Keith Hackett sent me an email a few days ago asking my opinion on a new handball offense law that he was proposing. For those of you who do not know Keith Hackett, he is a former FIFA referee and also the former General Manager of Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), England's equivalent of PRO, the organization in charge of refereeing in England's professional soccer ranks. He was one of the founders of the UEFA Referee Convention and I had the honor of working on the Panel of UEFA Referee Convention with him. I wrote to him that I will write an article in Soccer America and share my opinions there.
I had been involved refereeing since 1978 as a referee, instructor, assessor and administrator. I have not seen this level of confusion and disagreement on any new law as the new handball offense in my 42 years in soccer refereeing. Coupled with the introduction of VAR into our beautiful game at the same time frame, both have caused havoc in our game, to say the least. I am fervent believer that VAR is here to stay with us, as I said in my earlier article. Maybe a few fine tunings might be required to the VAR application as well as some patience and time for standardizing the concept. The confusion about the handling offense, on the other hand, is here to stay with us unless a radical change is implemented.
I have written various articles on the issue of the handball offense and the last of those articles ended with following sentences: “There is a saying in Turkish: “A crazy person threw a rock into a well, a thousand smart women and men couldn’t get it out.” I know who the smart women and men are, but I am not sure about the crazy person …
It is clear there is a lot of confusion about the most recent version of the handball offense.
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said about 18 months ago:
“Second thing, we had at UEFA the top coaches two weeks ago, in Nyon. 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!”
The top elected official of UEFA says this.
Recently, an EPL manager Roy Hodgson said the following regarding the same issue: “I think the rule is a nonsense. I think it's a nonsense when we get one, I think it's a nonsense when we get one against us and I think it's only serving the purpose … for polemics, discussions and dramatic moments.”
One of the greatest referees of all times, George Courtney, also had a say on this issue: “IFAB (International Football Association Board) have got to do some instant thinking and I have no doubt they will be in touch with FIFA to try and remedy what is becoming an embarrassment in the game.”
Also very recently, PGMOL decided to interpret the handball offense in a more lenient way, contrary to the directives of FIFA/IFAB. Naturally, one can argue whether PGMOL has the right to interpret the LOTG contrary to FIFA’s directives, but the issue is there is widespread dissension to the new handball offense rule at least in the English-speaking world that I follow. I also follow the Turkish Super League. A number of soccer pundits in Turkey disagree with some handling decisions that resulted in penalty kicks, saying that although the LOTG says that it is a penalty kick they believe in the spirit of the game those calls should not have been made.
So the dissension is wide and covers nearly all bases from the coaches, ex-players, ex-referees to administrators.
Without going to the history of the LOTG, one should ask why did IFAB/FIFA decide to redefine the only direct free kick foul that had the word “deliberately” in front of it and the only one that did not involve an opponent. Was there a big pressure from the stakeholders of the game that triggered this change?
Looking into their response today, I really doubt it. For example, why didn’t FIFA/IFAB consider curbing the pushing, holding, shoving during a corner kick? Was this change “what soccer expected” as FIFA/IFAB claims? I doubt that also, because if it was what soccer expected then we would not be facing the widespread dissension that we see today. My guess is they wanted to remove the only foul that still had “deliberate” stamped to it. Since referees cannot read minds, they wanted to simplify it. By doing so, they opened a can of worms. It is true that there are two types of contact between the ball and the hand: Accidental and deliberate. Most stakeholders of the game expect the accidental not to be penalized and the deliberate to be penalized, but soccer expects that in some cases accidental contact should also be penalized like scoring a goal by an accidental contact. This has been taken care of by the current LOTG.
“It is an offense if a player: ….
• after the ball has touched their or a teammate’s hand/arm, even if accidental, immediately:
scores in the opponents’ goal
creates a goal-scoring opportunity “
But the rest of the LAW causes the confusion. Especially the wording
“It is an offense if a player ….touches the ball with their hand/arm when:
the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger “
What is “unnaturally bigger”? It is very subjective. Although different yardsticks have been proposed to circumvent this subjectivity, still it is a major problem area. If we go back to our original question of what kind of a new wording could solve at least some of the problems caused by the new handball offense definition. I believe there are two options. The options should be simple and easy to implement.
One is to consider all contacts -- deliberate and accidental -- between the ball and the hand as a foul with a few exceptions.
The other one is to go back to the original version of just penalizing deliberate offenses with a few exceptions.
If the first option is chosen, then the exception should be when the arm is right by the body or on the body. It means at all times defensive players should always keep their arms/hands very close to their bodies in order to avoid being penalized. This will naturally create a posture and balance problem for the defenders since it is very difficult to keep your arms very close to your body while challenging for the ball. It will give an advantage to attacking players who will benefit from this “unnatural’ and “unbalanced’ posture of the defenders. Although this might be feasible to implement in the professional game where the players can be held responsible for the position of their arms/hands, it will be a different story and very difficult to implement in the grassroots game.
The other option will require some yardsticks like the distance between the ball and the arm/hand, whether the player had the chance to move arm/hand away from the ball, the speed of the ball etc. to guide the referee to decide whether the contact between the ball and hand was deliberate. Still, accidental contact between the arm/hand and the ball should be penalized if it causes a player to score a goal or create a goalscoring opportunity.
I prefer the second option and I believe that the referees can judge whether a contact between the ball and the arm/hand is deliberate or not with a good level accuracy as they have done it for decades before, “A crazy person threw a rock into a well…”
Whether it is the first option or the second, IFAB/FIFA should make this law simpler and less arguable. The way it is right now will keep on creating havoc.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer of 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 Georgetown, Texas.