What is handball these days…time for the rules to be altered?

Howard Webb’s failure to punish Arsenal for Cesc Fabregas’ ‘handball’ at the Emirates last week got me thinking. What actually is handball? It seems like everybody is confused by it. Should punishment only be given if a player’s arms are outstretched? Does it have to be hand to ball? Because it seems as though plenty of ball to hand decisions are given, which surely goes against football’s guidelines.

In Fifa’s laws of the game 2005, rule 12 states that a free-kick or penalty will be awarded if a player “handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)”. Now I would think that an incredibly small percentage of handball incidents are actually deliberate. Every now and then we witness a player snidely attempt conning the referee with a deft flick of the hand (Thiery Henry anyone?) but in general handball is an involuntary movement and sometimes not even a movement at all, the ball just happens to strike the hand.

So should the rule be changed? A foul doesn’t have to be deliberate for it to be penalised so why should a handball?

The regulation is left open to interpretation. It is a regular scene during a match: ball slams into player’s arm cue one team and set of supporters screaming “HANDBALL!” while the others claim is was a mere accident. And then the referee decides on the toss of a coin. Well, it seems that way anyway.

But former Premier League referee David Elleray told the BBC that the referee’s analysis depends on whether the hand or arm is in an “unnatural” position at the point of contact.

“Referees look at two specifics – did the hand or arm go towards the ball or in a manner which would block the ball, or is the hand in a position where it would not normally be?” Elleray said.

“The challenging decisions are if the defending player spreads their arms to make themselves bigger.

“If the ball hits the arm then the referee must decide whether this action was to deliberately block the ball or whether the player has raised their arms to protect themselves – especially if the ball is hit at speed.”

It all seems rather vague to me and is probably not all that clear-cut to the officials themselves. And they have to weighing up all of these factors within a matter of seconds, inevitably leading to mistakes like the one we saw in North London last Wednesday.