The Hand of Rod incident, as it has quickly become known, highlights a massive inconsistency in the application of the handball rule in football that has persisted for years and has always left me confused.
The appropriate section of Law 12 reads “Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm”.
The key word in that law is “deliberate”, and while there is no doubt that the ball struck both of Jay Rodriguez’s arms on its journey into the net, on neither occasion could be it said that it was a “deliberate act”. Had the ball not struck his right arm, it would have gone wide, but that doesn’t make the act any more deliberate and yet, had VAR been in operation at the Hawthorns on Friday evening, I have no doubt that the goal would have been ruled out, despite the fact that it did not contravene Law 12.
As a former referee, it is always something that has left me perplexed.
Even when I was refereeing, I saw my colleagues maintain what seems to have become a convention, namely that if a player benefits from an unintentional handball, it is penalised. How many times have you seen a ball fired at a player who is running naturally, it strikes his hand and drops at his feet. Nine times out of ten, you will see handball given but not even a referee giving such a decision will argue that it was a deliberate act, so why are such instances penalised?
Another way of looking at it is whether you think Rodriguez should have been booked. If a play deliberately attempts to score with his hand, that is worthy of a yellow card. It follows that, if it is not a deliberate attempt, not only is it not a yellow card, it is not an offence at all.
In refereeing parlance, one of the terms used is that, as a referee, you need to be able to “sell” the decision, it needs to feel right. And that is where the technicality of the laws can be challenged; had I been the referee last night and seen the incident as clearly as I did from the Brummie Road End, I would have found it difficult to “sell” it as a goal, but had I given the goal, I would have had the wording of the Laws of Association Football to back me up. As a referee, you should always use your LOAF!
The IFAB, the International Football Association Board which is the body that sets the laws of the game, have introduced various elements of guidance to referees over the application of handball over the years, including taking into account “unnatural positions” and how close the player is to the ball being struck, but none of them that I have seen have ever advised referees to consider whether a player benefits from the incident.
The Hand of Rod was nothing like Maradona’s Hand of God, as the Argentine did deliberately punch the ball into the net. Were I a Villa fan, I would be angry that it was given but I would also be cognisant of the fact that the incident didn’t technically contravene Law 12. Perhaps Villa fans should be more upset of the golden chance that Tammy Abraham missed that, had he converted it, would have made the Rodriguez goal no more than a consolation.
I understand that the IFAB are considering rewording that section of Law 12 to offer a little more clarity for all involved in the game. This is well overdue but, if their attempts to clarify the offside law in recent years are anything to go by, I’m not holding out that much hope.