented on: July 2, 2017 at 10:09 a.m.
    Without Neymar's right hand the ball does not go in the goal. I would expect the goal to be disallowed otherwise everyone will be taught the Neymar position , right hand at the shoulder, when the cross is coming from the left to add that little bit of extra accuracy when heading.
  1. Ahmet Guvener
    commented on: July 2, 2017 at 12:14 p.m.
    That is a good interpretation but many - including very credible experts - thought that the goal should have been allowed. The key thing is that "deliberate handling" should be redefined to narrow down the gray areas.
  1. Craig Cummings
    commented on: July 2, 2017 at 8:56 p.m.
    MR Ahmet could you please give us American reffeeres more about your backround and what you do now. thank you craigc
  1. Ahmet Guvener
    commented on: July 3, 2017 at 6:47 p.m.
    I am referee coach for US Soccer at Texas, South. You can contact me through my emial for further information
  1. Craig Cummings
    commented on: July 3, 2017 at 10:40 p.m.
    Mr. Guvener thank you for your response. I enjoy your posts, and lo0k forward to more. I plan to Email you. Cheers CraigC.
  1. Craig Cummings
    commented on: July 4, 2017 at 12:09 a.m.
    Mr Guvener do you Ref pro games 0r just coach, asses and help refs, in there delvelopment.Good to see an top Turkish ref come back to USA.
  1. Ahmet Guvener
    commented on: July 4, 2017 at 11:42 a.m.
    I am 64 years old... :-)
  1. Craig Cummings
    commented on: July 4, 2017 at 12:34 a.m.
    TESSEKURLER..
  1. Craig Cummings
    commented on: July 4, 2017 at 11:05 p.m.
    how old are Toros and Heienz. There are still doing gteat.
  1. John Gordon
    commented on: July 9, 2017 at 7:08 p.m.
    Ahmet became a great referee administrator/instructor because I bugged him on so many issues 30 years ago. On deliberate handball, the situation described on Neymar is easily accomodated: 1. Where a player miss-plays a ball and the resulting action is favorably aided by the ball striking his hand or arm, such contact shall be considered deliberate. For the player on the ground, the further description of the handball rule is somewhat similar: 2. Where a player takes unusual action beyond the normal upright position, any occurrence of the ball striking his hand or arm shall be judged as deliberate.

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