A Handball Headache

Informative Article


The implementation of IFAB's handball rule in the English Premier League has sparked criticism from the players and coaches around the division. There have been many calls to scrap it, only 5 weeks into the season. So what should the Premier League do?


by Prithvi Prem

Image source: Maxi Grip

Last month, the English Premier League, one of the world’s most popular football leagues, kicked off their new season. This new season came with new rules though, which we have already seen come into play within these first 5 weeks. The most notable new rule has been the rule around handballs. The IFAB (International Football Association Board) issued a new rule which states that any ball striking an arm when it is not tightly kept to the body is an offense. This means that even if the handball is accidental, it is automatically a penalty.


This rule effectively decided the result in two premier league games: Manchester United vs Crystal Palace and Tottenham vs Newcastle. In both these matches it was clear that the player committed the handball unintentionally, but still got called for a penalty. Many coaches and players across the league have expressed their discontent with the rule and have caused it to amass much controversy among football fans around the world.


There have been calls to completely scrap the rule while, on the other hand, to let it play out. This is where the trilemma is presented: should the Premier league keep the rule in play, or should they immediately scrap it? Or should they let it play out for one season before deciding?


POV 1: The Rule should be kept in play

This new rule is only 5 weeks old. There are over 30 games left and anything can happen. here could just be a surplus of incidents right now.


We’ve seen a situation like this before: when the Bundesliga in Germany adopted a new

penalty rule, they immediately had 91 penalties in the first season. But after the teams had adapted to the new rule, the second season only featured 63 penalties, a significant decrease from the previous season. This is a prime example of why the players should leave some time for the rule to set in, before immediately getting rid of it and withdrawing the opportunity of seeing how it would better the game.


In fact, the IFAB created the new handball rule to leave out room for assumption. Its purpose was to help the referees with calling penalties, providing a fixed definition for both a handball and a penalty. If this rule was to immediately be scrapped, then everything would be taken back to square one, where referees had much more work to do in terms of deciding handballs and penalties.


POV 2: The rule should not be kept in play


As seen throughout the first couple of weeks, the new rule has effectively decided the result of many matches. In the match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace, the Manchester United defender, Victor Lindelof, was on the receiving end of a harsh penalty decision. Lindelof was running, arms pumping, and the ball smashed into him from a couple of yards away. Although it was clear that the handball was unintentional, the new regulations had left out the room for consideration. This caused Crystal Palace to be given a penalty kick, which they converted, and eventually won the match.


A similar incident occurred a couple of weeks later in the Tottenham vs Newcastle game. Tottenham was leading 1-0 into the second minute of added time. Then, the ball hit Tottenham player Eric Dier’s arm off a corner kick. When taken to VAR, it was clear the Dier was bringing his arm down to his body. But the new handball rule earned Newcastle a penalty, which they converted. This caused the game to end in a draw, robbing Tottenham of 2 points.


After this incident, Newcastle manager Steve Bruce stated that “[the new rule] is total nonsense” and that “the decisions are totally ruining the spectacle”. There were 19 penalties for handball under the old rules in the Premier League last season. At this stage last season there had been no penalties awarded for handball in the league.


Already this season there have been 20 penalties in the Premier League, six of which have been for handball. At this rate, there would be 57 penalties this season, a monumental amount for a premier league season. If the rule was to be scrapped right now, we could avoid a surplus amount of penalties, saving time and effort for a lot of players.


POV 3: The rule should be kept until the end of the season, before having its fate decided.


Even though the new handball has not had the most welcoming debut in the premier league, it doesn't necessarily mean that its fate is already decided. The players and referees have only had four games to play with the new handball regulations. Once they adjust to it, maybe the criticism won’t be as prevalent as it is now.


For over a century, a handball has been a handball if a player could reasonably have been expected to avoid the contact. There was some grey area, but broadly speaking it worked. The new regulations completely get rid of the grey area, allowing referees to make a call with 100% certainty.


If the Premier League was to completely scrap the rule, then all the problems that were prevalent before the regulations would resurface. All the hard work in creating and implementing this new rule would go to waste. The IFAB would have to create another set of rules that could be met with criticism. This whole cycle could repeat, which wouldn’t be the best for both the League and the players. It would be best for The Premier League to let these regulations proceed until the end of the season, observing the players’ and coaches’ opinions. Then after the season ends, they can then decide how to proceed.


So should the premier league completely remove the handball rule? I don’t think so. However, if this rule creates more and more issues for the players and referees, the league should waste no time in scrapping them. So for now, we should just wait and observe, to see how the game changes in response to the new rules.