Recently, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin told a story about a gathering of the top coaches at UEFA's headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland: "There was Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Max Allegri, Carlo Ancelotti, Zinedine Zidane. All the top coaches of European teams, and our referee officer, Roberto Rossetti, shows a handball. He says: ‘Handball or not? ’Half the room said yes. Half said no. So tell me how clear the rule is. We don’t know anything!”
In order to understand where we are with regard to “a handball offense” as the LOTG states in 2019-2020 version, we have to look into the history of the LOTG. Let me tell you that for the first time in the history of the LOTG this offense is referred to as “handball.” As you know, handball is the name of another sport. (Actually for Americans the name of two different sports.) This change of terminology was triggered by “what football expects” since coaches, players and spectators called the contact between ball and the hand as “handball,” the only exception being the LOTG and the refereeing community which referred to it as “handling.” Now we all at least speak the same language.
The rules of association football were codified in England by the Football Association in 1863 and the name association football (soccer) was coined to distinguish the game from the other forms of football played at the time, specifically rugby football. The main difference between rugby and “soccer” was the fact that “soccer” did not allow playing the ball with the hand and “hacking” as it was called then. “Hacking” actually meant tripping an opponent by kicking their shins and “hacking” later on was also banned from rugby. By not allowing “hacking” in the game, forerunners of today’s IFAB, wanted to exclude brutality from soccer.
Since the hand and the arm are parts of the body, it is inevitable that there will be contact between the hand of a player – other than a goal keeper - and the ball during a soccer game. Realizing this fact the same forerunners did not want to penalize each hand and ball contact with a foul. My very first copy of LOTG from 1978-79 says in Law 12: “A player who intentionally (I underlined intentionally) commits any of the nine offenses … will be penalized by the award of a direct free kick…” One of the nine offenses was “Handles the ball, i.e. carries, strikes or propels the ball with is hand or arm…”
So the referee had to judge whether the contact between the hand/arm and the ball was intentional. Since no one including referees can read minds of players, other criteria were used to determine whether the contact between the hand/arm and the ball was a foul. Since intentionality involved all nine offenses, in 1995 IFAB decided to remove the word “intentionally” from Law 12 as it was impossible for the referees to read minds when it comes to fouls. From then on the referees looked at the consequence of a foul in deciding whether it was a foul or not, except for handling. Because between 1995 and last year, LOTG stated the following with regard to handling: “handles the ball deliberately …” I am neither a native speaker of English nor an etymologist to tell the nuance between the words “intentionally” and “deliberately."
In the later years IFAB decided to include some criteria to define “deliberate handling.” Until this year IFAB defined “deliberate handling” as follows: “Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact 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”
Although the LOTG said so, interpretation on the field starting with early 2010’s started to change at the elite level. The concept of what “football expects” started to creep into the implementation of the LOTG and especially to handling offenses. Starting with UEFA, changes in the implementation of how to interpret “deliberate handling” started to emerge. The penalty or non-penalty between contact of the ball and the hand/arm changed dramatically in this period. Although my statement is subjective and not supported by data the number of handling offenses penalized as well as the percentage of penalty kicks given for handling seemed to increase in the last ten years. UEFA and FIFA became very picky and sensitive on handling. As a result of these changes not supported by the LOTG the decisions of the referees became less predictable. Although like “hacking,” “handling” is historically one of the two criteria differentiating our beautiful game from rugby and its predecessors, I cannot personally understand this interest in changing the handling interpretation. In a game where pushing and pulling in the penalty area is mostly ignored; in a game where unfair challenges by the goalkeepers are completely ignored – as stated by my colleague Paul Gardner in several articles – why do UEFA and FIFA want to make changes in the interpretation of handling, the only direct free kick offense that does not include contact, is beyond the comprehension of this author.
Although the changes in interpretations were not in the LOTG – which are very similar to what we now have in 2019-2020 LOTG - their implementations started. For example, during the World Cup 2018 game between Argentina and Nigeria VAR had asked for an OFR review of a hand ball contact inside the Argentinian penalty area at minute 75. After reviewing the incident the referee Cuneyt Cakir indicated with gestures that the ball came from Argentinian defender’s head to his arm. The referees were instructed not to call a penalty kick if the ball comes from any part of the player to his/her arm. Cakir followed that instruction and did not call a penalty kick. Later on FIFA referees chief Pierluigi Collina in a news conference confirmed this instruction and supported Cakir’s decision not to call a penalty kick. During the summer of 2018, there was no mention in the LOTG of any such instruction for interpreting deliberate handling in that manner, but now we do. After some years of deliberation, IFAB this year decided to rewrite the LOTG regarding deliberate handling – sorry handball offense.
IFAB has removed the word deliberate from handling offenses in 2019-2020 for the first time in its history, the word “deliberate” is mentioned in the explanation part of the handball offense. This how the current Law 12 explains handball offenses:
“Handling the ball
It is an offense if a player:
It is usually an offense if a player:
The above offenses apply even if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close.
Except for the above offenses, it is not usually an offense if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm:
It is clear that IFAB is trying to minimize the gray areas in “handball offenses” as well as satisfying what football expects. In our next article, we will discuss whether the new wording achieved or will achieve its goals.