Why is the new handball rule so contentious & will it be changed?

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Change in any realm of life can be difficult to adapt to and football is no different as teams come to terms with the updated handball rule.

The new handball rule was rolled out by the IFAB ahead of the 2019-20 season and there were some minor tweaks made to the wording ahead of the 2020-21 season after widespread annoyance among those involved in the game.

Handball decisions have been the source of some of the most controversial moments in football, such as Diego Maradona's 'Hand of God' against England at the 1986 World Cup, or Thierry Henry's 'Hand of Gaul' against the Republic of Ireland in the 2010 World Cup play-off.

The rules were changed in an attempt to avoid such controversy by making things cut and dry, so why has there been so much disquiet regarding the changes? 

Why is the new handball rule so contentious?

Former England striker Gary Lineker asked, "Can we have our game back?", while Crystal Palace boss Roy Hodgson declared that the new handball rule is "ruining the game".

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said: "We need to get that clarity. There have been so many changes and nuances to different rules. Back in the old days it seemed simpler.”

The new rule has been a source of so much consternation because it effectively removed the need for a handball offence to be deliberate and more penalties have been awarded as a result.

Perceptions such as those expressed by Lineker and Hodgson have been coloured by incidents where penalties have been given when a player has accidentally handled the ball inside the area while defending.

As well as penalties, many have been exasperated by the fact that a number of goals have been ruled out after the identification of an apparently innocuous accidental handball in the lead-up.

Handball VAR 2020-21

In the past, some marginal handball occurrences may have been missed or a referee may have made a judgement call on the matter.

However, the fact that such incidents are now closely monitored by VAR during each game, along with FIFA's insistence on the strict and consistent application of the rule, means that they are inevitably highlighted.

Handball offences have thus risen across the game, including in the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga.

What is the current handball rule?

The IFAB defines a handball offence in the following terms for the 2020-21 season:

A handball offence occurs if a player:

  • deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, including moving the hand/arm towards the ball
  • scores in the opponents’ goal directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental, including by the goalkeeper
  • after the ball has touched their or a team-mate’s hand/arm, even if accidental, immediately:
    • scores in the opponents’ goal
    • creates a goal-scoring opportunity  
  • touches the ball with their hand/arm when:
    • the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger
    • the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level (unless the player deliberately plays the ball which then touches their hand/arm)

The above offences apply even if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close.

It is not a handball if the ball touches a player's hand/arm

  • directly from the player’s own head or body (including the foot)
  • directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close
  • if the hand/arm is close to the body and does not make the body unnaturally bigger
  • when a player falls and the hand/arm is between the body and the ground to support the body, but not extended laterally or vertically away from the body

In determining a handball offence, the area of an arm from the bottom of the armpit - essentially where a short sleeve ends on jerseys - counts.

Premier League handball guidelines

Will the new handball rule be changed again?

It is entirely possible that pressure will mount on football's lawmakers, the IFAB, to the point where it is sufficient to prompt further change or clarity on the handball rule.

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While it may take some time for any changes to be considered and brought into effect worldwide, national associations have the option of modifying some laws, but must inform the IFAB.

The Premier League has been particularly vocal in its opposition to the handball rule as it stands and the English organisation will be at the fore of any agitation for change.

Indeed, it has revised its interpretation of the rule and it is understood that referees have been instructed to be more lenient on the issue of handballs.