The 2020/2021 Premier League season is just four games in, and already players, managers, fans, and pundits have been left bemused by the change in wording and interpretation of the handball law, effected this season by The International Football Association Board (IFAB). 

This change in interpretation of one of the laws of the game has already resulted in six penalties being awarded for the offence of accidental handball. In contrast, only nineteen penalties were awarded for the same offence during the entirety of the 2019/2020 season.  

IFAB: 

IFAB is made up of the four British football associations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and FIFA. It is an independent association with its own administration, headquarters and governance. It is the only body with the power and authority to decide and agree changes to the laws of the game of football. While IFAB regularly meets to debate and discuss the rules, changes can only be introduced at the AGM, normally held in February or March of every year.  

The four British football associations have one vote each, and FIFA, covering the remaining 207 national associations, has four votes in total. Passing a motion at an AGM requires a three-quarters majority (i.e. at least six out of eight in favour). 

The Handball Rule: 

First, the basics. The upper boundary of the arm is in line with the bottom of the armpit, for the purposes of determining handball offences. Therefore, contact below this imaginary line at the base of the armpit will be deemed to be handball. Contact above this line will not constitute a handball offence. This is illustrated below.  

Source: IFAB

(a) Deliberate Handball: 

There have been no changes to the laws or interpretation of the deliberate handball rule for the 2020/2021 season. There is little controversy surrounding offences given for a player’s deliberate handling of the ball. Think Luis Suarez playing as Uruguay’s second goalkeeper against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup…

(b) Accidental Handball: 

Let’s start with what incidences, according to the rules, don’t constitute an accidental handball offence. A player is not deemed to have committed an offence if he/she handles the ball while falling “and the hand/arm is between the body and the ground to support the body, but not extended laterally or vertically away from the body”. Equally, a player is not deemed to have committed an offence if he/she handles the ball and “the hand/arm is close to the body and does not make the body unnaturally bigger”. A player has not handled the ball if the ball touches the player’s hand/arm either “directly from the player’s own head or body (including the foot)” or “directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close”.  

Now for the controversy.  

IFAB has amended the accidental handball rule such that an accidental handball will only be punished if it takes place “immediately” before a team-mate or the player either scores a goal or creates a goal-scoring opportunity. If a player “accidentally” handles the ball and then play continues via, say, passing or dribbling, before a goal is scored, then the goal will stand. The lapse of time between the handball incident itself and the goal is crucial, here.  

An accidental handball will also be deemed to have taken place if a player touches the ball with their hand or arm and “the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger” or “the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level”. IFAB determine that a hand or arm above shoulder height is rarely a “natural position”.  

Prior to this season, the rules stated that it was “usually” an offence if a player touched the ball with their hand/arm and “the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger” or “the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level”. By removing the word “usually”, the IFAB have ensured that there is no longer any leeway. A referee now has no choice but to award a foul when such incidences take place.  

Revised Interpretation: 

The law means very little without interpretation. Crucially, it appears that referees in the Premier League are interpreting the “unnaturally bigger” element and the “above/beyond their shoulder level” element extremely harshly this season. There appears to be a zero-tolerance approach to either, particularly when it comes to defenders operating inside their own penalty area.  In fact, based on the evidence this season, it is the author’s view that all an attacking player needs do to earn a penalty is to flick the ball onto the arm of an opposing defending player; as long as the ball strikes the arm/hand (i.e. below the line of the bottom of the armpit) a foul will be given. 

Why are defenders particularly prone to falling foul of this rule? The author’s view is that the wording of the laws are especially detrimental to defenders due to the very nature of their role within their team. Defenders are tasked with making themselves as big as possible when it comes to blocking shots and, essentially, shutting down the space between the attacking player and the goal and/or closing down angles available to the attacking player. This inevitably requires the defending player to adjust his body and to position himself correctly. A key element of carrying this out is balance. The arms are critical to achieving natural balance when doing this in football (and in all sports, for that matter). It seems, however, that FA referees are not taking this into consideration.  

Similarly, defenders, more than any other position in football, are required to jump in order to head the ball. The natural use of the arms in jumping – to achieve balance, to propel the jumper and to afford some form of head protection – is absolutely critical. Defenders are, therefore, far more likely to end up with their hand/arm “above/beyond their shoulder level” and in a way that seems to make the “body unnaturally bigger”. This type of movement goes hand-in-hand with sound defending.  

Fallout: 

The change in the law and the revised interpretation of it have combined with VAR and referees’ ability to review, in slow motion, events on the pitch using the pitch-side monitor, resulting in the surge in awarded penalties for accidental handball.  

Perhaps the most striking award of a penalty for an accidental handball occurred in the game between Spurs and Newcastle on 27th September. Spurs, despite being only a goal ahead, had dominated for the duration of the match. However, Newcastle were awarded a penalty in the final stages of added time when Eric Dier was judged by referee Peter Bankes to have handled the ball when Andy Carroll headed a cross against his raised, out-stretched arm at close range. Dier’s right arm was raised naturally above his shoulder because he had jumped to compete for the ball with Carroll. He was facing away from the Newcastle player.  

The resulting penalty was scored and Newcastle took an undeserved point from the game. Jose Mourinho – Spurs’ manager – was naturally incensed, so much so that he stormed down the tunnel before the final whistle. To his credit, Steve Bruce – Newcastle’s manager – described the rule change as a “nonsense” and “ludicrous”. Punters and plaudits weighed in en masse after the game, with Jamie Carragher describing the new rule as “an absolute disgrace” and “a joke” live on Sky Sports.  

It goes without saying, but the awarding of penalties for such incidences will cost points and, ultimately, will be the difference between a place in the top four (for clubs like Spurs) and will be the difference between relegation and survival (for clubs like Newcastle). Such fine margins also contribute to a manager either keeping his post or losing his job.  

Inconsistency: 

Despite the changes in law and interpretation discussed above, it is clear from the Premier League’s opening fixtures that officials are still struggling to implement rules consistently. If the incident involving Dier is deemed to be an offence in today’s game, then West Ham United were denied a legitimate penalty in their fixture against Arsenal on 19th September when Tomas Soucek’s header appeared to hit Arsenal Defender Gabriel’s arm inside the penalty area. Here, in contrast to the Spurs game, proximity wasn’t a necessary consideration; the ball travelled ten yards, from outside the box to inside the box, before making contact with the Arsenal defender’s outstretched arm.  

Undoubtedly, as the season plays out, there will more incidences like this when an offence is not deemed to have been committed. It seems, then, that IFAB have not only introduced a change to the accidental handball rule that is extremely harsh on players, but also one that the FA is already struggling to apply consistently.  

Finally, it is worth noting that the both La Liga and Serie A implemented the revised interpretation of the handball rule last season, resulting in 50 and 60 penalties respectively for the offence. It seems that the major European leagues have accepted the change, making a U-turn in British football unlikely. 

It is the author’s view that successfully revising the laws of the game to improve the sport is no mean feat; they are delicate and ought to be handled with care.  

George Cottle (LinkedIn)

George Cottle trained at Mishcon de Reya LLP and qualified in England and Wales in September 2020. He is an avid football fan (despite following West Ham United all of his life) and enjoys the odd kick-about when his hamstrings/knees/calves allow it…

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