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.)