Cristian Zapata vs. Barcelona: When Is a Handball Not a Handball?

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Cristian Zapata vs. Barcelona: When Is a Handball Not a Handball?
Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Rare is the high-profile match that passes without controversy. AC Milan's 2-0 upset victory against Barcelona will be remembered for the Italians' masterful defensive performance, but also for the handball many think should have ruled out Milan's opening goal.

I've watched the footage many times now and can say with absolute certainly what happened.

Riccardo Montolivo's shot from 25 yards first struck Barcelona defender Jordi Alba, who was using his upper arms to protect his face. According to FIFA's laws of the game, handball is "a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm." In this instance I'd argue Alba's actions were motivated by self-defence and not by any intent to block the shot unfairly.

FIFA rules also offer a defence based on the distance between where the ball started and where it struck a hand or arm. The "unexpected ball" can be taken to mean one giving a player so little time to react that his actions must be deemed unintentional.

Referee Craig Thomson was right not to penalize Alba for two reasons: firstly, because his handling of the ball wasn't deliberate and secondly because Milan had an advantage and would go on to score. The second event deems everything else irrelevant.

The real controversy centered around what happened after Alba's handball, however, which deflected the ball onto the left arm of Milan's Cristian Zapata and thus into the path of Kevin Prince-Boateng—who duly shot home to put the home side ahead.

Those claiming the ball struck Zapata's head are seeing something I don't. When I watch the footage closely, I see the ball rise up and hit somewhere behind his bicep and his wrist before dropping down into the penalty area.

Was Zapata's handball deliberate? Absolutely not. In fact, he was trying everything possible to remove his hands from a position in which they might come into contact with the ball. The only reason the ball met with his arm was Alba's deflection, which happened in such close proximity and propelled the ball at such velocity toward Zapata that the "unexpected ball" is also good here.

Zapata's defence is locked tight. He handled the ball but he did not commit a handball offence that Thomson was obliged to penalise. The referee made precisely the right call and deserves credit for taking the right line on a rule that is so often misunderstood.

Referees have license for interpretation on handball decisions, but there seems a growing trend to award penalties anytime a ball strikes a hand or arm in the area—fans, players and coach plead for them every time a cross or shot is blocked. This is not the way the rules are written and it's sparked a widespread misinterpretation of what actually counts as a handball offence.

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The Zapata controversy is exemplar to this. "The handball to us was very clear," said Barcelona's Pedro after the match at the San Siro, as per Football Italia. That it was, but that doesn't mean the referee should have deemed it illegal.

Milan's goal was good. FIFA's rules attest to this and anybody who thinks otherwise needs to look over them again—or for the first time—and help us get back to a place where handball calls are made in the way they were intended to be.

Referees and the media have a big part to play in what happens next. Thomson was right and it's the media's responsibility to make sure fans know that. Those writers suggesting Barcelona were cheated are reinforcing a widespread misunderstanding that is putting pressure on referees to make decisions at odds with the rules.

The section of FIFA rules pertaining to handball

The rules, after all, are all we've got.

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