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The mess that is the new handball rule: Bayern v. Schalke exposes the flaws

Bayern Munich’s match against Schalke brought the new handball rule under the microscope, with two non-calls in particular drawing the ire of many fans. Let’s dig down to see if the calls were as bad as many people have claimed.

FC Schalke 04 v FC Bayern Muenchen - Bundesliga Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

The Bayern-Schalke handball controversy

Bayern Munich’s match against Shalke on matchday 2 brought the new handball rule under the microscope, with two non-calls in particular drawing the ire of many fans. The first was an incident when a ball was headed into defender Benjamin Pavard’s arm from behind; the second was an incident when Ivan Perisic’s arm contacted the ball during a free kick when he formed part of the wall and jumped upwards. Let’s dig down into the new handball rule to see whether the calls were as bad as many people have claimed. I will leave VAR for another day.

Handballs according to the (new) Laws of the Game

Before starting the analysis, let me put my bias on the table. I think the new handball rule is a poorly written mess. It is so badly written as to be an embarrassment to the IFAB (International Football Advisory Board). After spending twenty-five years navigating and litigating some of the most byzantine legislation and regulations in Canada, I can honestly say that this rule is less clear than just about anything my government has ever produced.

But let’s start at the beginning and then break it down. Here is the text of the new rule (Laws of the Game, p. 104-5):

Handling the ball

It is an offence if a player:

- deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, including moving the hand/arm towards the ball

- gains possession/control of the ball after it has touched their hand/arm and then:

- scores in the opponents’ goal

- creates a goal-scoring opportunity

- scores in the opponents’ goal directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental, including by the goalkeeper

It is usually an offence if a player:

- 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.

Except for the above offences, it is not usually an offence 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

Beyond publishing the rule, IFAB provides explanatory notes on the purpose of the new rule and then offers special training and interpretation guidelines for the match officials.

The explanation reads as follows (Laws of the Game, p. 163):


Greater clarity is needed for handball, especially on those occasions when ‘non- deliberate’ handball is an offence. The re-wording follows a number of principles:

- football does not accept a goal being scored by a hand/arm (even if accidental)

- football expects a player to be penalised for handball if they gain possession/control of the ball from their hand/arm and gain a major advantage e.g. score or create goal-scoring opportunity.

- it is natural for a player to put their arm between their body and the ground for support when falling.

- having the hand/arm above shoulder height is rarely a ‘natural’ position and a player is ‘taking a risk’ by having the hand/arm in that position, including when sliding.

- if the ball comes off the player’s body, or off another player (of either team) who is close by, onto the hand/arm it is often impossible to avoid contact with the ball.

Analysis: it’s still about intent

To understand the rule, it can now be divided into three parts, or categories of intent, needed to make the call.

On the basic rule, intent is still required for an offence to be committed (hand to ball v. ball to hand etc). All fine there.

For offensive players, there now appears to be a bunch of “absolute liability” offences. In other words, if contact is made with the ball and the hand with certain outcomes, it is an offence all the time, no matter what. This is understandable from a PR perspective, perhaps harsh, but not too hard to enforce.

The nightmare starts when somebody decided to insert the word “usually” in the rule for what is effectively the defensive handball rule. This imports a great deal of latitude for the referee because “usually” cannot mean “always.” It appears that IFAB and the officials still interpret the rule to mean that full intent is required for the defensive handball to be called, because the player has to place his arm in a position to make his body unnaturally bigger to create the lower level of foul. There is probably a third level of intent implied for arms above shoulder level (which you could call “strict liability” if you wanted to).

IFAB has also made the purpose of each rule clear. For the offensive handball changes, they wanted to eliminate as much controversy as possible around goals, and thus the rule should be expected to increase the number of handballs called against offensive players around the penalty area.

In the case of the changes to the defensive handball rules, the stated intention was to stop players from putting their arms behind their backs to avoid free kicks. So the new rule is expected to reduce the number of free kicks being awarded against defensive players for handball in and around the penalty area.

The referees are now being instructed that the body, including the arms, has a natural silhouette. That silhouette does not have the arms immediately beside the torso in all circumstances. While a player is standing still in the wall, it may be that the natural silhouette has no gap between arms and body. But as a player takes different actions, his arms will be more or less close to his body, and it will be in the discretion of the referee to determine if the distance of the arm from the body has purposefully created an unnaturally large barrier to the ball.

The IFAB technical director stated as follows:

If the arms are extended beyond that silhouette then the body is being made unnaturally bigger, with the purpose of it being a bigger barrier to the opponent or the ball.

Once they suggest a purposive analysis is required, they have then clearly imported the question of intent. Whether or not that was their goal is anyone’s guess.

Handball or not? A second look at Bayern v. Schalke

So how do these new rules apply to the two controversial contacts against Schalke?

There is a very strong argument that the call against Pavard is clearly within the current law. He back was turned, his arm was not in an unnaturally large alignment and the ball came off another player’s body into his own from close range. This would seem to be confirmed by the comment of the match referee that he thought that Pavard’s contact was unintentional.

FC Schalke 04 v FC Bayern München - Bundesliga for DFL
The scene in question in which Daniel Caligiuri’s free kick collides with the arm of Ivan Perisic.
Photo by Lars Baron/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images

The situation involving Perisic is a little less clear. Perisic was facing the incoming ball and his arm was some distance from his body. Exactly what the natural silhouette of the body is supposed to be after you have jumped some distance into the air is anyone’s guess, although it seems unlikely that the expectation is no distance between the arm and torso (anyone here old enough to remember the Pogo?). Perisic’s arm is below shoulder-level, so it falls into the grey area where the referee must decide if its positioning has purposefully created an unnaturally large barrier. Fritz has said upon review he probably would have decided differently but because it was a judgement-call situation VAR was right not to intervene.

Without some significant changes to this rule, we should be ready for a long season of handball controversies. The rule as written is an absolute mess and could use complete rewrite.

Addendum: an interesting factoid — “room defence”

In 2011, the DFB completely overhauled the way they evaluate goalkeeper performance and recommend how young goalkeepers should be trained.

They now break down a goalkeeper’s responsibilities into two distinct areas. The first one, “goal defence” is essentially shot-stopping skills.

The second area is now called “room defence” which “involves owning the space that eventually leads to shots: starting position to deal with through-balls, crosses, organizing the back line.”

Anyone want to make an educated case as to the current Bayern player who both was the inspiration for and helped develop this technical standard for goalkeeping?

Germany v Algeria: Round of 16 - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil
None shall pass.
Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images

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