"Following the on-field review, the referee confirmed that the distance that the ball traveled was not short and the impact could therefore not be unexpected," it said. "The defender's arm was not close to the body, which made the defender's body bigger thus resulting in the ball being stopped from traveling in the direction of the goal. The referee, therefore, awarded a penalty kick."
That’s a lot of long-winded circumstance to justify what in theory used to be a simple call – did the player deliberately handle the ball or not? My feeling is that you could lean maybe five percent in the direction of backing UEFA’s wordy rationale for the penalty kick. Or you can revert to the 95 percent feeling I had the very first time I viewed the replay that it was a very, very harsh decision at a crucial juncture of such a high-level game.
Another issue is whether or not the video assistant referee was right to intervene. Supposedly this should only happen when a clear and obvious error has been made by the referee. Yet if the referee had stuck to his original decision to indicate a corner kick, the incident would have long been forgotten already, other than the odd Manchester United fan grumbling with little conviction, “Yeah, well we could have had a penalty near the end.”
Will IFAB’s new directive on handball help us in such situations? Next season’s rule will start to move away from intent (or deliberate handball, or non-accidental contact – they all amount to the same thing) and permit referees to call accidental handballs in certain circumstances. “For example,” its website explains, “a goal scored directly from the hand/arm (even if accidental) and a player scoring or creating a goalscoring opportunity after having gained possession/control of the ball from their hand/arm (even if accidental) will no longer be allowed.”
For goals this probably makes sense, but in the case of goalscoring opportunities it’s going to lead to even more video reviews and discussions. Eintracht Frankfurt’s second goal against Bayern Munich in last year’s German Cup final, for example, would likely not have counted (there was an accidental Frankfurt handball 60 yards from Bayern’s goal a few seconds before the long ball that lead to Ante Rebic’s strike to make it 2-1. The incident was reviewed, and the goal stood). The problem is that we will in the future have a two-tiered law for handballs. Accidental handball – a concept that is in any case nowadays open to broad interpretation, as we’ve seen from the Kimpembe incident - will be OK under certain circumstances, but not under others.
As the Kimpembe case illustrated, though, we are no nearer to having a handball law that makes practical sense. UEFA’s talk of the defender’s body being made “bigger” is not helpful. This is a phrase that often comes up at referees’ meetings to justify certain decisions, but it’s not backed by any wording in the rules. If IFAB really wants to rule that players moving their bodies in the natural course of athletic endeavor are risking an infringement of the laws, then they should just go ahead and do so.
Effectively, though, that would be making all handballs illegal, accidental or not. I suspect the new modifications are a first step in this direction. That might lead to more clarity, but certainly not to more fairness and less controversy.
On a more positive note, the other rule changes should both improve the game and make life easier for referees:
• Players being substituted must leave the field at the nearest point on the boundary line. No more time-cheating players trotting, limping and applauding their way to the benches when subbed out, even stopping to shake the referee’s hand on the way. The poor sportsmanship of players means they have brought this change on themselves.
• Red and yellow cards for coaches. Currently, referees have to issue a three-tiered warning for “irresponsible behavior.” The final warning means that the coach must leave the field. In the future, a yellow card at the first sign of nonsense from the bench will hopefully be enough to stall further shenanigans.
• The ball is in play from goal kicks, and free kicks inside the penalty area, as soon as it’s played. Forwards will be able to attack the ball as long as they’re outside the area when the ball’s first played. Good news for coaches who advocate the pressing game, and no more frustrating stops and re-takes.
FOR IFAB'S "At a Glance Summary of the Main Changes 2019/20," go HERE.
(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)