Governing Bodies Must Handle VAR Penalty Crisis

You cannot define this season’s juggernaut of handball penalty decisions as anything short of a crisis. At a time where the globe is polarised by opinion on almost everything – the country has finally been brought together by one single issue – this handball pandemic MUST CHANGE.

It’s easier said than done. It’s also easier to sit in ivory towers and complain that it is wrong (aimed at Jamie Carragher), without contributing to what needs to be right. Almost every media outlet is perpetuating the hate over the subjectively incorrect decisions but who is going to solve this crisis, and how?

Let’s begin with identifying the incidents that have brought about comments such as “An absolute disgrace, a joke” (Jamie Carragher), “destroying my enjoyment of football” (Roy Hodgson) and “We have lost the plot” (Steve Bruce).

The first element to identify is this: Still images and slow motion cannot define handball within a football match. Unfortunately due to image rights, I cannot show the footage as I would like to, but no doubt you will have seen these incidents at real speed.

Given the outcry, it is understandable that we refer to the law changes in respect to handball that were made this season – that can correctly be used to justify the decision of a penalty – down to interpretation. Here’s the text regarding handball for the decision of a penalty:

Handball – the boundary between the arm (handball) and shoulder (not handball) has been defined and the wording for accidental handball offences has been made clearer*

*It is an offence if the player touches the ball with their hand/arm when:
• the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger
• the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level (unless the player
deliberately plays the ball which then touches their hand/arm)

The above offences apply even if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm
directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close.

• In VAR matches, there is an expectation that there will be an on-field review if the decision being reviewed is subjective, i.e. the referee will look at the replay footage in the referee review area.

So what we have definitely understood, is that these are not refereeing errors, but accepted decisions within the interpretation of the rules. Arguably this makes the rules “wrong” or the interpretation of the rules is “wrong” from Referee HQ.

At this point we need to go back in time, and understand WHY we have VAR for handball decisions in the first place. We go back to France vs Ireland’s World Cup Play-off, into extra-time:

Global football decisions on the world stage – such as Lampard’s no goal against Germany – are the key catalysts for the introduction of technology in football. FIFA are not just left embarrassed, they’re left unable to provide answers to multi-billion pound investors and stakeholders. They need to ensure a level of clarity, control and fairness to the global game. They needed to prevent such an event occurring again, when it takes a mere number of seconds to correct an incorrect decision. Welcome to VAR.

So as an immediate we MUST have a rule that disallows this goal – done. IFAB signed off that the ball striking the arm of an attacking player in the final third would result in the goal being disallowed. EVOLUTION : Football realised that this needed improvement, hence the T-shirt line AND the update to the laws stating the contact with the arm must be in the immediacy of the goal being scored. However this is only for offences by the attacking side. How to define the rules when there is no goal being scored? Can we use the same rule, and therefore consistency for all players? Or must we treat defenders and attackers differently?

No-one believes attackers and defenders should be treated differently, no-one believes that rules should be different in the penalty area to anywhere else on the field. So that is what FIFA / IFAB have tried to provide in their rule making. Consistency on the rules, for attackers and defenders – the obvious downside to this is we are no longer denying the occasional goal, but we are literally penalising defenders for any contact with a defenders’ arm. Disaster.

So again we must return to the rules on the attacking player – which pushes us back into a world of subjective arguments. Is there intent? That is subjective. Is the touch significant? That is subjective. Is the player uses his arms to make himself bigger? Again, it’s subjective – and all of these grey areas currently exist within the handball rule framework. The one rule that is most contentious within the existing handball rule framework is this:

The above offences apply even if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm
directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close.

This rule could be withdrawn from both the attacker and the defender’s laws of the game. It would see Henry’s handball remain (This is without doubt a deliberate handball anyhow but is definitely contact with the attacker’s arm in the immediacy of the goal being scored).

It would remove the Lindelof penalty, where he was hit around the t-shirt line whilst running from a miscued shot from an opposition player.

It would remove the Ward penalty, where he was hit on the forearm but had not moved his arms at all and were in a natural position preparing himself to launch into the next defensive clearance.

It would remove the Doherty penalty, where the ball has struck him on an outstretched arm used to make his body bigger, but with no intention of stopping a ball (he’s entitled to make contact with it within a contact sport), but then it does ricochet of a teammate in close proximity.

It MIGHT remove the Dier penalty. Dier has his arms where they shouldn’t be, and whether he has deliberately put his arms in the way or not, he is making himself bigger and thus could be decided is a handball. HOWEVER on the Dier case, if he has been pushed by the Newcastle player we really should be giving a free-kick over the penalty for the push.

When it comes to penalties and free-kicks being given for handballs, I agree and believe with the principle of defenders making their silhouettes larger being an offence. It’s an age old tactic for defenders to cover a larger mass to stop the ball passing them, and arms have definitely been used in this time. Giving decisions against defenders where they have placed their arms in areas they shouldn’t is something that should remain. Think back to PSG vs Man Utd from 2018.

I believe FIFA / IFAB made their first mistake in trying to define a black and white rule onto football, where football has evolved all of its rules through hundreds of years of competition. To state how the game should be played rather than trying to explicitly write how we play the game, has resulted in the uproar of contention. Imagine if we had taken 1000s of incidents where the ball had struck the arm of a defender, allowed independent adjudicators to make their vote on penalty or no penalty – then write our rules around their reasoning where the results were not unanimous. We would have the majority of decisions going the expected way. We would have success. Instead – t-shirt lines, intent, body shape are trying to be understood by officials and players, rather than the fluid understanding we have had in the game since day one.

The game is not gone. The game needs to evolve. Evolution takes time, and takes sacrifice. Anyway, just some thoughts… I’d also suggest you start backing penalties to be awarded in every Premier League match until changes come to fruition!

Finally a closing point to Jamie Carragher, who’s bright idea it is to return to last season’s rules as this season is “a joke”. Well Carra, let’s go back to your comments last season when Declan Rice had a goal disallowed for handball.

“The handball rule now is a joke – an absolute joke” Jamie Carragher. A man not short on his vocabulary.

By Stephen Lee

One comment on “Governing Bodies Must Handle VAR Penalty Crisis

  1. Pingback: EPL Review 26-29.09 | Feudball

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