Handball, or not? Even pro refs haven't a clue

The German federation (DFB) this week took the surprising step to call out its own referees on handball decisions. Over the past two Bundesliga weekends, it claimed, there had been four erroneous handball calls in the penalty area. Yes, apparently refs and their VAR colleagues in the now notorious Cellar of Cologne are still messing up critical calls, despite FIFA's endless re-writing of the handball law for "clarification".

Let's run down the calls first.

1. Dortmund vs. Hoffenheim on Sept. 2. The Bundesliga's head of sport, Peter Sippel, says that Dortmund should have been awarded a penalty when Hoffenheim's defender Ozan Kabak blocked a cross from Marius Wolf with his arm. No penalty was given.

2. Werder Bremen vs. Augsburg on Sept. 9. Bremen's Marvin Ducksch hit the ball against the arm of Augsburg's Maximilian Bauer from close range. A penalty was given to Bremen (which they missed), but Sippel says the spot kick should not have been awarded because "the defender is turning away from the ball. The position of the arms, although slightly distant from the body, should be assessed as being part of the body's natural movement. There is no clear recognizable intent [to commit a handball offense], and also the aspect of unnaturally making the body bigger is clearly not the case..." The VAR, he says, should have intervened to cancel out the penalty decision.

Have you got all that? Good, let's crack on.

3. Hertha Berlin vs. Bayer Leverkusen, Sept. 10. Bayer's Odilon Kossounou blocked a shot from Hertha's Jean-Paul Boetius with his arm and prevented a Hertha goal. No penalty was given, and ref Benjamin Brand told media after the game he'd watched the replays and stood by his decision. Not so, says the DFB's Sippel. "When you analyze exactly the video, then [Kossounou's] arm is spread out to the side of his body. The defender is oriented towards the ball, actively in a defensive stance, and the upper body is slightly leaning towards the direction of the ball." It goes into further detail, but I'll spare you. In short, Sippel concludes, the VAR should have intervened.

4. Cologne vs. Union Berlin, Sept. 11. Union's Robin Knoche headed a ball against the arm of Cologne's Luca Kilian. Referee Benjamin Cortus calls a penalty kick. Sippel [short version]: "The defender is still in the process of jumping, with his back to the attacker and without any orientation towards the ball." Another wrong call.

Of course, you can argue about all these calls. The most farcical aspect of the DFB's statement, though, is Sippel's conclusion. "It must be our goal to reach the most unified interpretation possible of the rules, in order that we can make predictable calls for clubs, fans and above all the players." The results of the analyses would be discussed with referees before this coming weekend's games.

So here we have four situations, described in detail, but bringing little or no clarity for referees. And these are referees with the benefit of a colleague who is able to re-watch and analyze each situation in slow motion, several times over. These trained, full-time professionals, four times, failed to reach the correct conclusion, according to the DFB. Yet apparently the problem lies with their interpretation, not with the ridiculous handball rule we are all now saddled with. (Just think what it's now like for us referees at the amateur level every time a player is struck on the arm.)

What can be done? Here's a solution.

1. All handball offenses in the penalty area, bar deliberately preventing a goal, are punished with an indirect free kick. Trips and fouls should continue to be punished with a penalty kick.

2. When a player deliberately prevents a goal through handball (think Luis Suarez in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinal between Ghana and Uruguay), a goal is awarded and the player is red-carded. Was the ball going in? If there's doubt, we have the technology. Here, the VAR could actually play a useful role.

3. The handball law should revert to its previous wording — namely, that "deliberate" handball remains up to the interpretation of the referee. Take "intent" and unnaturally big bodies and all that tortuous baloney out of the wording. As evidenced by the Bundesliga and multiple other examples, it clearly hasn't helped.

There's no perfect answer to the handball conundrum, and there never has been. However, if in doubt, then simplify. Take handball out of the VAR's realm of responsibility (and offside too, unless the margin really is "clear and obvious," and not a toe-nail's length). Stop micro-analyzing our game and punishing players for offenses that shouldn't even exist. It's strangling the joy out of soccer, and that's a crime.

(Ian Plenderleith’s new book "Reffing Hell: Stuck in the Middle of a Game Gone Wrong" is available on Amazon Kindle in the USA, or as a good old-fashioned print book directly from its UK publisher, Halcyon.)

11 comments about "Handball, or not? Even pro refs haven't a clue".
  1. Chris Anderegg, September 15, 2022 at 4:12 p.m.

    Each new set of rules and technologies provide new paths for human error.  

  2. Robert Dreesch, September 15, 2022 at 4:14 p.m.

    Amen to that.  

  3. Ahmet Guvener, September 15, 2022 at 4:41 p.m.

    I agree with you that we should revert back to "deliberate" handball but the Italians running the refererering world does not. 

  4. Doug Broadie, September 15, 2022 at 6:49 p.m.

    Ive been saying this since they introduced the "NEW" rules several years ago.  A great interpetation is hand to ball, penalty; ball to hand, play on.
    I also thought that changing the handball to an indirect kick would make it disappear  from the game as has obstruction.

  5. Santiago 1314, September 16, 2022 at 3:47 p.m.

    It's FOOT-Ball.!!!... Even the Stupid Americans Know, SIMPLE LOGIC.!!!!...You Can't Allow the Hand to change the Course of the Ball.!!!! ...Otherwise it would be HAND-Ball... Or Gaelic Football, or Aussie Rules Football....
    Simple Solution... Any Time, The Hand/Arm, OUTSIDE OF THE BODY FRAME,  changes the Trajectory of the Ball, A FOUL, Should be Whistled.... Then it's either Direct or Indirect
    SUCH a Simple Solution.!!!!

  6. Craig Cummings, September 16, 2022 at 10:36 p.m.

    I agree Ahmet all hand balls   should be  called as deliberate but we are both old timers. It is hard to teach old dog new tricks.

  7. William Frey, September 17, 2022 at 12:15 p.m.

    I suggest an even simpler (for refs/ARs) law. If the part of the arm/hand that touches the ball is not also in direct contact with another non arm/hand part of the body, it is a direct free kick. Pretty clear; no interpretation of deliberate or not, unnaturally bigger or not. This allows for protection of body parts. Yes, I'm encouraging more PKs and goals from attackers beating defenders running with their arms behind their backs. 

  8. Santiago 1314 replied, September 19, 2022 at 9:55 p.m.

    I like your Clarification William, I'm going to add that into mine.

  9. R2 Dad, September 18, 2022 at 11:39 a.m.

    it's easier to make handling calls at the youth level because the ball is always hitting arms. In a GU12 match yesterday there were 2 deliberate hand-blocking-ball calls, yet kids were still complaining about a no call late in the game, a blowout.  "Not all balls that hit arms are handling or hand ball". The "ball-to-hand" vs "hand-to-ball" litmus test seems most logical. Of course, none of yesterday's calls/non calls were inside the 18, taking the heat out of the moment and making the job much easier to sell to the public.

  10. Kent James, September 19, 2022 at 10 a.m.

    The new "clarifications" have certainly made a mess of things.  Players should not be penalized for having arms; they should only be penalized if they use their arms to play the ball.  Many years ago somebody complained that you could never truly know the intent of the player (which is true about 2% of the time; most of the time intent is pretty obvious) so they went to "deliberate", which was a superficial change, but fine.  The standard was "if the arm moves to the ball, it's a foul, if the ball strikes the arm, it's not."  Pretty clear, for most calls. There was a caveat; the player had to have their arm in a natural position (so they could not "make themselves big" as goalkeepers do to maximize the chance of the ball hitting them).   

    There were only a few problems; first,  if the arm was moving (when a player was running, e.g.) and collides with the ball; the ball may move to hit the ball, but the player was moving the arm that way anyway, so they didn't change the movement to strike the ball (so it should not be a foul).  The tougher one was if a player put their arm out for balance (which is a natural position, but could be interpreted as "making themselves big".  This was commen when a defender executes a slide tackle to block a cross and the elevated kick strikes the outstretched arm.  I do not think that should be a foul, but I could live with FIFA coming out and saying "anytime the arm is away from the body and is struck by a foul, it's handling".  Clarifying that was the only clarification that was needed (and I would have preferred "if the arm is outstretched for balance and the ball strikes it, no foul").  

    I think the purpose for the "clarification" was the situation where the ball strikes the arm, but it clearly has a big impact on the game (stopping a goal), many people thought that wasn't fair.  Superficially, they're right.  But if you think about it more deeply, the shooting team in such a case was unlucky (like the ball striking the referee or the corner flag) not victims of cheating.  That's an education problem, not a rules problem.  

    We should go back to the original interpretation, and just clarify the situation (arms away from the side for balance) I described.  

  11. R2 Dad replied, September 19, 2022 at 5:58 p.m.

    Agree. IFAB keeps adding "clarifications" instead of simplifying the rules. 

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