A couple of weeks ago, whilst watching the Southampton and Sheffield United game, there was an incident in the Southampton penalty area where the ball clearly hit the defenders hand. The United appeals were all waved away and the commentator commented noted (as they’re prone to do) by way of explanation that:
If it had been an attacking player then it would’ve been a handball, but because it was a defensive player it wasn’t.
What? Now I knew that the handball rules were a matter of contention and that they’d recently changed but this sounded crazy – surely a handball is a handball, clear and obvious, it doesn’t matter who touches the ball does it?
And it happened again – in the Arsenal and Aston Villa game at the weekend, the Arsenal defender Sokratis blatantly handled the ball in his own penalty area and again the referee did nothing, prompting an attempted explanation of the new FA rules back in the studio.
Apparently the main rule is that a handball will be awarded if a player makes his body an ‘unnatural silhouette’, i.e. making his body bigger with his arm. Personally I think that arms always make a body bigger, due to them being outside the body and unable to retreat within the torso. However, it’s also automatically an offence if the arm is above shoulder height.
So if you’ve a central defender resembling The Elephant Man who relays instructions to the right back using semaphore then you’re pretty much screwed.
But there’s more, and you can’t help but feel that the FA are just digging a bigger hole for themselves because it’s not a handball if:
- The ball is kicked at the player from close range.
- It’s a protective reaction.
- The arms are being used for balance.
- The ball strikes the arm from the players own head or body.
- The striker is unmarried and a Capricorn.
- The defender was chained to a radiator whilst eating jam.
And so on – it’s ludicrous, basically any decision regarding handball during a game needs to be decided by a panel who’ll have to retreat to a conference centre on the south coast for a couple of days to discuss all the intricacies of the case.
It should be oh, so simple, and looking into it, it’s the one thing that defined the game in the first place.
Back the 19th century when ‘football’ was just an excuse for large groups of drunken men to gather together and beat the sh*t out of each other, an effort was made to define and clarify the sport, and a decision taken to separate rugby football and association football by the issue of handling the ball.
That should’ve been it – in the association branch of the game you can’t handle the ball – unless you’re a goal-keeper, at all, under any circumstances, whether your silhouette is natural, unnatural, positively frightening or resembling Jacob Rees-Mogg having carnal relations with a camel. If you do, it’s an offence.
What the lawmakers have tried to do is eradicate the perceived unfairness of the accidental infringement, but they have only succeeded in tying themselves in knots, making the current version of the rules a complete nonsense and impairing the entertainment value of watching a game.
If a player handles the ball it should be penalised under any circumstances – any circumstances. How many goals have been retrospectively disallowed recently under VAR where a player was fractionally offside, the margin of which couldn’t have made the slightest difference to the outcome of the move? And yet not one manager has complained about the decision, the common consensus has been that ‘those are the rules’ and that ‘it was the right decision’.
So it should be with handball. No one deliberately strays a centimetre offside during an attack. No one accuses the defence of gamesmanship when they deliberately step up to make a player offside – it’s part of the game.
So, if a player deliberately kicks the ball at an opponents’ hand, it’s a hand ball. If a defender falls over and his hand hits the ball, it should be penalised. Let’s make the game easier to watch, enjoy and understand. There are arguments against the use of technology in that it removes the talking points from a game, well, let’s put some back in then.
But technology has to step up to the plate – currently it’s infamous not for what it does but for what it doesn’t do, it’s reactive rather than proactive. If a referee doesn’t see an infringement then tech doesn’t step in when clearly something has happened that affects the game. This is the situation in rugby and is completely accepted and it has to be the same in football, to cut out the blatant and embarrassing incidents that currently seem to defy common sense.
So, Watford tested our understanding of the ‘new managers bounce’ when they rolled over and let Man City put eight past them. David Silva opened the scoring, Bernardo Silva got a hat trick and in all honesty, their namesakes Long John and Hi Ho could’ve probably got a couple had they been on the pitch.
But the other thing at the match and which seems to be catching on with increasing popularity is that players come out of the tunnel not only holding the mascots hands, but also clutching a baby.
And not just at the City game but also at Burnley and West Ham – what’s all that about? Presumably the babies are their own, unless it’s another line in sponsorship, a new income stream for the club. Are the players saying ‘look at me, I can father children’? Ok – good for you, but if it’s going to become a thing I just want to point out at this stage that Catholics are going to have all the advantages in a turf war.
Is it for the babies – do they care? I doubt it - and we never see what happens to them after the players have somehow managed to free up an appendage to actually shake hands with their opponents. Is one of the back-room staff on ‘baby duty’ and has to trot onto the pitch and gather them all up? Is it just a Premier League thing – do teams in the lower league walk out clutching offspring or would they face derision from the more matter-of-fact members of the watching public?
One imagines it’s just an ego thing on behalf of the players involved, in which case it’s harmless enough, I guess, but you can’t help feeling it would never have happened in a team managed by Keane or Ferguson.