Grey Matters In Football: Looking at Handball

Chris PotterCorrespondent IMarch 14, 2010

Thierry Henry's handball against the Republic of Ireland to send France through to the 2010 World Cup finals sparked outrage in many footballing circles, and prompted calls for the tie to be replayed.

While this was an unfortunate incident with unsavoury consequences, it is questionable whether Henry's intention was to cheat. Was the act an instinctive reaction to the ball skidding out of play?

If the referee had seen what happened, the goal would have been ruled out, a free-kick awarded to the opposition, and a yellow card issued to Henry. No doubts, no question marks.

Yesterday afternoon, Croatian striker Nicola Kalinic swivelled sharply to thump a shot past the outstretched leap of Heurelho Gomes to pull Blackburn back to within a goal of snatching Blackburn Rovers a dramatic late draw at Tottenham Hotspur.

Yet, much to his and Sam Allardyce's chagrin, the "goal" was ruled out because Kalinic had controlled the ball initially with his hand. Replays showed that Spurs defender Michael Dawson had shoved Kalinic, which made him inadvertently handle the ball. Free-kick to Blackburn or goal awarded? What was the correct decision?

This situation is one of many which football referees all over the world have to resolve. 

Law 12 of the F.A. rules states that a free-kick or penalty shall be awarded if an outfield players "handles the ball deliberately". Furthermore, former referee David Elleray adds that referees are instructed to penalise the offender if his hand or arm is in "an unnatural position" at the point of contact.

Kalinic neither handled the ball deliberately, nor was his arm in an unnatural position; whether that term can be accurately defined or not is another issue entirely—was Henry's arm naturally poised? However, in this instance, one must ask whether Kalinic gained an unfair advantage through use of an illegitimate body part in this context.

While this particular decision did not affect the outcome of the match in question, many others—such as the decision to let Henry's "goal" stand—have done and will continue to do so.

In particular, I refer to situations where an attacking player (A) has shot at goal, only to see his effort blocked by the arm or hand of a defending player (B).

In some cases, player B is yards from player A, and has not made a real effort to adjust his body position accordingly, or has moved to deliberately prevent the ball from reaching its destination. In other cases, player A fires a shot at the fast-approaching player B who, a matter of feet from player A, only has a fraction of a second to react. In order to protect himself, player B may raise his hands and or arms instinctively.

In the first instance, a penalty is usually awarded, and it is generally agreed that the correct decision was made. In the second instance, referees often still award a penalty, despite the fact that the handball is clearly accidental. Decisions have also frequently been awarded in favour of player A where player B has inadvertently handled the ball whilst tripping over or in any other situation where he cannot control his motion.

It is a tricky rule which does not seem to have been enforced with much consistency. Subsequently, of every dozen or so occasions on which the event arises during a football match, perhaps two or three times one team on the pitch feels rightly aggrieved.

But how can this situation be rectified?

It is clearly impossible to introduce technology to gauge whether or not a player has had sufficient time to react to a situation within the laws of the game and whether or not he has committed a deliberate foul.

It is, however, possible to allow a referee access to a televised replay of the event if he is unsure of which course of action to take. But many would worry that such a measure would detract the flow of the game, and contradict footballing traditions.

I feel that the presence of a goal-line official may help the other three match officials in crucial situations inside the penalty box, but that there is little else which can be done to improve the situation. Is it a case of accepting that decisions can sometimes favour one team? Do these decisions tend to even themselves out?

I would be intrigued to read your comments on a fascinating and dividing issue.


Next grey matter: The offside rule.