The handball rule has been a subject of debate and controversy for decades. Things, however, started going out of proportions since the Rulebook started becoming more and more concrete about the incidents that are governed by the high-risk entropy and randomness of this beautiful game we love.
The International Football Association Board (IFAB) has been trying to standardise what constitutes a definite handball foul for a while now, but in attempting to do so, it has gone beyond the point of ridicule.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED
As per the amended guidelines (which Premier League decided to implement a year later), handball offenses became more and more frequent in the beginning weeks of the League. In an attempt to remove the aspect of subjectivity, IFAB’s amendment rendered penalties being awarded willy-nilly. Things started to appear out of hand when the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) started calling plays back to award penalties for handballs no one even appealed for.
After Matchweek 1, veteran manager Roy Hodgson indicated the rule will become a problem soon. Next week, his team benefitted from a handball decision that went their way as they thrashed Man United 1-3 at Old Trafford. It didn’t take long, though, as life came back at them hard when a handball decision went against them as they lost 1-2 to Everton at home.
After the Palace defeat, Roy said: “It’s completely unacceptable. It’s destroying my enjoyment of the game of football. I can’t understand how everyone in the game – the Premier League, referees, managers, and coaches – have allowed this rule to come into operation. I don’t want to profit from it or lose from it.”
A week before, Southampton were awarded a penalty during their eventual 5-2 defeat to Spurs at home when the ball deflected off Harry Winks’ foot and hit Matt Doherty on the arm. There was little call for a penalty, but VAR checked, and the Saints got a penalty anyway. Next week, things got even more preposterous when Spurs defender Eric Dier attempted to head off the ball in the dying embers of the game against Newcastle, only for the ball hit his hand, which was behind his head – a situation he had no control over. Nevertheless, a penalty was awarded, and the Magpies went away with a point. Such was the outcry over the decision, that even Steve Bruce, manager of Newcastle – the team benefitted from the decision – could not hide away his contempt.
“I can understand why Spurs will go berserk and Roy Hodgson reacted like he did (referring to Roy’s reaction after Everton defeat),” Bruce said. “It is a total nonsense; we should be jumping through hoops but I would be devastated if that was us. Maybe Roy is right, maybe we all need to get together. The decisions are ruining the spectacle. We have to get together as managers and say this must stop.
“We should all query these new rules and who makes them and also the way we’re implementing them. I thought VAR was going to come in for clear and obvious errors. Now it’s ludicrous and it ruins the spectacle of the Premier League. If we’re not careful all we’re going to be talking about is VAR decisions.
“The handball rule has been in place for over 100 years. Dier wasn’t even looking at the ball when he jumped for it. I know it will bite me eventually and that’s wrong. All we’re doing is not talking about the game but about VAR incidents.”
THE TEMPORARY SOLUTION
After Matchweek 3, 20 penalties had been awarded, taking the projected number of penalties for the entire season to 292; there were only 92 last season.
Unsurprisingly, many players and fans’ first target of anger were the on-pitch referees awarding the penalties. But soon after, everyone joined the coaches and agreed that the referees were just trying to adhere to the letter of the law they’re installed to maintain. Everyone from players, coaches, fans and even the officials, agree that the rule is ridiculous and needs quick, sweeping changes. The thing is, major rule changes don’t happen mid-season, so any major revamp will not happen before 2021-22.
However, that doesn’t mean nothing can be done. Professional Game Match Officials Board (PGMOL), who oversees the enforcement of IFAB’s rules in England, is ready to approach IFAB to discuss a potential rule change.
In the meantime, PGMOL has advised its referees to take a ‘more subjective’ approach with the handballs Matchweek 4 onwards. The refs are now authorised to account for player proximity to the ball when it hits them and whether a player’s arm is in an “unnatural” position. This will not massively change the interpretation of the law for this season and we will still be seeing a lot of controversial handballs, as is usual, but it will give some power back to the on-pitch officials to atleast make calls on hapless incidents no one would dispute over.
Football is a high entropy game played by erroneous beings. Any attempts on making the game binary in its entirety would eventually come to fail as the game, like life, is usually gray and not black or white. While the introduction of technologies like goal-line technology (GLT) and VAR have helped in clarifying the clear-cut issues like over-the-line and offside disputes, matters like handballs will always have a level of subjectivity to them, which will have to be left to the devices of the person put in-charge of a match. In a way, the debate will always prevail, big or small, for better or worse, whether the rule changes or not.
Watch this space for any updates.