Understanding and judging handling offenses in soccer.

We have written about handling offenses a lot on this blog and for good reason.  These decisions almost always seem controversial. One reason that these decisions invite so much controversy and discussion stems from the fact that the Laws of the Game state that a handling offense occurs when a player “handles the ball deliberately.” In other words, the referee is required to determine whether the player, whose hand/arm came in contact with the ball, intentionally or deliberately played the ball. A lot of controversy, however, also arises from a failure to understand what “deliberate” means in the context of the Laws of the Game and how referees are instructed to look at and judge these offenses. We wanted to use as an example of a correct call referee Roger East made to award a penalty kick for handling in the recent game between West Brom Albion and Sunderland in the English Premier League.  In the 35th minute of the game, West Brom Liam Ridgwell’s cross struck Sunderland’s Craig Gardner in the arm. Mr. East, who was perfectly positioned to make the call, immediately pointed to the spot (see the video below).

Mr. East was spot on and our explanation and discussion of why we think so follows below. First, however, it is important to provide a better framework for our discussion and therefore we briefly discuss guidance and criteria provided to referees by IFAB and the United States Soccer Federation on this subject matter.

According to IFAB’s guidance, the referee must take certain criteria into consideration when deciding whether the contact with the ball was deliberate. These include “the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand) and “the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball).”

In addition, in its Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game, the USSF explained that:

“The offense known as “handling the ball” involves deliberate contact with the ball by a player’s hand or arm (including fingertips, upper arm, or outer shoulder). ‘Deliberate contact’ means that the player could have avoided the touch but chose not to, that the player’s arms were not in a normal playing position at the time, or that the player deliberately continued an initially accidental contact for the purpose of gaining an unfair advantage. Moving hands or arms instinctively to protect the body when suddenly faced with a fast approaching ball does not constitute deliberate contact unless there is subsequent action to direct the ball once contact is made. Likewise, placing hands or arms to protect the body at a free kick or similar restart is not likely to produce an infringement unless there is subsequent action to direct or control the ball. The fact that a player may benefit from the ball contacting the hand does not transform the otherwise accidental event into an infringement. A player infringes the Law regarding handling the ball even if direct contact is avoided by holding something in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.).”

Moreover, in his April 2005 Memorandum, Alfred Kleintaitis, the Manager of Referee Development and Education, further explained that “the standards of judgment which the referee is [required to] apply when the handling offense is not immediately clear [include]:

  • The distance or time within which the player had to react to avoid contact – if there was time to avoid the contact, the likelihood of an offense is greater;
  • The position of the player’s hand or arm at the time of the contact – if the hand or arm is carried in an unnatural or unusual position (e.g., high up in the air or, while defending against a free kick, far away from the body), the likelihood of an offense is greater
  • Directing the ball after initial accidental or reflexive contact – if the player takes advantage to control or push the ball away, a handling offense has occurred”

Finally, in its more recent and more expansive writing on the subject, Referee Program Directive from February 2009, the USSF identified 3 primary criteria (Making Yourself Bigger, Unnatural Position, Benefit) and 2 secondary criteria (Reaction Time, Hand/Arm to Ball) that should be the referee’s focus when determining whether a handling offense occurred.  These criteria were described in the Directive as follows:

1. Making yourself bigger.
This refers to the placement of the arm(s)/hand(s) of the defending player at the time the ball is played by the opponent. Should an arm/hand be in a position that takes away space from the team with the ball and the ball contacts the arm/hand, the referee should interpret this contact as handling. Referees should interpret this action as the defender “deliberately” putting his arm/hand in a position in order to reduce the options of the opponent (like spreading your arms wide to take away the passing lane of an attacker).

Does the defender use his hand/arm as a barrier?

Does the defender use his hand/arm to take away space and/or the passing lane from the opponent?

Does the defender use his hand/arm to occupy more space by extending his reach or extending the ability of his body to play the ball thereby benefiting from the extension(s)?

2. Is the arm or hand in an “unnatural position?”

Is the arm or hand in a position that is not normal or natural for a player performing the task at hand.

3. Did the player “benefit?”

In considering all the “signs” described above, the referee should also consider the result of the player’s (usually a defender) action. Did the defender’s action (handling of the ball) deny an opportunity (for example, a pass or shot on goal) that would have otherwise been available to the opponent? Did the offending player gain an unfair tactical advantage from contact with the hand/arm which enabled him to retain possession? In other words: Did the player benefit by putting his hand/arm in an “unnatural position?” The referee needs to be able to quickly calculate the result of the player’s action to determine whether an offence has been committed.

4. Reaction time.

The less time a defender has to react, the less likely there has been a handling offense. For example, a ball struck from a close distance, or a very fast moving ball, or a ball coming in from a direction which is outside the defender’s view gives little or no time for the defender’s reaction to be “deliberate.” The referee must take into consideration whether the defender’s reaction is purely instinctive, taken to protect sensitive areas of the body as the face. Distance is a factor in determining “reaction time.” The further the ball, the more reaction time a play may have.

5. Hand/arm to ball.

Referees must be ready to judge whether the player moved his arm to the ball thereby initiating the contact. Additionally, the referee should evaluate whether the player deliberately readjusted his body position to block the ball thus intentionally playing the ball with his hand/arm.

Importantly, the criteria 4 and 5 are to be considered only if, after applying criteria 1 through 3, the referee is still uncertain as to whether handling has occurred.

We cite these memoranda here because they inform our judgment about the situation faced by referee East. These criteria and guidance were promulgated to “standardize” and make referee handling calls as objective as possible and referees should know them by heart. Our review of the play at issue shows that the first three primary criteria were met. First, both of Gardner’s arms were extended above his shoulders and away from his body. His arms took away the space and the passing lane from the opponent. Using his arms, he made himself as big as possible to prevent Ridgwell’s cross. Secondly, Gardner’s arms were not in a natural position. After all, when you run and/or stop to face your opponent your arms are generally besides your body and not above your shoulders. Finally, Gardner and his team benefited in this instance because West Brom’s Ridgwell was denied an opportunity to cross the ball into the penalty area and to his incoming teammates.

Clearly, in matters involving judgment calls, no set of rules/criteria will ever remove all doubt and we realize that some may argue that close proximity and little time for reaction should be viewed as mitigating factors in the present situation.  While we agree that these are mitigating factors, our judgment is that Gardner had enough time to react or realize that the cross was coming in his direction. Importantly too, given that the primary considerations/criteria were met, and that they outweigh the secondary ones, we find Mr. East’s judgment and his call correct.

Categories: Laws of the Game

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