Does the Hand-ball Rule Need Changing?

Grace Crispin

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Does the Hand-ball Rule Need Changing?

The hand-ball rule has always been a controversial aspect of modern football, with many, many examples of the rule being bent or completely misapplied in acts of “robbery” in some of the biggest games in the last 20 years.

In spite of the invention of VAR and its subsequent use in top-flight football, the discourse surrounding the hand-ball rule has found even more support recently.

However there are many different characteristics of hand-ball, so let's take a look at how these different aspects affect the rule and how they could be changed.

Intentional Hand-ball

Intentional hand-ball is one of the most obvious applications of the rule and will often result in either a yellow or red card. However, this is not always the case.

The most recent example of this came in matchweek seven of the Premier League in the Crystal Palace versus Chelsea match at Selhurst Park. With Jordan Ayew running towards the Chelsea goal, Thiago Silva went to ground to prevent this run and stuck out an arm, which hit the ball, changing its course.

The referee, Chris Kavanaugh, awarded the Brazilian a yellow card, which was upheld after a VAR check. However, as the last man, Thiago Silva’s hand-ball could’ve denied Crystal Palace a clear goal-scoring opportunity, which is a red card offence.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with this aspect of the hand-ball rule, however, like most, the issues come in the application of such a rule. As has been found throughout football, the rules that are subjective, even with VAR, are still down to human opinion which leaves the door open for human error, like what was seen by fans at Selhurst Park.

Natural & Unnatural Arm Positions

The 2019/20 season saw the introduction of a new rule regarding hand-ball. The International Football Association (IFAB) decided to focus on hand/arm position with their new rule updates.

This rule concerned whether a player had used their hand/arm position to make their bodies unnaturally bigger. However, there was a significant lack of detail on what actually constituted a “natural” position, that being left to the interpretation of the referees.

This therefore only invited more subjectivity and opportunity for human error, the very thing these new rules were trying to eradicate.

A recent example of these unclear rules was in the Arsenal versus Liverpool game at the Emirates this weekend. Early in the game, as Liverpool were chasing an equaliser, Diogo Jota sent a cross into the box that made contact with Gabriel Magalhaes’ arm. The referee, Michael Oliver, did not award a penalty at the time, and neither did VAR after a review.

Gabriel’s arm was outstretched and undoubtedly made his arm bigger, which would imply an unnatural hand/arm position. An explanation levied by some was that Gabriel’s proximity to Jota made it hard for him to move in time, however, the proximity excuse is not covered in the rules by IFAB, making it even more confusing for fans.

The natural/unnatural arm position rule could’ve made positive changes, helping decrease unintentional and unfair hand-ball rulings, but it has only added to the subjectivity and has blurred the lines that they intended to make clearer.

Where do we go From Here?

Though there are many discussions about the state of the hand-ball rule, there seems to be no urgency from IFAB or any other governing boards to make any changes. A lot of the blame for the hand-ball errors seen in the Premier League can be equated to human error and poor judgement from referees and VAR, but clarity in the rules could greatly help.

Examples of poor judgement could be found all over European football this weekend, but most egregiously in the West Ham v Fulham game and Everton v Manchester United.

Marcus Rashford thought he had put Manchester United 3 - 1 up against Everton until VAR ruled his goal out. Why? Because his block of James Tarkowski’s clearance hit his arm. Though in a natural position and completely accidental, this goal was ruled out. The natural position and proximity were ignored, making this decision even more confusing.

Gianluca Scamacca’s first goal for The Irons was nearly ruled out after he was seen handling the ball in order to bring it under control. The Italian himself was unsure, as he didn’t celebrate the goal, but even after a VAR check, the goal stood. Some theorise that there was not enough conclusive evidence that Scamacca’s hand actually came into contact with the ball, even though the ball did change course after the contact.

In the same game, West Ham’s Michail Antonio blocked a clearance before going on to score. Though the incident wasn’t dissimilar to the Rashford one, Antonio’s was allowed to stand, with the goal being cited as a second phase as Antonio’s first shot was blocked.

The complete contrast in decisions in similar incidents just proves the need for some sort of change in the rule, even if it is just a tightening of bounds or clarification of terminology, along with the referees being given more guidance.

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