The varying reactions to Bastian Schweinsteiger’s handball during Germany’s 2-0 defeat by France on Thursday said a lot about how much the rule relating to the offence is still a cause of confusion for many.
The immediate response to the Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli pointing to the spot and booking the Germany captain was one of surprise. “What’s that for?” Hardly anybody saw it at full speed. The internet was quickly ablaze with conspiracy theorists and the usual outraged brigade. Then, after numerous replays had been shown, people split into two camps; those who believe the “deliberate” handball rule should be enforced verbatim (such as Alan Shearer) and those who take the predominant view of referees that a penalty or free-kick should be awarded when a player’s hands or arms are in an unnatural position (such as Thierry Henry but, ahem, that’s Thierry Henry).
A quick totting up of the many emails I received from readers in relation to the penalty during the Guardian’s minute-by-minute report of the semi-final shows there was roughly a 60-40 split in favour of Rizzoli’s decision being the correct one. It’s hardly a scientific poll, but it’s probably pretty accurate and points towards more people tending to side with the officials’ interpretation of the rule rather than the actual wording that a penalty or free-kick should be given when a player “handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)”.
If you were to enforce that rule as it is written could you really say for sure that Schweinsteiger intended to block the ball with his hands? The view of most people is that he was punished rightly for being caught out of position and had to jump at the ball like a low-rent Superman to get his head anywhere near it. That it hit his hand was probably not intentional but denied Patrice Evra from being rewarded for timing his leap and positioning his body much better than the Germany midfielder did. But that is not written in the rules.
In an interview with the BBC about the grey area surrounding the handball rule the former Premier League referee David Elleray gave some insight into how officials arrive at decisions. “Referees look at two specifics – did the hand or arm go towards the ball or in a manner which would block the ball, or is the hand in a position where it would not normally be?” he said. Again, none of this is in the football rulebook but most people would accept that this is a fair way of looking at handball decisions. The fact that many players, Sergio Ramos being a prime example, lock their arms behind their body when attempting to block shots inside the 18-yard box shows that defenders expect penalties to be awarded if the ball strikes an arm or hand whether intentional or not.
So why not tweak the rules so that they are in line with the thoughts of the officials who are enforcing them? If law 12 said “handles the ball deliberately or in a way that is deemed unnatural” wouldn’t it help put a stop to the constant furore surrounding these decisions? It would also leave referees a little less open to abuse or libellous accusations. There are other rules that could be clearer too but the one relating to handball would appear to be the easiest to align with the thought-process of officials.
The general move towards greater leniency by referees at Euro 2016 has been a refreshing one and has been received well by most spectators. Many fans appreciate seeing a referee bend the rules now and then but there is still, generally, a thirst for clarity, particularly when an offence involves a penalty being awarded. So surely a tweak towards making it clear that handball decisions are not solely about intent but also about body-shape and control would help to officially make this rule clearer.
But be warned. You may find that Shearer agrees with you more often.
This article was written by Gregg Bakowski, for theguardian.com on Friday 8th July 2016 12.08 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010