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Handball rule needs to be rewritten — and ex-Premier League ref agrees

Sport editor Dom Smith speaks to former Premier League referee Keith Hackett as they argue current handball laws are simply not fit for purpose.

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Image Credit: Steffen Prößdorf

Keith Hackett is widely regarded as one of the best referees the football world has ever seen. The Yorkshireman took charge of the FA Cup final in 1981, as well as officiating matches in the Premier League, European Championships and Olympic Games. Last week I asked him about the new handball rules that have polarised ‘football Twitter’ for the past couple of weeks. He simply said: “The law is an ass”. That was him being kind.

Hackett refereed in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, when the handball law was simpler, and when it led to fewer penalties and free kicks than we see today. “We worked on the premise of movement towards the ball by the hand,” explains Hackett. “That movement was an indication to us that it was a handball offence. We also said that, where a player makes themself wider or larger, they have committed a foul.”

“We had the element of surprise. If it was a short distance and a flailing arm was hit by the ball, that wasn’t classed as a free kick. We asked: ‘Has that player got an opportunity to withdraw the arm if it’s a quick kick?’”

By contrast ­— stark contrast, by the way — the handball law in use in the Premier League and much of the world’s leading football competitions today is much less clear and a lot less lenient. Almost every contact between hand and ball is penalised. It’s difficult to watch.

Currently, a goal is disallowed if an attacking player involved handled the ball in any way leading up to the goal, whether or not it was deliberate or avoidable. And yet, in total contradiction, defensive players in their own area will concede a penalty only if the ball strikes them in an avoidable way and in a manner that makes their body bigger.

It’s confusing. Particularly confusing is the phrase ‘making their body bigger’. The authorities claim that means that a handball should be given if the arm is struck while it is out, but not if it is shielding the body, tucked down by their side, or behind the player’s back. “The confusion is around his body shape being larger than a silhouette,” the former referee outlines. “They’re almost saying: ‘If you make yourself bigger and the ball strikes, you’re done.’”

The new laws hit rock-bottom in late September. Tottenham Hotspur were denied a league victory over visitors Newcastle United by the awarding of a penalty late into stoppage time that was dubious at best. Eric Dier headed clear from Spurs’ box, but the ball deflected off his head and straight onto his outstretched arm.

He “had his back to the ball and the element of distance [it had] travelled was small,” Hackett explains. “The law says it is not an offence if the ball touches a player’s hand or arm directly from [their] head or body or foot, or directly from the body of another player. If it comes off his foot or head, then it’s not deliberate!” A real understatement. If the lawmakers needed an example of the current rules being misconstrued so badly for it to stamp them into action, then surely this was Exhibit A.

“It treats an attacker differently to a defender,” says Hackett. And he’s not the first person to say it.

Some feel the handball laws are so hard to follow that they should be completely revamped to simply penalise every time there is contact between the ball and the arm. I put that proposition to Hackett. Would that make refereeing easier?

“It’s easier to adjudicate, but that’s not football, is it? That might be okay in the local parks, but not at the professional level. What you’ll get is a player, who already has an option of conning the referee by acts of simulation, flicking the ball up onto the arm of opponents [and claiming a free kick or a penalty].” Easier rules to follow, but at an almighty ethical cost in terms of sportsmanship.

Even if that was adopted as the new law, would controversy suddenly float away mystically? Of course not. Handball and its grey areas are too well married for that. Is contact between the ball and the shoulder an offence?

“The only change to the handball law this year is a very good change in clearly identifying the area of the hand and arm as up to level with the underside of the armpit. That’s a plus.” A positive side to the handball laws, at long last. ‘Shoulder-ball’ isn’t handball; at least they got that bit right.

So, what must be done? Because something needs to change and fast. “I actually think it’s quite simple,” remarks Hackett. “Ultimately, what you want is a law that is easy to operate and understand, and a system or mechanism — which VAR is — to view the screen and either confirm the decision or override it. Hopefully, this season we will see it.”

Accepting VAR is a must. The technology has come in, so it will not be taken away any time soon — only refined and reformed until it’s as close as possible to foolproof and its decisions are almost without contention. Hackett was one of the best in the game, but even he admits for free: “referees make errors.”

“I go on the opposite [side] to what referees think [I’m saying]. They’ve been given a set of rules and interpretations that they couldn’t possibly [keep to consistently]. My whole argument is not saying that referees are incompetent, I’m actually saying [the laws] are wrong. This law is very poorly written — it’s contradictory; it doesn’t help the game.”

My opinion on handball has been the same for a long time. Similar to the simple and usually effective rules that Hackett and his contemporaries followed for over a century. Handball should be given for deliberate movement towards the ball, or for avoidable contact where the arm is in any way outstretched from the body. The word ‘avoidable’ would, in theory, clear up debate around the distance between the ball and the arm, unnatural body movements, and freak incidents like when the ball first strikes the player’s own head or when they fall onto the ball, arm-first.

Do I get Hackett’s approval for my prospective law changes? Yes. But then comes the inevitable line to dampen down my hopes for action to genuinely take place.

“I don’t think that will happen.”

Football as a professional sport to be taken seriously is very much on the ropes if we retain this hideously complex law that is so heavily up to individual referees’ interpretations. Come on, the Premier League, IFAB, PGMOL and other relevant bodies. Do better.

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