The Long Arm of the Law: What REALLY constitutes a handball infringement?

On Saturday afternoon, at Carrow Road, Blackburn Rovers manager Steven Kean looked on in disbelief as two valuable points were snatched away from him and his side in injury time against hosts Norwich City. Rovers had been leading 3-2, moments before the full time whistle, when referee Anthony Taylor awarded a penalty kick against Kean’s side for a handball by defender Steven Nzonzi. It seemed a harsh decision to say the least, as Nzonzi put his arms out to claim for what he thought was a free kick in his favour, and as he stood protesting the ball dropped and hit his arm. He clearly hadn’t been aware of where the ball was, and there was no intent whatsoever. In Kean’s post match interview he stated; “I asked the referee about the penalty and he told me that Steven had handled the ball”. And herein lies the problem.

I have heard it countless times now in so many matches and different situations, “he handled the ball”. First off, this certainly doesn’t make it an infringement. But, generally, most people are aware that simple contact between ball and hand does not automatically mean that an offence has occurred. However, the further reasons I’ve heard being used to justify decisions are also, more often than not, incorrect.

“His hand was in an unnatural position” is one of my favourites, or least favourites, depending on how you look at it. The phrase itself always baffles me, as I’m not sure exactly what constitutes a ‘natural’ position for a hand or arm, other than being connected to the rest of a person’s body at the shoulder! When a player has his arm out and the ball strikes it, is that really ‘unnatural’? In my view, the most unnatural position for a hand or arm, whilst a person is running, jumping and generally taking part in a fast paced sporting event, would be flat at their side. Imagine if every defending player ran around their own area with their hands tightly pressed to their thighs, desperately avoiding any chance of a stray cross clipping their arm. Not only would it look ridiculous, but I imagine that a lot of players would lose their balance far too easily.

Even if the ‘unnatural’ description is not used, many people – including players, commentators, managers and fans – make the claim that a hand was ‘up’ or ‘out’ or in any other way not ‘down’. I can’t state this strongly enough, but I’ll try, the position of the hand does NOT necessarily equal an offence. By no means does that mean that every time an outstretched arm comes into contact with the ball there is no infringement and play should continue, as there are plenty of occasions when this DOES merit a shrill blast from the referee’s whistle. But more needs to be taken into account than just the position of a hand itself, and too few seem to realise this.

Agree or disagree with these sentiments, I often hear people simply referring back to ‘the letter of the law’ and that we just have to accept that these handballs will be given because that is how the rules are set. But this is far from the case. Let’s have a look at the laws of the game, as stated by FIFA themselves, when it comes to handball.

Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact
with the ball with his hand or arm. The referee must take the following
into consideration:

• the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)

• the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)

• the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement

• touching the ball with an object held in the hand (clothing, shinguard etc.) counts as an infringement

• hitting the ball with a thrown object (boot, shinguard etc.) counts as an infringement

One crucial part of the FIFA rules is where it clearly states that “the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement”. How many times do you see fans, players and managers desperately calling for a penalty or free kick because the ball struck an outstretched arm? Too many in my opinion. The two things that really have to be considered, as stated in the rulebook, is the movement of the hand, in terms of it moving toward the ball, rather than the ball moving towards it, and the distance between the ball and the hand, when the ball is initially struck. If a player attempts a cross at point blank range and it cannons off of a defender’s arm before he could even contemplate moving it, this is NOT an infringement, no matter what position the arm is in. Unless of course he appears to throw his arm in the way of the ball, but even then the referee himself will have to make his own interpretation on just how much intent was involved. Remember, the laws also state that a handball is the DELIBERATE act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm”. Accidents DO happen, and there are always going to be occasions when the ball strikes an arm or hand unintentionally.

Of course interpretation is always going to play a part in these decisions. By no means do I believe that the law is simply black and white, there is always a grey area that requires officials to use common sense and good judgement to make the correct call. And many will argue that these qualities are not present in many officials, and mistakes will be made no matter how well we all read the laws of the game. This may be the case, but when it comes to handball there seems to be a common misconception that the position of the hand alone dictates whether or not a foul has been committed. The sooner we realise that this is not the case, the sooner we can avoid any more harsh penalties and free kicks being awarded – and, in turn, the sooner we can prevent results hinging on such decisions.


L Dunsire

Hearts supporter and film enthusiast from Musselburgh. Follow me on Twitter @lauriedunsire