Thomas Hughes: “An unclear rulebook makes controversial refereeing decisions inevitable”

The handball rule reared its ugly head yet again in Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Hull City last weekend. Alexis Sanchez’s first goal was allowed to stand despite his hand making the final touch, while the Chilean’s second came via the penalty spot after Sam Clucas was shown a red card for blocking Lucas Perez’s goal-bound header with his arm.

While the sending off did not cause a stir, the overwhelming reaction to the first incident was that the goal should not have stood, and it was later revealed that referee Mark Clattenburg apologised to the Hull players at halftime.

But was Clattenburg’s decision actually wrong?

Looking at Sanchez’s goal, it is clear that he did not intend to handle the ball. He tries to toe-poke the ball home but it flicks up off goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic and strikes his hand before dropping over the line.

Yet FIFA’s most recent update on the handball rule means it is no longer simply a case of ‘deliberate or not’. It asks the referee to consider: the proximity of the potential offender to the person last playing the ball, the speed of the ball, and whether the offender’s arms are in a natural or unnatural position.

Sanchez was extremely close to the person last playing the ball, almost on top of Jakupovic in fact. The ball also travelled very quickly, far too quickly for him to make the conscious decision to propel the ball over the line. Meanwhile, his hand was outstretched for balance as he attempted to poke the ball home. So his arms were in fact in a natural position. According to the rulebook then, Clattenburg was right to allow the goal to stand.

Yet this does not seem right, and the criticism of the officials is understandable. The entire basis of football comes from the use of the hands being prohibited and goals should never be scored with this part of the body, whether intentional or not.

What is needed then is a tweaking of the rules. Giving handball every time the ball touches a hand is not the answer, despite the popularity of this solution among pundits. This would simply result in attackers in the penalty area constantly flicking the ball up on to the hands of opponents, making defending in the box a nightmare.

No, there is a less drastic solution. Simply state that under no circumstances can a goal be scored if the final touch is applied by an attacker’s hand. And at the other end of the pitch? Clucas’ offence was obvious as he leaned towards the ball, and incidents of this sort are usually clear cut, being last-ditch attempts by defenders (or strikers – just ask Luis Suarez) to prevent a crucial goal. Yet more clarity would help here too, as if a goal cannot be scored with a hand, then it should not be prevented by a hand. Hence the rules should state that if a defender’s arm prevents a certain goal, a penalty should always be awarded and the player in question always sent off.

99% of the time this is the referee’s decision anyway, meaning the current situation disadvantages defenders: they never get away with handling the ball on the goal line, yet evidently strikers can score with their hands and not be penalised. Some might argue that the rules should be weighted in favour of the attacking team so that more goals are scored, yet fairness has to come before entertainment.

Indeed, as entertaining as it is to watch the likes of Alan Shearer and Gary Neville get annoyed at a poor decision, football could do with fewer handball controversies and referees would benefit from clearer guidelines. Having said that, it is also fair to expect match officials to use their common sense, something that was lacking at the weekend.

The linesman had a clear view of Sanchez’s handball and it his likely that his conversation with Clattenburg prior to the awarding of the goal included him stating that the ball had hit the Chilean’s hand, but that it was not deliberate.

Did it not occur to either of them that it was not a good idea to award a goal when the last touch was clearly made by a hand? Did they not see the controversy of making such a decision? Did they not consider that, while the handball could be interpreted as not deliberate, the vast majority of people would praise them for disallowing the goal (apart from the moan-prone Arsene Wenger and his players)?

Indeed, did Clattenburg’s regret at his error and the criticism he received seal his decision to leave the Premier League and become Saudi Arabia’s new head of refereeing? 

It is a sad end to his distinguished career in England, stepping down on the back of a mistake. If only he had used more common sense, and if only there was a clearer rulebook to help him and his colleagues.    

Thomas Hughes

Featured image courtesy of Aaron Sholl via Flikr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here.

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