Pendulum, the delicate matter of soccer's 'handball' offense

When a pendulum swings, it goes back and forth for a while and eventually becomes motionless. Each time it swings the arc it covers is less than the previous one. From a physics perspective, when a pendulum is displaced sideways from its resting, equilibrium position, it is subject to a restoring force due to gravity that will accelerate it back toward the equilibrium position. Eventually it returns to its equilibrium position. 

There are many social events in life that mimics the motions of a pendulum. If you move the pendulum to one direction, it will move in the opposite direction soon until it settles in the equilibrium position and that position might not be a physical equilibrium one but rather either to the right or left of the physical equilibrium.  

The handball law has been a special interest for me over the decades that I was involved with soccer officiating. “Hacking” and “Playing with hand” were the main reasons “rugby” and “football” took different routes in the late 19th century.  The “handball” offense has a few idiosyncrasies that it does not share with the other direct free kick offenses.  First of all, handball is the most subjective decision made by referees on the field. It is the only offense that refers to being deliberate and it is the only direct free kick offense that is defined in detail in the Laws of the Game.

That is why for years nobody touched the pendulum that was in the equilibrium position with regard to handling in soccer. In the last few years, IFAB decided to swing the pendulum for reasons that are beyond my comprehension. IFAB decided to define handling with both subjective (natural position of the hand/arm) and objective (the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level) criteria. First, the changes were made via instructions to the referees and eventually the criteria were embedded in the LOTG. Basically, it took away to some extent the interpretation/judgment of the refereeing crew. For example, the referee had to call a direct free kick or a penalty kick if the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level (unless the player deliberately plays the ball which then touches their hand/arm). This took away all other considerations like the proximity of the ball and the player when the ball is kicked or headed or whether the hand above the shoulder might be the continuation of the natural movement of the player. 

What is interesting is that there is not a single line of clarification for tripping or charging offenses in the LOTG. Tripping is the most frequently called foul in the game. 

As a result of the application of the VAR protocol in competitive games, the number of penalty kicks awarded for handling increased. There is considerable confusion among all stakeholders of soccer about what constitutes a handling offense and whether the current Law represents the true spirit of the Game. Needless to say the referees were also confused.

Even the UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin voiced his concern about the new handball law and asked FIFA/IFAB in October 2020 for a change in the LOTG:  “The attempt to strictly define the cases where handling the ball is an offence has resulted in many unfair decisions which have been met with growing frustration and discomfort by the football community. There are also plenty of situations where hands/arms exposed outside the profile of the body in moves which are understood to be natural, unintentional and unavoidable have been punished with penalty kicks.” 

If even the oresident of UEFA is unhappy with the new Law for handling, something had to be done.

In the letter to FIFA/IFAB, “The spirit of the game must be preserved at all times,” Ceferin said. “I believe that going back to the previous wording, perhaps reviewed and integrated by a provision which does not allow goals to be scored with a hand/arm, is an option to be taken into account.”

I believe IFAB took on UEFA’s recommendation and during its 135th AGM it announced that there will be some clarification to the LOTG regarding the handball offense. 

The new LOTG 2021-22 is not yet published. So we have to rely on what IFAB has on its website:

“As the interpretation of handball incidents has not always been consistent due to incorrect applications of the Law, the members confirmed that not every touch of a player’s hand/arm with the ball is an offence. 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.

Following this clarification, it is a handball offence if a player:

  • deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, for example moving the hand/arm towards the ball;
  • 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 penalised; or
  • scores in the opponents’ goal:
    • directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental, including by the goalkeeper; or
    • immediately after the ball has touched their hand/arm, even if accidental.

Accidental handball that leads to a team-mate scoring a goal or having a goal-scoring opportunity will no longer be considered an offence.”

What is interesting in the above is not the goal scored by an accidental handball which definitely needed a change but rather this sentence: “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.” 

It was not clear from the short text whether “if the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level” was removed from the LOTG and hence removing an automatic decision for the referees. One has to listen to the post AGM press conference and what Pierluigi Collina – the chairman of the FIFA Referee Committee - had to say about the matter. Yes, the part about penalizing for a hand/arm and ball contact above the shoulder level has been removed from the LOTG. So in essence the pendulum swung in the other direction. Now the LOTG gives more freedom to the referees in judging what a natural and unnatural position of the hand is while making the body bigger. Even though Collina was very political and said, “In essence it (LOTG) did not change”,  I believe he was trying to save face for IFAB. This year’s clarification or change – if you read between lines - is clearly a major change which I personally welcome and will also satisfy the boss of UEFA.

” … 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.” has a lot to say for the handball law.

I hope that IFAB learned from this experience. We will see when and where the pendulum will be in equilibrium for handling.

Ahmet Guvener ( 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, TX.

2 comments about "Pendulum, the delicate matter of soccer's 'handball' offense".
  1. R2 Dad, March 16, 2021 at 5:55 p.m.

    Collina, never one to play favorites on the pitch, has now had to cover for the IFAB confusion. Why did FIFA have to hand over the LOTG rule change authority to those people? The granularity of the current interpretation, combined with unnecessary VAR intrusion, has been downhill since the last World Cup in Russia. 

  2. Santiago 1314, March 20, 2021 at 8:43 p.m.

    I Re-Post:

    1. 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.!!!

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