In these troubled times, scraps of normality glint like a jewel in the dirt. Three cheers, then, for a weekend when the football discourse was dominated not by the imminent collapse of the league pyramid or the unsuccessful containment of a global pandemic but, sweet bliss, by people becoming furious about refereeing.
Like wandering aimlessly through a crowd, or paying for something with coins, the heated response to this season’s new interpretation of the handball rule has the feel of a charming throwback. To hear Roy Hodgson fuming against the law – “I don’t want to profit from it or lose from it” – or to see Steve Bruce decry it as “a nonsense, a nonsense of a rule” felt like slumping back into a battered pub sofa, only without having to look over your shoulder to check how many people are sitting at the next table. Being incensed about something that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things is a luxury and in current times can even feel cathartic. Thank you Fifa, we owe you one.
It is the game’s governing body which has inspired all this trouble. It took control over the application of VAR this summer, in order to stop rogue competitions such as the Premier League from interpreting the rules differently from everyone else (see also: referee’s monitors, keepers coming off their line for a penalty). This in turn provoked a revision by the law-makers, the International Football Association Board, with the aim of increasing clarity in order to stop rogue competitions such as, er, the Premier League, offering too much leeway to its match officials.
So now we have a handball rule that no longer necessitates a ref must look into the heart of a player and decide whether they touched the ball deliberately or not. Furthermore, the definition of what constitutes a hand in handball has also been clarified (it goes up to the bottom of the armpit). Instead, the main thing the match official must decide is whether a defender, by using a hand, has made their body “unnaturally bigger”.
That may sound like a phrase ripe for legalistic wrangling but given Fifa’s lust for consistency, its application to this point has been straightforward. Basically, move your arm away from your body in the area and if the ball hits you, from any distance, even off a deflection from another player, you are going to give away a penalty.
That’s what we saw on Saturday when Joel Ward deflected a header from Lucas Digne. It’s what we saw on Sunday when Andy Carroll slammed a header into Eric Dier’s arm. Both players’ arms were up and that Digne was two yards away from Ward when he headed the ball or that it was the back of Dier’s arm that connected with Carroll’s effort was neither here nor there.
This goes against what fans have become used to. We are accustomed to debating whether a player deliberately set out to handle a ball (and thus judge their character). We are expert in discussing whether a distance was too short to react (and thus showing our knowledge of human physiology). A rule whereby all that matters is a defender’s silhouette takes out an awful lot of ambiguity and that’s the point.
Whether it makes for a better game, however, is arguable. Those who might previously have spent their energies wondering whether Dier could have turned his back in order to mask subterfuge are wondering whether Carroll planted his header on the arm deliberately. We are, is the fear, on the verge of an era where the beautiful game is trampled under a rush to boot balls at people’s body parts.
The good news is it would appear unlikely the current state of affairs will last. While Fifa has made clear its expectation for consistency there is, also, room for nuance. That means if the Professional Game Match Officials Board in England decided upon a looser definition of what “unnaturally bigger” meant it could likely apply it. It could perhaps even make some allowances for the distance between players.
Last year, when the Premier League was doing its own thing, there were 20 penalties in the whole season for handball. In Serie A, where the letter of the law was more strictly followed, there were 57. English football will look more like Italian football this year unless something changes, but – within that narrow space for wriggle room – it is likely that it will.
So enjoy the moment and all the nostalgia that comes from watching neck veins throb unnecessarily. But also remember one other thing: this is what it looks like when that quality perennially demanded of referees, consistency, comes into practice.