MARTIN SAMUEL: Why is it always chaos before common sense?

MARTIN SAMUEL: Why is it always chaos before common sense? The introduction of VAR made handball a black and white issue… and English football and referees lost their mind

  • New handball rule threw up huge controversy in Premier League last weekend
  • Why does football need several weeks of travesty before a compromise is found?
  • Our officials have hidden behind a rigid implementation of the handball rules
  • MARTIN SAMUEL: New handball rule is a terrible mistake after weekend of chaos

Mike Riley was busy briefing on Wednesday to explain a rule that just about everyone understood until referees got involved.

There were slides and footage, and clarification and caveats, but each season nobody in football ever gets to grip with the crux of it: why does it always need carnage before common sense can find space at the table?

Why does the sport need several weeks of travesty and injustice before a compromise is found that is even a nodding acquaintance with fairness?

Eric Dier’s handball was just one of many controversial cases in Premier League last weekend

Mike Riley’s explanation of handball made as much sense as anything we’ve heard this season 

Riley did his best to explain why Eric Dier, who wasn’t even facing the ball when he gave away a penalty, was fairly penalised, while Joel Ward, who was looking at it when he handled to the extent he tried to get out of the way, was not.

He talked about the thorniness of handball rules and of the need to balance subjectivity with consistency. And it made about as much sense as anything we have heard since the season began.

There was, however, no admission that, once again, our officials have hidden behind a rigid implementation of the rules, when a more sympathetic understanding of the sport and those who play it would have allowed this wriggle room from the start.

There was nothing wrong with handball as it stood, say, a decade ago. The referee called it, based on an individual judgment of context: intent, advantage and reaction time. It wasn’t an exact science. But unless ball to hand is always an offence, regardless of circumstances, it cannot be.

Crystal Palace’s Joel Ward was controversially penalised against Everton at Selhurst Park

And a severe interpretation is never going to be the solution because any player capable of finding the corner of the net from 30 yards, or the right head in a crowded penalty box, is certainly capable of deliberately hitting an opponent on the arm from five yards.

So the referee interpreted handball and while there was partisan moaning from players and managers, in essence we understood. And then, because of VAR, it was decided to make handball a black and white issue to achieve greater consistency — and English football lost its mind.

Specifically, Riley’s men did. To referees, a new rule seems rather like a new item of clothing. If you are going out that night, you have got to wear it. So when FIFA brought in a draconian and unnecessary interpretation of handball, instead of viewing it dispassionately and wondering how it could be best shaped to fit the English game — which is what seems to happen with some of the least savoury aspects of football, such as our ludicrously indulgent take on striking an opponent with an elbow during an aerial challenge — referees embraced the new rule to the point of madness.

So much so that the controversy overshadowed the most compelling start to a season in recent memory. And now there is a change in interpretation.

Kai Havertz appeared to handle the ball before Tammy Abraham’s equaliser at West Brom 

Now referees will be able to use judgment based on reaction times and margins that have always been in place.

Yet nothing has changed at Pierluigi Collina or David Elleray’s end. Nothing has changed with FIFA or IFAB. So if this new, sympathetic understanding of what constitutes handball is available now, it was available then, at the very start.

It was available last season, too, when Tottenham and West Ham both had goals disallowed against Sheffield United in which the player handling had no time to get an offending arm out the way.

It was said earlier this week that referees hated the new handball rule but felt powerless to stop it. Riley’s action, as head of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited, proves that was not strictly true. This crisis, unifying those who benefited with those who suffered, did not need to happen — but it required officials with the wit and insight to foresee the problem.

Man United won a penalty after the final whistle at Brighton after Neal Maupay handled the ball

So it is solved? No. As Riley pointed out on Wednesday, Dier would still have conceded a penalty against Newcastle because his arm was above his shoulder. No matter that he was jumping, no matter that he was facing away from the ball, no matter that his reaction time was miniscule.

The arm above the shoulder would appear to be a trump card. Not a natural stance, apparently — although if you elbow someone in the chops with it, well how else are you meant to jump?

Maybe Riley could answer that one the next time he is called upon to justify football’s latest outbreak of lunacy. Don’t hold your breath.

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