MANCHESTER, England: Premier League managers and pundits have been up in arms over handball penalty decisions made by referees. The following is a Q&A on changes to the handball law.
Q: What is the new handball law for this season?
A: Strictly speaking there is no ‘new’ handball law in the Premier League this season. The Premier League is, however, enacting the same law and interpretation of it that was brought in across Europe and other leagues last season. The English competition had previously taken a more liberal attitude towards that law.
Q: Why have they done that?
A: In July, world governing body FIFA took charge of matters relating to VAR from IFAB (the rule making body) and FIFA officials, including former Italian referee, Pierluigi Collina, made it clear that all leagues should play by the same laws and interpretations of them.
Q: So why did IFAB change the handball law?
A: The old law stated that deliberate handling of the ball, with hand or arm, was an offence. This was clearly a subjective matter involving an assessment of intent and led to much argument over decisions. The situation intensified with the introduction of VAR video reviews when incidents could be scrutinised and highlighted. The changes were an attempt to reduce the subjectivity and put the focus on what IFAB calls ‘factual’ aspects – such as the position of the arm, which can be assessed through the video review.
Q: So what does the new law say exactly?
Law 12 of the Laws of the Game can be found here: https://www.theifab.com/laws/chapter/32/section/92
The biggest change related to handball committed by an attacking player where the handling led to a goal or created a goal-scoring opportunity. Any handling, deliberate or otherwise, results in the goal being disallowed.
This has not been hugely controversial, however, unlike the change of language in relation to another aspect of handball.
The law states that handball occurs when: “the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger”.
There have been many debates about what is a “natural” or “unnatural” position for the arm.
Q: So what has this meant in practice?
A: We have seen handball decisions in the Premier League that were unlikely to have been given previously. For example, Eric Dier’s for Tottenham Hotspur against Newcastle United on Sunday where he had his back turned to an opponent while he jumped and the ball was headed against his outstretched arm. Players have been penalised for shots at close-range which have struck their arm involuntarily.
Q: I thought it wasn’t a foul/penalty if the defender was close to the attacker?
A: That is the case only “if the hand/arm is close to the body and does not make the body unnaturally bigger”.
Q: Doesn’t a player tend to raise his arms when he jumps for a header?
A: That has been argued by some ex-players. The law, however, states that the arms should not be raised above shoulder level to avoid the risk of a handball decision.
Q: What about when a player is sliding into a tackle and the ball is struck against his arm?
A: It depends on the situation. It is not a penalty “when a player falls 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.”
Q: So if this is causing controversy and more handball penalties in England, what happened when it was introduced elsewhere last season?
A: The number of penalties for handball had already increased with the introduction of VAR. Yet last season in Italy’s Serie A for example, the number of handball penalties rose from 37 to 57. In Spain they rose from 35 to 48.
Q: There are calls for the law to be changed, is that likely?
A: IFAB has been willing to tweak and alter laws with increasing frequency, so some change cannot be ruled out but with VAR now part of the game they are unlikely to return to the old law based purely on intent to handle.