Commentary

IFAB wastes another year on handball and offside

Ever since the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), there have been two major areas of heated discussion, controversy and upset in soccer -- handball and offside. A technology that was supposed to introduce fairness and accuracy into the game has prompted an unwelcome surfeit of micro-refereeing, with VARs peering at their screens for minutes on end to cancel out what seem to be perfectly legitimate goals, or to impose impossibly harsh penalty calls.

FIFA's rule-making body, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), last week held its annual meeting to discuss and change the rules of the game. Unfortunately, IFAB is even more conservative, outdated and dysfunctional than the British Royal Family, and apparently not much brighter. So, for lovers of soccer, the meeting did not go well. There was nothing to change the offside rule that's causing fans the world over to smash their TV screens. We'll look at that further down. As for handball, yet another new and unwieldy wording to the rule -- applicable from this summer -- has further fogged the definition and left referees weeping on to their whistles.

First, IFAB confirmed that, to quote its official statement, "not every touch of a player’s hand/arm with the ball is an offense." OK, we know that already, even if those spectators, players and coaches instantly screaming Handball! at every single contact of ball to arm or hand do not. Then follows what the IFAB claims is a "clarification":

"In terms of the criterion of the hand/arm making a player’s body 'unnaturally bigger,' it was confirmed that referees should continue to use their judgment in determining the validity of the hand/arm’s position in relation to the player’s movement in that specific situation."

I think, in other words, this means that the position of defenders' arms will continue to be a major problem area for referees, because we now have to "determine the validity" of an arm's position “in that specific situation." I have no idea, though, how we will do that. Perhaps the arm will need an official pass or a stamp to vouch for its presence attached to a player's body. Those arms without the necessary paperwork will be removed by physicians placed behind each goal. The IFAB then grants us two further clauses.

"Following this [alleged] clarification," IFAB continues, "it is a handball offense if a player:

• "deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, for example moving the hand/arm towards the ball" [fine - that was the old handball rule everyone could work with. Even if it was imperfect, at least it was written in plain English.]

• "touches the ball with their hand/arm when it has made their body unnaturally bigger. A player is considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger when the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation. By having their hand/arm in such a position, the player takes a risk of their hand/arm being hit by the ball and being penalized."

I've read that sentence about "the player's body movement for that specific situation" over and over again and I'm still torn between laughter and tears. Is IFAB saying that we should continue to penalize defenders for having the temerity to balance themselves while trying to defend? Or are they saying the opposite? That referees now have free rein to judge that those horrible calls when a ball smacks a defender's unavoidably outstretched arm at close range should no longer be punished with a spot kick? Still, even if they take that line, what's to rule out a call from the VAR booth pressurizing them to 'take another look'? There was one sensible, easily understandable rule change in all this, presumably by chance: "Accidental handball that leads to a teammate scoring a goal or having a goalscoring opportunity will no longer be considered an offense." Well done.

So, the handball rule is still a mess, and every call will continue to be scrutinized, dissected and -- from the benches -- howled about. What about offside?

There had been hopes that the IFAB would adopt Arsene Wenger's sane proposal to change the offside rule so that any part of a player's body in an onside position when the ball is played would mean the player is adjudged to be still onside. Obviously, the video technology we now have would make this easy to ascertain. At the same time, there would be no more goals canceled by computer, whereby players' toes, calf muscles or shoulder blades infringe upon the Laws of the Game by apparently seeking to gain an advantage over their opponents.

IFAB's not ready for such a change, though, and only made some vague noises about trialing the suggestion in the lower Chinese leagues. So those calls that cause 99% of all right-thinking people to curse the day they ever started following this sport will continue for at least another year, and likely several more. Simply because IFAB and its parent body Fifa have no feel for soccer, and what the game wants and urgently needs.

Germany's refereeing boss Lutz Michael Fröhlich claimed last week that VAR, "seen statistically, prevents 98% of clear mistakes." What he doesn't understand is that most people don't want to see soccer "statistically." If that toe or calf muscle was offside, we'd rather not know. We want the "mistake," because it's not really a mistake at all. The mistake is thinking that our desired goal should be the elimination of all human error. Now we face another year where too many fine goals will be canceled out, and too many moments of celebration retrospectively ruined.

If you have any queries or suggestions about the game's rules, you can write to the IFAB at the following email address: lawenquiries@theifab.com


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Following last week's column about workers' conditions in next year's World Cup host country, Qatar, the Norwegian club Rosenborg Trondheim has called on Norway to boycott the tournament due to the shockingly high mortality rates of low-paid migrant workers in Qatar's construction industry. Around four-fifths of the club's members voted at its virtual AGM to call on the Norwegian national team not to take part in the tournament. Other Norwegian clubs have joined the call, which will be debated at a Norwegian federation convention on March 14.
16 comments about "IFAB wastes another year on handball and offside".
  1. R2 Dad, March 8, 2021 at 11:55 p.m.

    I believe Wenger's proposal is a non-starter as it fundamentally changes the way Offside has been implemented for the past 20+ years. It's only in the past 3 years have the LOTG become so contentious, when IFAB/ FIFA making Fair, Clear & Obvious so confusing to spectators--the opposite of what VAR was intended to do.
    My suggestion for the professional game, which does not appear to be popular based on everything I have read so far, would create a buffer of 6 inches or so where today a wafer-thin demarcation exists between On and Offside. The human eye cannot see these calls the EPL VAR system is calling, so why insist millimeters are deciding the game? As configured now, VAR has sucked the life out of the game with little to show for it.

  2. Peter Bechtold replied, March 9, 2021 at 11 a.m.

    @R2Dad. I feel your pain. My main suggestion is to compare the application of VAR in UK__very poor--with the televised matches from Serie A in Italy and Bundesliga in Germany. The latter, plus the recent WC in Russia, have shown much better results than in the EPL The difference comes from the instructions by the domestic FA to their refereeing crews, including VARs.
    British refereeing used to be the gold standard for most of the 20th century, but nowadays it has fallen very low for those of us who watch a dozen or more games per week from overseas.

  3. Santiago 1314 replied, March 10, 2021 at 11:18 a.m.

    My Suggestion; Everything IS a Hand Ball, from the Shoulder Joint Down... Then Determine INTENTIONAL(Direct Kick) or UN-INTENTIONAL(Indirect Kick).... What makes FOOTball SO Unique IS; NO HANDS ALLOWED.!!!... To try and Distinguish between "Natural" and "Un-Natural" HAND Ball makes the Sport Look Silly.... No Hands Allowed PERIOD.!!!...With this "NEW" "Ruling" by IFAB...We are now BACK to the Judgment of the Ref...Unnatural=Intentional =Direct Kick... "Natural"=Un-Intentional= NOTHING (AS IT STANDS TODAY )..I say let's see more Indirect FKs in the Area... Those are entertaining and Fun for the Fans and Players.!!!

  4. Mike Lynch, March 9, 2021 at 10:45 a.m.

    I concur with Wenger's approach. It makes offsides easy to call (and agreeable even if against you) and adds advantage to the attackers. Perfect. 

  5. George Miller replied, March 10, 2021 at 7:39 a.m.

    Agree Mike. Wegners description clearly identifies a real advantage and that's what offside has always been about. A calf muscle or toe is not an advantage. It might be technically offside position but it is not our side with the Wegner rule.

  6. John Soares, March 9, 2021 at 3:27 p.m.

    The offside issues are not going away.
    It will not matter if we keep the current rules, make it 6 inches or full body. The arguments will continue. A split second on the camera's shot is enough to question many calls.
    For those that love VAR problem was solved.
    Not working for most of us.
    Maybe, VAR should be limited to questionable goals and penalties.
    Let the ARs handle the offside. They were doing a pretty good job.

  7. Thomas Brannan, March 9, 2021 at 10:02 p.m.

    Help me with this.  What is "unnaturally bigger".  If your arm is over your head is that "unnatural"? Human evolution has allowed that to happen.  There is the situation where a defender is running and stops to cut back and the arm is out.  Is that "unnatural".  But if in that same situation it keeps the ball from going to an attacker in an obvious goal scoring position, maybe that is a foul.  The word "unnatural" doesn't seem to recognize reality.
    There still would be all kinds of exceptions but do away with "unnaturally bigger" and use the term "in the anatomical position" with the palm facing backward.

  8. James Madison, March 9, 2021 at 11:02 p.m.

    In re offside, I think we should either return to the days when AR's based their judgment on where a player's body, i.e., trunk was or make it depend on where a body part is that can play the ball.

    As for Qatar, I will repeat any time and anywhere I can that US Soccer should make it clear that, if we qualify, we will not play in Qatar.  If necessary, the US Government should impose sanctions precluding participation.

  9. Santiago 1314 replied, March 10, 2021 at 2:55 p.m.

    Jesse Owens vs Hitler... if USA had Boycotted '36 Olympics... Jesse Owens would be a Nobody.!!! ... No Boycotts of Sports events.!!!

  10. Kent James, March 10, 2021 at 1:30 a.m.

    First, I think we're making too much of the "unnatural" exception.  This is essentially to keep defenders from putting their arms out or up to try to put them in the way of the flight of the ball without having to "move them to the ball."  Maybe the referees should get a directive to only call this when it is obvious what the defender is doing (so benefit of the doubt goes to the defender, they're allowed to have arms that sometimes are out for balance).  You could take it out to simplify the rule, but then you KNOW there will be defenders who try to block crosses by putting their hands over their heads.  On second thought, maybe that should be allowed (as long as they don't move them to the ball); it would simplify things.


    While Wenger's solution is interesting, I think it has one clear problem; you still have the issue of someone's fingernail being able to keep them onside.  The other issue is that it would change the game, because allowing a player to be a foot or more behind the defender and still be onside gives them a significant advantage over the current rule (but that may be a good thing).


    I think a quicker alternative is to make the demarcation line (created by the computer) wider (maybe equivalent to 3"?).  To be called offiside, if the line is even with the last defender, and part of the attacker is under the line but not past it, they're considered onside. If any part of them sticks out past the line, they're offside.  If you wanted to make it even more obvious, you could make the line wider (6"?).  That way the room for error is larger and anyone who has part of their body on the other side of the thicker line is CLEARLY offside.  No more toenails pulling back a goal, but still allows consistency.

  11. beautiful game replied, March 10, 2021 at 9:50 a.m.

    Tinkering with inches, millimeters, etc. is no solution.

  12. Santiago 1314 replied, March 21, 2021 at 9:58 a.m.

    If you watch the "Highlights",(in the SA article) Of The Deandre Yedlin Goal/Red Card Galatasary game; there is a Freeze Frame of an "Offside" situation... These Lines that the VAR Superimpose on the Screen are accurate to the millimeter... I don't see any need to Tinker with the Current Interpretation (what was interesting Was; that the Offenders Line was Drawn according to the position of his "Arm Pit", NOT his Outstretched Arm)

  13. Bob Ashpole, March 10, 2021 at 8:32 a.m.

    In my view the sport's success depends on a referee's judgment and the other participant's respect, not rule lawyers or the IFB.  

    I expect officials to be impartial, fair and consistent. I don't expect them to achieve perfection. 

    Given my views, I see sports betting and cheating as the sport's biggest challenges. I wish for simpler, less cynical times when amateur athletics was the pinnacle of participatory sports.

    We have tension because the sport is controlled by FIFA, and FIFA runs on greed. Just look at how much the sport has changed to benefit owners and TV broadcasts.

  14. Fajkus Rules, March 10, 2021 at 12:06 p.m.

    Wenger's approach is typical for someone who hasn't been on the sideline making offside calls.  ARs will have a much tougher time determining if part of the offside attacker is still "behind" the "offside line".  Up unil know, ARs looked for a part of the attacker's body to be breaking the plane of the back of the 2nd to last defender. VAR should back off and only get involved where ARs clearly missed an offside call badly, not a finger or toe over the hypothetical "last defender" line. 

  15. Beau Dure, March 10, 2021 at 7:24 p.m.

    The problem (well, part of the problem) with using VAR on offside calls is that a VAR check can't really tell you the precise instant is ball is played forward. 

    VAR stops the action and draws lines on one frame of the replay. But which frame is it? The frame in which a foot first touches the ball? A frame or two later, when the foot and ball are fully engaged? Or when the ball leaves the foot? 


    The AR can often hear the "plunk" of the ball being played. VAR doesn't hear that. 


    The standard for other reviews in soccer and other sports is "clear and obvious." The farcical lines drawn on a particular frame do not present "clear and obvious" evidence. 


    If VAR shows the AR completely botched a call, fine. Otherwise, let it be. 

  16. Kent James replied, March 11, 2021 at 10:57 a.m.

    I agree that VAR should only overturn a clear and obvious error.  Putting the computer-drawn line on the 2nd to last defender, and saying for the offensive player to be called offside part of their body must show on the other side of the line (assuming the line can be drawn to a consistent width, the real life equivalent of 3"?) would eliminate the "he was off by a toenail".  It would essentially create a limit on the degree of accuracy, and only overturn goals that exceeded that limit.  

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