Digging ourselves into a handball hole. But there's a very simple way out.

Let's talk about handball. Yet again. Last night I went to my monthly referees' educational briefing, and that was the meeting's theme. Yet again. Because the more that FIFA fiddles with the rules, and the more we try to interpret the mess they've made, the longer the handball discussions will continue.

Our instructor intended to show us six handball scenes from recent pro games. In the end, we only had time for four. You'll be able to guess why. We could not reach agreement on any of the four clips that he showed us.

The first scene alone, from a Bundesliga game between Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg earlier this year, took up half an hour. You can always be sure that if you have a room full of 50 referees, you will be sure to hear 50 different opinions. It's both the virtue and the curse of soccer's rulebook.

You can see the scene here. Werder's Danish midfielder Jens Stage tries to play the ball back to a teammate and it hits the outstretched arm of Wolfsburg's Yannick Gerhardt from very close range. The majority of us said it was not a penalty — Gerhardt had no time to move out of the ball's path, therefore it could not have been intentional. According to the German federation (DFB), however, the decision to award the penalty — given after a Video Assistant Referee [VAR] intervention — was correct. It decreed in a lengthy written confirmation that that there had been a slight movement of Gerhardt's hand toward the ball. Good for them and their eagle-sharp eyesight. I couldn't see it myself, despite several replays from different angles.

Why are you showing us these scenes, we asked the instructor? When we're out on the field this coming weekend, we will have no slow-motion VAR replays to consult. We have to make an instinctive decision on the spur of the moment. In the amateur and youth game, these multiple camera angles in the pro game only serve to unleash appeals from players and spectators every single time the ball hits any part of the upper body.

It was telling that referee Daniel Siebert initially allowed play to continue in the Bremen-Wolfsburg game. Kicker magazine noted that "the VAR intervention was already hardly justifiable, but to award the penalty when the ball came from such a short distance was at the least a very harsh decision." Quite. But our instructor wanted us to know that, according to the DFB "experts" (to use his word), the decision was correct.

They may be experts, a fog-horned objector called from the audience (OK, it was me), but they're still only interpreting the rule. You can not tell me that this was 100 percent a nailed-on penalty just because a panel of "experts" has studied it several dozen times and reached their own conclusion. If I had this situation next Sunday, I would not blow for a penalty, I went on. I would never, ever call this a penalty. There may be a convoluted wording in the rules about handball, but in the rulebook it also tells you to referee "in the spirit of the game." I would not deem it fair to punish this clearly unintentional handball with a penalty.

Then you'd be wrong, countered the instructor. I don't care, I replied. These rules are irrelevant to the games I referee. OK Ian, he said (possibly suppressing an urge to show me a red card), before we take a vote in the room, you can tell us your opinion on the next handball scenario.

There was a similar scene from a second Bundesliga game, Bremen vs. Augsburg. This time it was Augsburg defender Max Bauer's turn to be struck by the ball from very close range. "Again, no intent, no penalty," I said. More than half of my fellow referees in the room disagreed, but this time it turned out that I was "correct" — according to the DFB. The defender had been turning his body when the ball was played, and therefore had not intentionally handled the ball. To me, there was no difference from the first scene.

Third and fourth examples of apparent handballs in the penalty area brought much further debate, but neither clarity nor consensus. By coincidence, another board of soccer specialists this week also had their say. European soccer governing body UEFA's new 20-man "Expert" Panel (no women, despite the rules also applying to the women's game last time I looked), including Jürgen Klinsmann, Zinedine Zidane and Gareth Southgate, suggested that there should be no handball called when the ball is deflected to the hand from a player's own body. Also, there should not necessarily be a yellow card against a player whose hand deflects a shot on goal, nor always a red card for stopping a certain goal, if the handball is not deemed intentional. And on and on. More modifications, and even more room for discussions and interpretations.

"There's no easy answer," our instructor told a room now simmering with rebellion. "If you say that every contact between hand and ball is an offense, then you'll have players deliberately aiming for an opponent's hand." But no one's suggesting that.

"A player (the goalkeeper, within his own penalty area, excepted) shall not intentionally handle the ball," was the simple rule one hundred years ago. Take out the parentheses and you're left with eight straightforward words. It's not perfect, of course, but I still use it as my guideline today, regardless of the tosh in Law 12 about defenders making themselves "unnaturally" bigger.

That may not make me the world's most rule-conscious referee, but it makes my games much simpler, more fluid, and — to my mind at least — much fairer overall. "No intent!" I cry in response to the majority of loud handball appeals, in the area or outside of it. The game continues. And eventually even the moaners get over it and play on.

"There can be millions riding on these decisions," our instructor pointed out in mitigation of micro-refereeing. But that doesn't make the decisions any more correct. In any case, the millions at stake are not my concern. That's not my game.

(Ian Plenderleith's 'Reffing Hell: Stuck in the Middle of a Game Gone Wrong' is available here as an e-book. You can also order a material copy direct from England. You'll have to pay international postage on top, but imagine how good you'll feel about supporting the author and a small, independent publisher.)

20 comments about "Digging ourselves into a handball hole. But there's a very simple way out.".
  1. R2 Dad, April 28, 2023 at 3:44 a.m.

    Odd comment about Intent, as the LOTG wrote Intent out of the laws over 20 years ago, didn't they Ian? Still, "hand to ball, or ball to hand" covers most amateur situations before IFAB started down this path to chaos.

  2. Ian Plenderleith, April 28, 2023 at 8:11 a.m.

    It's still in there, as part of the long-winded para on handball:


    "It is an offence if a player:
    • deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, for example moving the hand/arm towards the ball"

  3. frank schoon, April 28, 2023 at 8:47 a.m.

    Ian, quote,"I would not deem it fair to punish a clearly unintentional handball with a penalty kick."  

    And I'm saying, what Fool would 'intentionally' handle a ball in the penalty area in the first place, knowing what will happen.  Handling a ball on purpose  is so minute and so stupid and so rare, leaving the great , great majority of hands balls as unintentional, then why call the penalty in the first place, if it is unintentional....


  4. R2 Dad replied, April 28, 2023 at 7:06 p.m.

    See: El Bitey, Luis Suarez, handball vs Ghana.

  5. humble 1 replied, May 1, 2023 at 11:04 a.m.

    Correct R2 - and remember also - after the 'save' - pen was missed - Uruguay went through to Frank's brutal Holland who where allowed to butcher Uruguay.  That is real - total football - boots and all.  Anyway, that is why you do it.  Suarez, like it or not, showed his quick wit, same wit that lead him to championships across the globe, including currently at Gremio in Brazil.  Thanks for the reminder!  

  6. Santiago 1314, April 28, 2023 at 9:53 p.m.

    Ian, have you ever Run ",My Recommendation" by your Ref Group ???
    This is FOOTball ... NOT HANDBALL.!!!

    Therefore ANY TIME THE BALL has Contact with "The HAND"(Arm as your Diagram shows);  WHEN THE "Hand" IS NOT IN CONTACT WITH THE BODY: A FOUL MUST BE WHISTLED.

    Then the Referee is to Determine if it was INTENTIONAL or UNINTENTIONAL.!!!
    INTENTIONAL Awards a DIRECT FREE-KICK to The Opponent.
    UNINTENTIONAL Awards an INDIRECT Free-Kick to the Opponent.
    FOOTball, FOOTball, FOOTball.... 
    It is SOOooo Confusing and Frustrating and Makes a MOCKERY of FOOTball to the "Rest" of the World that We FOOTball People can't even figure out what a "Handball" IS or IS NOT, when it is SOOooo Obvious to even the Casual ESPN Viewer that YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO USE YOUR HANDS IN FOOTball.!!!

  7. Bob Ashpole, April 29, 2023 at 12:22 a.m.

    The problem here is the IFAB who feel that they have to micro-manage officials. On something like handling, the IFAB should just keep the verbage simple and let the officials exercise common sense. So the game and the rules are not a problem. The verbosity of the IFAB, adding complexity to a simple concept, is the problem.

    This is a major weakness of our times. Those in charge don't delegate because they think they are the smartest people around. Or else they know they aren't, but want to fake it.

  8. Santiago 1314 replied, April 29, 2023 at 3:27 p.m.

    Bob, the "Grey Area" is the Problem... 
    Leaving it up to Refs, with Differing "Opinions" on Calling the Handball or Not is the Problem.
    Call them ALL.!!! Then give the Ref, the Discresion of Intentional(Direct Kick) or Not-Intentional(Indirect)
    If it is in the Penalty Area, it is going to be VARed anyway.

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, April 30, 2023 at 5:06 a.m.

    As long as the ref is consistent on the interpretation I don't care about gray areas. Besides, I don't think there is a gray area. It is a judgment call, but so is all foul recognition. If the ref is consistent, then in that match there is no gray area.

  10. humble 1 replied, May 1, 2023 at 11:18 a.m.

    don't forget - the old adage - that at times seems like it applys to referees more than almost any other profession - especially in England - 'no sense as uncommon as common sense'.  Failing to manage the rules - not to open up another can of worms - but the NBA paid dearly for this - with flopping.  I and many others stopped watching.  There was more - but this was factor.  Gamblers use referees 'interpretations' to control outcomes.  Look at Houston Rockets 2005 - ref sent to prison - for me - this was part of cover-up.  I watched the game.  I knew it was  fixed.  There were many others.  Common sense.  I have seen fixed games soccer - many - nothing happens.  I watch pro cycling for years - fixed - Lance Armstrong and many other cheats.  Different sort - 'rules' did not apply.  See this cancer more and more in soccer - today the handball situation - is the front in the war - it is the bad guys - fixers - trying to digest VAR.  They have the upper hand - it is clear.  Entertainment - that's what it is. If they are not careful - they go beyond NBA at it's worse - to WWE.  Good luck!

  11. John Polis, May 1, 2023 at 12:24 p.m.

    You make a lot of good points. They started making handball more complicated many years ago and they haven't stopped. I tend to agree with you about intentional/unintentional and I think the change in the rule that led to penalizing for "making oneself unnaturally bigger" was an absurd addition. What defender jumping high for a head doesn't life his arms up for momentum and in some cases, based on the person's buiild and jumping style, extend arms out slightly? Unnaturally bigger, indeed. It's made the rule so vague that almost every situation can be interpreted a dozen ways. Referee must judge whether it's intentionally handling or not. By the way, way to go not being afraid to speak up in a referee's meeting. From the sounds of it, the tone and tenor of referee's meetings doesn't seem to have changed in the many years since I've been to one. So many dogmatic a-holes who get off on proving their contemporaries wrong. Referee instructors and some assignors are their own worst enemies when it comes to encouraging referees and helping them grow.

  12. Kent James, May 1, 2023 at 2:29 p.m.

    What is the point of the handling infraction?  To keep people from using their hands.  It was not to punish people for having arms.  Players should be allowed to play the game in the spirit of the game (without using their arms to direct the ball), so unless they move their hand to the ball, no foul.  If they put their arms in an unnatural position (which could be interpreted as deliberately moving their arms to play the ball) and the ball strikes them, it could be called.  But this would be rare (a player holding their arms out while running towards an opponent with the ball). There are two gray areas, when players jump to head or when they leave their feet to execute a slide tackle; in both cases players can put their arms out for balance, and the ball may strike them.  But the benefit of the doubt should go to the player (presumption of innocence).  FIFA has made this much harder than it needs to be.

    Some players and fans may object to players not being called for handling when the ball strikes their arm and the rebound benefits them (stopping a goal, e.g.), but most will admit that if it happened against them, they wouldn't want that call either. 

  13. Santiago 1314 replied, May 2, 2023 at 5:48 p.m.

    So, then we are Back to this is "Rare" and this is Natural and this is Un-Natural, and we get Different Refs calling it Differently from Game to Game, even in the Same Game sometimes...

    Just CALL THEM ALL... It's FOOT-Ball... 

    Then decide if it is Intentional(Direct) or Unintentional(In-Direct),... using VAR, if Necessary.
    Consitency would then be on ALL Calls.

  14. Kent James replied, May 3, 2023 at 2:38 p.m.

    Santiago, I just don't think a ball inadvertently striking someone's arm should be a PK.  The standard of moving the arm to the ball is pretty clear (and goes with the intent of the rule).  

  15. Santiago 1314 replied, May 3, 2023 at 10:41 p.m.

    I tend to Agree with you on the "Fairness" of NOT calling a Foul, if the Ball Strikes the Extended Arm, versus the Army Striking the Ball ... But, I think the Problem has Outgrown the Earlier Interpretation of the Law... It's just to Muddled, and Inconsistent... That is why I Advocate for "Call them All" and let the VAR sort it Out.

  16. James Madison, May 1, 2023 at 9:07 p.m.

    Bravo, Ian!  Let's go back to basics!

  17. John Soares, May 2, 2023 at 4:39 a.m.

    It would seem that most refs can or are expected to read minds.... guess I missed that class.
    If intention is to be considered, won't it apply to every foul?
    As if we don't have enough complaints and arguing by players on most calls.
    A foul in the penalty box is still a foul.
    Yes a penalty can be harsh, but.... them is the rules.

  18. R2 Dad replied, May 2, 2023 at 1:13 p.m.

    "Intent" was largely written out of the LOTG in the late 90's, as I recall, as a referee cannot really determine intent; in the 2000's we were trained to call what you see and avoid calling fouls where you (or the AR) did not see the infraction. I was taught that it was smarter to explain after the fact to their captain or the players involved, "sorry, if there was a foul there I didn't see it and my AR didn't flag for it so we let play continue". For the most part, it doesn't matter what one intends to do--that trailing leg still took out the opponent, whether they meant to or not, etc.

  19. John Soares, May 2, 2023 at 4:39 a.m.

    It would seem that most refs can or are expected to read minds.... guess I missed that class.
    If intention is to be considered, won't it apply to every foul?
    As if we don't have enough complaints and arguing by players on most calls.
    A foul in the penalty box is still a foul.
    Yes a penalty can be harsh, but.... them is the rules.

  20. Doug Broadie, May 3, 2023 at 7:21 p.m.

    I have said for a long time that we should go back to the intentional "HANDLING" of the ball as no matter what, it comes down to referee's interpetation anyway.

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