Thursday, 24 August 2017

A Referee's Informal Guide to Handball

Game 11, 2017-18

This boys U19 first round cup tie is not untypical. I reckon there are about a dozen appeals for handball throughout the evening. Most of them I ignore. The only good thing you can say about the handball rule is this: it's so open to interpretation that even the players appealing for it rarely do so with complete conviction. It's often more of a hopeful question, as opposed to the raging demand you get with fouls and offside calls.

An honest player makes an honest appeal
Like snowflakes, no two cases of handball are ever the same. It's one of the most difficult calls to make, but one of the easiest to turn down. After most appeals, the game moves quickly on, and even if a player follows up at the next stop in play, all you have to say is, "Ball to hand" or "There was no handball." Or touch your shoulder or upper chest to indicate that the ball was not, as one side is claiming, controlled by the upper arm.

I don't really blame the players for all the appeals. Shouting "Handball!" is instinctive, and if it prompts the referee to blow for a free-kick, then why not try? It's not particularly sporting behaviour, but then what kind of idiot expects that any more?

The appeal is particularly impassioned when a shot is fired towards goal and hits a defender in the penalty area. It can hit the defender's head, thigh, stomach, back or arse, and there will still almost
always be at least one attacker who raises his arm and screams, "Handball!" Sometimes it really has hit a defender's arm or hand, but the ball was travelling at such speed, and from such a short distance away, that the contact was unavoidable. Any kind of actual upper limb contact does, however, tend to ramp up the thermometer of outrage when you don't blow.

Ball to hand or hand to ball?
Mind-readers please apply.
My approach to handball is the same one I have to penalty kicks. I only blow the whistle if I'm 100% sure that it was an offence. Borderline decisions I wave away. Given the impossibility of translating the game's theoretical law of 'intent' into actual practice, it's the only fair way that I can think of to proceed.

In this particular game, I experience a first in my decade of refereeing. The home side is 0-1 down and there are two minutes to play. They loft a long ball into the box from a free-kick, the defending team steps up too late, and three attackers are left alone in front of goal. As the ball bounces, it looks like the goalkeeper will catch it, no problem. But then the attacking team's number 17 deftly flips his hand up and knocks the ball over the keeper's head and into the net.

The home fans - numbering around a dozen or so very expressive friends and relatives - cheer wildly. Bizarrely, the away team don't appeal for handball. The sun is almost down, the groundsman hasn't turned on the floodlights, and this particular end of the ground is shadowed by tall trees - the light is beyond poor. For a second, I wonder if I've seen correctly. Then I blow the whistle and make the gesture to indicate handball. The number 17 looks at me sheepishly. There's no protest, and he doesn't object to the yellow card, even as the home supporters are demanding to know why I cancelled out the 'goal'.

The game ends that way after three minutes of stoppage time. For once, no one seems unhappy with the referee. There was just one flare-up and shoving match between two players, quickly snuffed out by a pair of yellows and a stern lecture, then followed by good coaching. That is, the coaches told their players to calm down and play football, and didn't yell at me for punishing their stupidity.

A fast, well-contested game on a tricky cinder pitch that flew by, and one that I really enjoyed. I shouldn't fool myself that it's a sign for the better, though. On my way out, I pass a men's game in the dusk on the adjacent grass field. It's the team whose coach told me last year to clear off back to England. They've just had a player sent off, and now he's mouthing off on the touchline and arguing with some spectators.

That's not my problem tonight. I cycle off through the park and enjoy the sunset instead.

Final score: 0-1 (5 x yellow)

Ian Plenderleith's next book, 'The Quiet Fan', will be published by Unbound in 2018. Click here to pre-order an e-book or paperback copy.

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