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
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:
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
-- 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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.