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.)