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 Unfortunately, IFAB is even more conservative, outdated and dysfunctional than the British Royal Family, and apparently not much brighter.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: email@example.com