A handball offense in soccer: The ultimate NP-complete problem (1)

An NP-Complete problem in Computational Theory is a solvable problem for which no efficient solution algorithm has been found. It might require nearly infinite amount of resources. The decision whether the contact between the hand and the ball is an offense turned into a NP-Complete problem with the recent changes to the Laws of the Game (LOTG).

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:

  • deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, including moving the hand/arm towards the ball
  • gains possession/control of the ball after it has touched their hand/arm and then:
    • scores in the opponents’ goal
    • creates a goal-scoring opportunity
  • scores in the opponents’ goal directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental, including by the goalkeeper

It is usually an offense if a player:

  • touches the ball with their hand/arm when:
    • the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger
    • the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level (unless the player deliberately plays the ball which then touches their hand/arm)

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:

  • directly from the player’s own head or body (including the foot)
  • directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close
  • if the hand/arm is close to the body and does not make the body unnaturally bigger
  • when a player falls and the hand/arm is between the body and the ground to support the body, but not extended laterally or vertically away from the body”

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. 

10 comments about "A handball offense in soccer: The ultimate NP-complete problem (1)".
  1. Bob Ashpole, January 4, 2020 at 7:27 a.m.

    The new wording is nuts.

  2. Mike Lynch, January 4, 2020 at 8:52 a.m.

    Yes, nuts!

    KISS - keep it simple

  3. beautiful game replied, January 4, 2020 at 11:21 a.m.

    KISS rules...obviously a lack of common sense in interpreting LOTG has become a revolving door of inconsistency and incompetence.

  4. John Polis, January 4, 2020 at 2:14 p.m.

    Ahmet, thanks for tackling this critical and thorny subject. The phrase mindreader as applied to handball was cute when it came out some years ago and apparently coaxed FIFA toward getting rid of the word intentional. But it did a great deal of damage to the ability of referees to judge whether handballs should be punished or not. To me it seems the problem is that referees can no longer come to the conclusion that a ball touching the hands was "unintentional". Those of us who refereed know how serious the handball offense is and many of us from days of yore relied on a rule of thumb that said make sure players "buy" a handball before punishing, The thought being that the worst thing you could do would be to award a penalty kick when punishment for the offense wasn't deserved. But recent rule adjustments of the past few years or so, everything has become confused. And now that VAR gives us a close look at everything, we can indeed see how some handballs are intentional or unintentional. The VAR allows us to see that. That's created a whole other set of problems. Because now what VAR sees often doesn't seem to be in synch with how the laws of the game read. The laws need to be relaxed with respect to handball to allow for more freer application by the referee and VAR crew that leaves room for a thorough and review. I'm not sure of the exact way to do this, but to me it's clear that the handball rule once again needs readjustment, this time to line up with the additional i'm not sure of the exact way to do this, but to me it's clear that the handball rule once again needs readjustment, this time to line up with the additional tools that Veee are put at our disposal. review looks that VAR puts at our disposal.

  5. Kent James, January 4, 2020 at 2:20 p.m.

    For me, the point should be is a player trying to cheat or are they being penalized for having arms? We should punish the former (to reduce its occurrence) and not penalize the latter.  While the authorities decided in the 1990s that "you can't be inside the mind of a player" based on the obvious fact that we are unable to read minds, they are ignoring the equally obvious fact that most of the time behavior indicates what a player is thinking.  If I have no play on the ball, and I kick the player who is standing there, it is very likley that I intended to kick the player.  If I grasp a players shirt in my hand, it is very likely that I intended to hold the player.  If I move my arm to strike a ball, in a movement different than I would if there were no ball there, it is very likely that I intended to use my arm to strike the ball and gain an advantage.  These should all be fouls.

    The only tricky part of this interpretation is if Iintend to make a clean tackle, but the other player is too quick and gets to the ball first, so instead I tackle the player instead.  If you were relying only on intent, one could argue that since I didn't intend to commit a foul, I should not be punished.  My brother (who is both a lawyer and referee, which can be a lethal combination) squared this circle for me in a way that makes sense; though I did not intend to commit the foul, I intended to make the tackle that (because of my misjudgment) ended up as a foul (so the foul should be called). In other words, I should have known better than to try.

     On the other hand (so to speak), if I am running along and not looking at the ball and it strikes my arm, I should not be penalized.  It should be no different than if it strikes my knee, regardless of where it goes.  The only caveat here is that my arms must be in a natural position (so I can't run at someone making a cross with my hands in the air to block it).  Where this gets tricky is when arms are away from the body for balance (making a slide tackle, e.g.).  Personally, when in doubt it should be no call, but I could see enforcing arms away from the body as always a foul, as long as it's consistent.  

  6. John Polis, January 4, 2020 at 2:20 p.m.

    Correction to my last few sentences above:  I'm not sure of the exact way to do this, but to me it's clear that the handball rule once again needs readjustment, this time to line up with the additional tools that VAR technology has put at our disposal. 

  7. Bob Ashpole, January 4, 2020 at 3:41 p.m.

    It greatly disturbs me that the professional game, i.e., the matches on which gambling occurs, is driving the changes to the LOTG. 

    Think about how low a percentage of matches, even professional matches, have VAR. This is the tail wagging the dog.

  8. Seth Vieux, January 4, 2020 at 11:35 p.m.

    In my mind the answer on handling and every other LOTG is simple: ADVANTAGE + (though greater than) intent. Did the offense give the player committing the offense (and/or his team) an advantage? If so, award the ball to the opponent. If not, PLAY ON!

  9. John Gordon, January 5, 2020 at 2:38 p.m.

    Dear Ahmet,

    The law was fine when it said:
    “Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the hand or arm. The following must be considered:

    1. the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)

    2. the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)

    3. the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an offence”

    The only points that needed to be added were under #3.

    • For a player in movement, the arms should be in a normal position alongside the body.

    • For a player in a static defensive position, the arms should be held back from the side.

    • For a static player guarding their goal or in a static defensive position for blocking the taking of a kick, the players arms should be behind the body or across the chest/groin/face in a self-protective mode.

    • For a player on the ground, the player's arms should be underneath him when trying to get up, next to his body in a static position, or in a flat position if disabled. 

    Now, in the 1980's and 1990's and 2000's and 2010's, I never had a problem with the issue of calling or not calling the use of the hand or arm when I refereed at all levels.  Nor did I see you have trouble with the foul either.
    The big problem is the higher level referees were afraid to call the foul - especially in the box.  I reference a USA game against Germany in the World Cup when a German player stop the ball with his arm from crossing the goal line.  That was deliberate by the position of the arm while in a static position protecting the German goal line.

  10. James Madison, January 6, 2020 at 8:17 p.m.

    The IFAB got into trouble when it concluded that a referee cannot be a mindreader.  Those concerned with criminal prosecurtion have never been troubled by laws that require "intent," such a homicide, i.e., first or second degree murder n most of the United States.  Intent is inferred from conduct, which is the way it was before the IFAB got into fiddling with the language.  Mindreading was not necessary.  Observant and insightful referees could discern with 90+% accuracy the difference between the hand hitting the ball and the ball hitting the hand.  "Deliberately" may hve been substituted, as was the case with other changes when the laws were subject to a major rewrite in the 1990s, because it would translate easier into non-Enlish versions of the Laws.  However, it arguably was worse than intentionally in the sense that it denoed a specific intent which, in the criminal law world characterized murder in the first degree as distinguished from murder in the second degree, i.e., aggravated murder.  What saved the law was the clues that were included to assist lesser referees. As a general matter, they put into print what referees had usually relied on in deciding whether handling had been committed. The latest rewrite is awful.  It uses more language to say no more than what had been said previously with result only of making matters more confusing for inexperiened referees and those who have never played and of making all officials more susceptible to second guessing by VAR.

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