I WOULD prefer to sit down with a physicist and attempt to decipher the intricacies of splitting an atom than try to unravel the complexities of what constitutes handball in football these days.

As an irrational seeker of knowledge, I am inflicted with the requirement to embark upon the journey of discovery that propels an individual down a labyrinth of unfathomable terminology, a collision of bizarrely-worded statements and utterly confusing instructions.

The wisdom of Solomon would be required to attempt to decode the legalese of the rule book which is at best merely convoluted and obtuse. Did I miss out paradoxical?

According to the law-making gurus at IFAB (International Football Association Board), the arm is defined as starting at the armpit.

So, that explains why learned observers refer to the sleevelines of an imaginary t-shirt when that awkward sphere takes on a life of its own as it bounces waywardly around a penalty box and comes into contact with an illegal part of a player’s anatomy? Well, not quite.

Those damn sticklers for detail at IFAB state: “To determine handball offences, the upper boundary of the arm is in line with the armpit.”

In other words, it is only legal to use the part of the arm that cannot make the outline of a player’s body any bigger.

Hmmm. Okay, think I’ve got a handle on that. So far so good.

First up, though, the possessors of the silver whistle, who are obviously lavished with a few more grey cells than us mere mortals, must determine if contact is deliberate in a handball situation. They also have to take into consideration other factors such as the shape of the player’s body when the ball strikes him.

If the silhouette of the body is deemed to be “unnaturally big” then a penalty can be awarded, whether the player meant to touch the ball or not.

Curiously, these footballing Einsteins fail to make any consideration for a dastardly offender actually looking in the opposite direction as witnessed in incidents involving Alexandro Bernabei v Dundee United November 2022 and Tomoki Iwata v Hearts this month.

Befuddled Bernabei was also booked for his cardinal sin by match official David Dickinson, a referee who appears to be on nodding terms with Philippe Clement. No wonder the wee defender has fled back to South America. We’ll probably never see him again.

PENALTY-KICK? VAR official Nick Walsh thought so as he instructed referee David Dickinson to review the incident after Dundee United striker Steven Fletcher’s header had struck Alexandro Bernabei’s arm. Fletcher scored from the resultant award.  

Guidance for the benefit of numbskulls such as your humble scribe, the laws also state that if the ball is either kicked or headed by a player and then goes on to their own arm, it is not handball unless the ball then goes directly into the opponents’ goal or the player scores immediately afterwards.

Some football associations encourage match officials to take into account the proximity of the player to the ball when kicked or headed and whether a bigger body silhouette could be considered natural given the player’s action at the time. (See previous reference to Messrs Bernabei and Iwata.)

It is not clear if this advice has been circulated by the SFA among the whistle-blowing fraternity of dear, old Caledonia.

Don’t know about you, dear reader, but I haven’t viewed much evidence that this gem of guidance has been communicated to the guys with the red and yellow cards I see pontificating every week.

I was watching highlights of a Premier League game last weekend when I noticed something that might just be construed as being devious in the extreme.

A winger came in from the right, driving towards the penalty area. His immediate opponent attempted to jockey him. The defender thrust out his right hand to point out an exposed area in the box to one of his team-mates as a rival raced into a good position.

The wide player immediately played the ball forward in the direction of the exposed hand and there was the inevitable coming together of hand and ball. One set of supporters immediately screamed for a penalty-kick. There was no argument the ball struck the hand which was away from the body.

Penalty-kick? As the talking heads on TV yitter with monotonous regularity: “I’ve seen them given.”

Thankfully, the referee didn’t buy it, VAR agreed with the onfield official and the game went on without interruption.

I am well aware of the laws of libel and slander in this country, so I would stop short at calling the winger a potential cheat.

What I would say, though, is that he is a gifted individual whose timing of a pass or cross and the accuracy that goes with the movement is a particular strength. The ball he hit against his opponent’s arm was from about two yards and was not heading in the general direction of anyone wearing the same colour of shirt.

PENALTY-KICK? VAR official John Beaton thought so as he instructed referee Don Robertson to review the incident as a loose ball brushes the arm of the unaware Tomoki Iwata. Hearts scored from the resultant award.

Possibly, he had a momentarily lapse of executing a simple manoeuvre with his usual precision. Maybe, though, it could be something altogether more sinister.

Think about it. You have the ball in a wide position and have an instant to size up the situation in your opponents’ box. There’s nothing happening, there are no team-mates in a good position. But there is a member of the rival team only a few yards away and he is not trying to block a possible cross while doing an impersonation of a penguin.

For a split-second, the defender has forgotten to put his hands behind his back. To some of the more unscrupulous among the football-playing brethren, it’s an invite to try to bounce the ball off a limb that might just entice a gullible referee to point to the spot.

Try proving the winger is among the unprincipled who would attempt to con the match official into a potential match-altering decision. Only one person would know for an absolute certainty what his intention was at that precise moment.

There are Sneaky Petes everywhere, as we know to our consternation. Alas, there are also exploitable match officials, on and off the field, as we know to our cost.

Please note the aforementioned handball laws do not necessarily apply to a performer answering to the name of Connor Goldson who appears to have modelled his football-playing style on the skills of US basketball superstars Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.


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