soccer field

The changes to the handball rule explained

September 18, 2019

As well as the usual transfer gossip dominating summer headlines within football, the changes to the refereeing and laws of the game for the 2019/20 season were also widely reported before the season started last month. The Premier League handbook 2019/20 Section N.4.1 and N.4.2 acknowledges that match officials are “bound by and to comply with the Laws of the Game (and any protocols issues by the International Football Association Board (IFAB))” and it is within these new IFAB guidelines for 2019/20 that such changes were made. 

The introduction of Video Assistant Referees (VAR) gained much press attention. However, aside from VAR, one of the most significant changes to the laws of the game was with regards to the handball rule. The 2018/19 IFAB Law 12: Fouls and Misconduct, 1. Direct Freekick, Handling the Ball had stated that a handball “involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the arm/hand”. This wording has been removed and the amended law for 2019/20 states that “it is an offence if a player gains possession/control of the ball after it has touched their hand/arm and then: scores in the opponents’ goal or creates a goal-scoring opportunity”. In previous years, the decision was left to the referee’s discretion; put simply, they had to decide if the handball was deliberate or not, despite many instances being extremely ambiguous. The new guidelines have removed this ambiguity and simplified the referee’s decision by making it a binary one. In theory, this should be seen as a positive as the IFAB continues to strive for uniformity in the refereeing of games. In practice, however, fans and players generally do not seem to support this amendment to the law.

The two main examples of the law being enforced so far this season came first in Leicester City’s clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers on the opening weekend, and, more significantly, in Manchester City’s game against Tottenham Hotspur the following week. With the match poised at 2-2 in the in the 92nd minute, Aymeric Laporte ‘headed’ the ball from a Manchester City corner into the path of Gabriel Jesus who scored to make it 3-2. Tottenham had little chance to respond and Manchester City had surely scored the winning goal, until VAR and the newly-worded Law 12 were applied. When the goal was reviewed, it was determined that the ball had not been flicked on by the head of Laporte, but instead by his left arm, creating a goal-scoring opportunity for Jesus. Replays show that he had attempted to use his head and that there was no movement of his arm towards the ball and, as such, this was unlikely to be considered a deliberate handball under the old rules. However, with the binary nature of the new handball law, the on-field referee and VAR had a very straightforward decision. The goal was subsequently disallowed, the game ended 2-2 and the new law was harshly criticized by pundits, fans and players alike. Match of the Day pundit Alan Shearer, for instance, was extremely vocal in his attack and Jesus, who was at the center of the events, was seen remonstrating with the officials after the game had ended.

Some players and fans believe this amendment has altered the game for the worse and that the introduction of VAR is slowing down the pace of the game. However, it can be argued that its implementation is necessary and it certainly seems as though lawmakers are trying to reduce the subjectivity in referees’ decisions to ensure that there is uniformity in the Premier League. Although handball decisions like the one which went in favor of Tottenham can happen in the opening weeks of the season, they can have a radical impact on the final league standings. Manchester City lost two points as a result of this decision, which could be the difference between winning the league and finishing second (last season, for instance, the league was decided by a single point). This means that the decision to disallow Jesus’ goal could cost Manchester City both a trophy and almost £1.92 million1 come the end of the season.

While the optimism that some fans had at the start of the season may have already faded because of the tampering with the laws of football, this objectivity means that there is much to be positive about for the season to come and the evolution of refereeing football matches, even if the new system faces a few initial teething problems.

With thanks to work experience student Dexter Plato for his assistance in preparing the article.

[1] Based on Premier League payment to clubs 2018/19 (