Hands up: Rule set in stone this term

EPL has until November to put forth motion to change handball law for next season amid dismay

Referee Peter Bankes checking the video assistant referee monitor before awarding a hotly disputed penalty to Newcastle in added time, enabling the visitors to escape with a 1-1 draw at Tottenham on Sunday. The handball incident was the latest in a s
Referee Peter Bankes checking the video assistant referee monitor before awarding a hotly disputed penalty to Newcastle in added time, enabling the visitors to escape with a 1-1 draw at Tottenham on Sunday. The handball incident was the latest in a string of contested penalty decisions awarded in the first three rounds of the new campaign.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Any move from the Premier League to change the handball law for next season would need to be submitted to international law-making body International Football Association Board (Ifab) next month in order to be considered.

Ifab holds its annual meeting, the forum where laws are passed and changed, in March but according to its protocol, football associations need to put in proposals by Nov 1 in order to allow time for consultations across the game.

A series of controversial handball decisions in the opening weeks of the Premier League has led to calls from some in the English game for the law to be changed.

While the laws of the game are applied on an international scale, British football has a uniquely prominent role in the creation of the laws. The decision-making General Assembly of Ifab is made up of the four British football associations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and four representatives of Fifa.

All decisions require a three-quarters majority, which in practice means Fifa's representatives would need to agree to any British proposal. The decision on what items are on the agenda will be made at an annual meeting next month.

Crystal Palace boss Roy Hodgson said he was "disillusioned" with the game after his side lost to a penalty awarded for a disputed handball.

"I don't understand how we've allowed it to happen. The Premier League, the referee, the coaches, the managers, the players, I don't know how we've allowed this type of situation, which we have at virtually every match at the moment, to occur because the rules of football are important," he said after the 2-1 loss to Everton on Saturday.

A day later, Newcastle were given a stoppage-time penalty after the referee via the video assistant referee ruled that Tottenham's Eric Dier had handled the ball as he jumped up for an aerial challenge with Newcastle's Andy Carroll.

Magpies manager Steve Bruce, despite benefiting from the decision, described it as "nonsense".

  • Handful of problems

  • Q What is the new handball law for this season?

    A Strictly speaking there is no "new" handball law in the Premier League this season. The Premier League is, however, enacting the same law and interpretation of it that was seen across other European leagues last season. English officials had previously taken a more liberal attitude towards that law.

    Q Why has it done that?

    A In July, world governing body Fifa took charge of matters relating to video assistant referee (VAR) from the rule-making body, the International Football Association Board (Ifab), and Fifa officials, including former Italian referee, Pierluigi Collina, made it clear that all leagues should play by the same laws and interpretations of them.

    Q So why did Ifab change the handball law?

    A The old law stated that deliberate handling of the ball, with hand or arm, was an offence. This was clearly a subjective matter involving an assessment of intent and led to much argument over decisions. The changes were an attempt to reduce the subjectivity and put the focus on what Ifab calls "factual" aspects - such as the position of the arm, which can be assessed through video review.

    Q How has this worked?

    A We have seen handball decisions in the Premier League that were unlikely to have been given previously. For example, Eric Dier's offence for Tottenham against Newcastle on Sunday when he had his back turned to an opponent while he jumped and the ball was headed against his outstretched arm. Players have been penalised for shots at close-range which have struck their arm involuntarily.

    Q I thought it wasn't a foul if the defender was close to the attacker?

    A That is the case only "if the hand/arm is close to the body and does not make the body unnaturally bigger".

    Q Doesn't a player tend to raise his arms when he jumps for a header?

    A That has been argued by some former players. The law, however, states that the arms should not be raised above shoulder level to avoid the risk of a handball decision.

    Q So if this is causing controversy and more handball penalties in England, what happened when it was introduced elsewhere last season?

    A The number of penalties for handball had already increased with the introduction of VAR. Yet last season in Italy's Serie A for example, the number of handball penalties rose from 37 to 57. In Spain, they rose from 35 to 48.

    Q There are calls for the law to be changed, is that likely?

    A Ifab has been willing to tweak and alter laws with increasing frequency, so some change cannot be ruled out, but with VAR now part of the game, they are unlikely to return to the old law based purely on intent to handle.


"Maybe Roy is right, maybe we all need to get together," he added. "The decisions are ruining the spectacle. We have to get together as managers and say this must stop."

Former Liverpool and England defender Jamie Carragher, now a pundit with Sky Sports, also weighed in.

"Whether it's the Premier League, the FA, Fifa, Pierluigi Collina (chairman of the Fifa referees' committee), whoever's involved in this - stop it, because you are ruining football for everybody," he said.

There has been no indication from the Premier League or the FA that they intend to request a change to the law. The Premier League did not immediately respond to a request for comment and Ifab declined to comment.

One option to deal with the concerns would be for the referees body, Professional Game Match Officials Limited, to change its interpretation of the law back to last season's approach but that risks conflict with Fifa and its referee bodies.

Pundit Graeme Souness admitted the rules are harsh but could lead to more controversy and excitement.

"Maybe going forward, we'll think there's more goals being scored, more for us to talk about, more excitement in the stadiums," he said. The Premier League saw seven goals scored from penalties last weekend - the highest number after Sept 13-14 in 2003 (eight).


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2020, with the headline 'Hands up: Rule set in stone this term'. Print Edition | Subscribe