The key issues as handball decisions come under scrutiny

PA Sport Staff
·4-min read

A chorus of derision has rained down on football’s rule-makers in the wake of a series of penalties awarded for handballs in Premier League matches over the weekend.

The decisions have raised questions over the interpretation of the rules, set by the International Football Advisory Board, with managers and former players leading the calls for clarity.

Here, the PA news agency looks at the issue and what needs to be done to avoid further controversy in the future.

What happened at the weekend?

Crystal Palace v Everton – Premier League – Selhurst Park
Richarlison scored for Everton after a controversial handball call (Bradley Collyer/PA)

Penalties were awarded at Brighton, Crystal Palace and Tottenham, all of which were given after the referees were recommended to consult VAR, and all of which caused the respective home sides to drop points. Arguably the most controversial of the incidents was at Tottenham were Eric Dier was adjudged to have handled an Andy Carroll header despite having been facing the other way at the time of the alleged infringement.

What did they say?

Morecambe v Newcastle United – Carabao Cup – Third Round – Globe Arena
Steve Bruce admitted his side got lucky with a handball call (Martin Rickett/PA)

Spurs boss Jose Mourinho declined to comment on the incident, but his Newcastle counterpart Steve Bruce described the decision as “nonsense”, despite his side having directly benefited. Palace boss Roy Hodgson used the same word to describe the decision at Selhurst Park, where Lucas Digne’s downward header struck Joel Ward on the arm. Gary Lineker took to Twitter to describe the decisions as “utterly ludicrous” and Jamie Carragher claimed the rule was “ruining football”, while former World Cup referee George Courtney described the penalty awards as “an embarrassment”.

What’s changed?

Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle United – Premier League – Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
The handball decision against Eric Dier has raised questions about the application of the rule (Andrew Boyers/PA)

The Premier League appears to have decided to follow a stricter interpretation of the original law, laid down by IFAB prior to the start of the 2019-20 season, which stated that handball would be awarded “if the ball hits the hand of a player who has made their body unnaturally bigger”, as well as any that strikes any part of the arm below the armpit. Whereas the focus was previously on the latter element, this season has seen a harsher interpretation of what constitutes “unnatural”. The problem almost boils down to semantics: was Eric Dier’s body shape unnatural because he was jumping, or what is natural for one who was jumping?

Why was Chelsea’s goal allowed to stand?

West Bromwich Albion v Chelsea – Premier League – The Hawthorns
Chelsea’s equaliser went unpunished at West Brom (Nick Potts/PA)

Tammy Abraham’s late equaliser for Chelsea at West Brom on Saturday appears to contradict the other examples, in that a clear handball in the build-up by Kai Havertz went unpunished, despite recourse for VAR. However the rules differ for attacking teams, in that contact is only automatically penalised in the immediate build-up to the goal – with officials deeming that Havertz’s handling came early enough not to constitute an infringement.

Why the rule change?

Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle United – Premier League – Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
The Premier League’s penalty count could be set to soar (Andrew Boyers/PA)

The Premier League may have felt under pressure to catch up with the continent, with statistics illustrating its relative lenience last season. Twenty penalties were awarded for handball in the Premier League in the first season under the new rule, compared to 57 in Serie A and 48 in LaLiga. What makes the current situation so unusual is the Premier League’s history of handing the player accused of handball the benefit of the doubt: there were 14 penalties awarded for the infraction in 2018-19, and just six across the previous campaign.

What happens next?

Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle United – Premier League – Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Premier League referees will still make the final judgement call (Andrew Boyers/PA)

Clearly the onus is on IFAB to clarify a rule which, ironically, was introduced in order to achieve consistency when it came to handball decisions. For that to happen, it would take either FIFA or a member association to recommend further guidance. Even then, there is no guarantee that the rule would be applied in the same way across the game, given the subjective interpretations firstly of each association, and ultimately of the referees and VAR operators themselves. Stand by for more controversy ahead.