Handling, or not, that is the question: Did Dowd and Webb get it right?

Referee decisions involving the offense known as “handling the ball” almost always stir controversy. Those that result in penalty kicks are guaranteed to be hotly debated. In two recent games, Liverpool v. Manchester City and Everton v. Fullham, both Phil Dowd and Howard Webb awarded penalty kicks for handling offenses committed by Manchester City and Everton players, respectively. Did they get it right? After all, just because the contact is made between the ball and the player’s hand or arm does not automatically mean that the handling occurred. Rather, the Laws of the Game state that the handling offense is committed only if a player “handles the ball deliberately.” So let’s take a deeper and more exacting look into what referees must consider when making decisions whether the offense occurred.

First, in its interpretations of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees, IFAB pointed out that “[h]andling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm.” In addition, the referees were advised to consider “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)” when making the handling offense determinations.

Given that this area of the law predictably causes considerable debate among referees, players and fans, USSF also issued guidance and number of directives in an attempt to provide some clarity to this area of the law. In its Advice to Referees, USSF stated that “deliberate contact means that the player could have avoided the touch but chose not to [or] that the player’s arms were not in a normal playing position at the time.” In its directives, USSF further stated that:

  • 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 his extensions?

We believe that both Mr. Dowd and Mr. Webb correctly determined that the offending players used their fully outstretched arms as barriers and impermissibly took away the shooting lanes from their opponents. Clearly, neither the Manchester City nor the Everton player can convincingly argue that the contact was unexpected or accidental. Indeed, it is rather clear that both defenders deliberately lunged forward toward the shooting players precisely because they anticipated the oncoming shots. There was nothing unexpected or accidental about their successful blocks of the shots at issue.

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