What is handball? It intuitively seems like an easy question to answer but it is one that seems to mean something different to everyone. Is it any contact with hand? Does it matter if it was accidental? Is it ok if your hands are by your sides? Is there a difference if it occurs in the penalty area? These questions float round the nation’s drinking establishments regularly but somewhat more alarmingly are ones that get referees in a tangle too.
Saturday evening saw David Nugent – who seems to have happily slotted back into his home habitat of the Championship – and Leicester denied a goal because it was deemed that he had used his hand. The fact he used is hand is not in doubt. As he swooped to convert from around a yard out the ball poked up of his foot rebounding off his outstretched limb into the net. It was slightly comical but for that reason – that it was completely accidental – should the goal have been allowed to stand?
Handball has always been a tricky aspect of the game to manage; the hundreds of shouts of handball in every game at every level testify to this. Law 12 of the Associated Football rules states that a direct free-kick should be awarded to the opposing team if a player handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area.) This idea of intent though is horrendously difficult to judge.
There are, of course, clear-cut examples. Thierry Henry’s surreptitious stroke of the ball was one. Luis Suarez’ diving stop on the line was another. These, however, are the exceptions to the rule. Most handballs, in my opinion, are incredibly difficult to judge whether or not they were premeditated.
There is a second problem. Although many handballs are accidental, is it right that the opposing team should have their possession or moves interrupted by players using a body part that is outwith the rules? The extension of this is that some players – with John Terry being the absolute master – have got very good at performing accidental handballs where errant hands are left out to block shots etc.
UEFA acknowledge both these points. In their referees conference in 2004 they released guidelines on questions that officials should be asking themselves to ascertain the level of intention involved.
– Was it a hand to ball situation or ball to hand?
– Are the player’s hands or arm in a ‘natural’ position?
– Should the player take the consequences of having his hand or arms lifted high?
– Does the player try to avoid the ball striking his hand?
– Is the player able to avoid the ball striking his hand?
– Does he use his hand or arm to intentionally touch the ball?
The final statement that UEFA make brings us back to our original case. “Referees are also reminded of possible additional circumstances and consequences, e.g. How and where did the offence occur (stopped an attack, denied an obvious goal scoring opportunity). They must then punish fully in accordance with the Law.”
Although it was entirely accidental, Nugent did gain an advantage by using a part of body, which is usually out of bounds and although that may have been fine in the middle of the field, on this occasion it led directly to a goal. These decisions are incredibly subjective with consistency being very difficult to maintain. It is the sort that not everyone will be happy with but in this instance I think the correct call was made.
I will therefore ask again, what is handball? It is no longer as it says in the rules – a foul for a deliberate use of the hand. It is a decision by the referee dependent on the circumstances to punish a player who has gained an unfair advantage by the use of the hand, be it intentional or accidental.