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Mar 16, 2013

Getting a handle on handball

There were 44 minutes and 33 seconds on the clock when Mario Kempes lost his marker, Dominique Bathenay, with a nice move near the centre circle. These days, the next opponent would have been just a few steps away, but in 1978 losing your marker meant you now had a lot of space opening up in front of you.

Kempes made the most of it. He surged through midfield until four French defenders moved up on him to stop his run some 25 yards in front of goal. Kempes turned one of them, Henri Michel, and then, in the same fluent motion, elegantly chipped the ball with his left foot into the path of striker Leopoldo Luque, who was making a run into the penalty area.

Never breaking stride, Luque controlled the ball with his hip 12 yards in front of goal. But defender Marius Tresor had anticipated the run and was right next to Luque, putting his body between the Argentinian and the French goal.

However, Luque had the one-second advantage strikers enjoy in such situations. He took two more steps and then, from eight yards out and a slightly tight angle, turned to shoot with his left foot.

Trésor attempted a desperate tackle. He threw his body forwards, hoping his outstretched leg would block the shot, extending his arms to cushion the impact of the impending fall. The ball left Luque's foot before Trésor's leg was there to stop it, but its flight towards goal was interrupted nonetheless. That's because the ball hit Trésor's right arm just as the French player was crashing to the ground, face-forward.

The Swiss referee, Jean Dubach, was not in a particularly good position to judge the incident. He was almost 30 yards away from the action and an attacker was impeding his line of vision. That's why he didn't even bother with the Argentinian players who were demanding a penalty for handball but instead ran straight over to the sideline to consult his assistant, Werner Winsemann from Canada.

We don't know what exactly Winsemann said but, as Dubach turned around after a few moments to go back, the linesman grabbed him by the arm and added another sentence or two. Then Dubach finally jogged back into the penalty area and pointed to the spot.

Kempes, Americo Gallego and Rene Houseman raised their arms in celebration; Gallego and Luque even embraced each other. Bathenay also raised his arms, but his was a gesture of disappointment. Michel Platini walked over to Dubach, shrugging his shoulders as if to say: "Come on, ref, what was Marius supposed to do?" Goalkeeper Jean-Paul Bertrand-Demanes shook his head in silent frustration.

It was a famous moment in World Cup history. During Argentina's first game at this tournament on home soil, two Hungarians had been sent off. It didn't raise too many eyebrows, as Hungary did play a pretty physical game and at least one of the two red cards was uncontested. But now, in the second game, another crucial decision went the hosts' way. And that would give rise to countless conspiracy theories about Argentina's 1978 campaign, theories that include bent referees, bribed Peruvians and even blatant amphetamine use.

In his 2010 book Death or Glory - The Dark History of the World Cup, Jon Spurling says about this penalty: "Daniel Passarella scored from the spot to put the hosts 1-0 ahead after Marius Trésor slipped over and brushed against the ball - a clear case of ball to hand." That's how almost everybody felt at the time and why the overwhelming public consensus was that Dubach got the call wrong.

Cris Freddi, writing in When Saturday Comes in October 1999, even included the decision in his "examples of dreadful refereeing", saying: "Swiss referee Jean Dubach gave Argentina a penalty when the classy French sweeper Marius Trésor touched the ball with his hand while falling over. Without it, Argentina wouldn't have reached the second round of a tournament they went on to win."

Of course, this is all right and sensible. The point, though, is this: if the Trésor incident had happened in a Bundesliga game in 2012 or 2013, the referee would have blown his whistle for a penalty without the slightest hesitation, let alone a conversation with his linesman.

There have been no less than 16 penalties for handball this season in Germany, some of them so strange that you wonder which words Spurling or Freddi would find for them. Two weeks ago, for instance, two Freiburg players, Jan Rosenthal and Cédric Makiadi, went up to head a Nurnberg free kick out of the danger zone. Makiadi missed the cross, but behind his back Rosenthal made contact with the ball and inadvertently headed it against Makiadi's outstretched arm. Nuremberg were awarded a penalty.

A week later, during the Mainz vs Leverkusen game, Mainz's Bo Svensson took a shot on goal that Leverkusen defender Manuel Friedrich, standing almost directly in front of him, tried to block with his right leg. The ball hit Friedrich's thigh and was deflected upwards, touching the player's right hand at about shoulder height. The referee awarded a penalty, which resulted in the only goal of the game.

In both cases, the referees in question later mentioned "an unnatural position of the arm", citing a FIFA interpretation we'll come back to. While Herbert Fandel, the head of the referee commission, felt those two particular decisions were wrong, he too uses that vernacular. "If a player increases his body surface, that means if he markedly spreads his arms or has his arms in an unnatural position above his head, then this has to be punished as handball," he says.

The decisions and their explanations have caused confusion and triggered a debate about the rule itself in Germany. Thomas Tuchel, the Mainz coach who earned three points because of that penalty, said: "The point is that I can no longer technically explain in which case it is a penalty and in which case it is not. You can always find arguments to back any decision."

His Frankfurt colleague Amin Veh suggested "introducing a catalogue that specifically rules out penalty decisions in certain situations, for instance if a player has his back to the ball". Journalists, meanwhile, called for a more clearly phrased rule. The tabloid Bild said: "The laws are too vague. The referee's margin of discretion is gigantic."

It's a debate that leaves me totally mystified. For one, football is and has always been a game in which the referee's margin of discretion is gigantic. Almost every decision made on the pitch - from who gets booked for which digression over what constitutes rough play to how dissent is handled - is open to debate and could be made differently by a different referee.

Whenever there's English football on German television, the commentator will at one point remark that "this would have been a free kick in the Bundesliga" or "our referees would have brandished a yellow card for that", while coaches will regularly say that "refereeing on the European stage is more permissive". All this is only possible because so much is entirely down to the referee's opinion.

It's even right there in the rules. Law XII says that a direct free kick should be awarded for certain infringements - such as striking, charging, pushing, kicking and so on - but, and this is the point, only if committed "in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force".

By comparison, the rule regarding handball is laudably lucid and straightforward. Because Law XII also states: "A direct free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a player (...) handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)."

And that, really, is all you need to know. If a player has handled the ball fully intentionally, you blow your whistle. If he has not, you wave play on. Using this very simple rule, there is no problem whatsoever with the two penalties that caused all this uproar. Of course Makiadi did not handle the ball intentionally - he didn't even know it was coming in his direction. Of course Friedrich didn't handle the ball deliberately - he couldn't foresee that it would hit his thigh and rebound upwards.

In other words, we don't need a better rule. Common sense is normally enough to get the decision right. All you have to do is look at the letter of the law (what does it say exactly?) and think of the spirit of the law (why do we have this rule, what do we want to prevent?). So why do referees keep getting it wrong?

I guess the explanation is that their minds have been messed with. Because naturally there are special, rare cases when common sense is not enough. Every once in a while you can't immediately say "This was deliberate" or "This was unintentional" - sometimes you'll go "Gosh, I don't know". And it's for these special cases that FIFA has issued its interpretations for Law XII. Mind you, they do not form part of the rule itself - they are merely there to guide the referee in a moment of uncertainty.

These interpretations state that there are a few factors referees should take into consideration. They are: the movement of the hand, the distance of the player to the ball and the position of the hand or the arm. It's this latter bit that seems to have run amuck, in no small part because of Fandel's strange definition.

If a player's arm is in an unnatural position and then gets hit by the ball, he seems to say and his men seem to think, then this automatically constitutes an offence. But if you look at the letters of the law, this is rubbish. Deliberate or not, that is the only thing that counts. It's only when a referee feels unable to judge this - when, for once, his gigantic margin of discretion mysteriously fails him - that he should fall back upon a few guidelines, of which the position of the arm is only one and probably the least important.

So, stop complaining about rules that are perfectly easy to understand, use common sense, consider the spirit of the law - and we're all fine.

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