The old rule used to be simple – handball only resulted in a foul when the referee deemed it to be intentional.

Yes, there were occasionally debates over the meaning of intentional – not helped by certain high profile commentators who clearly didn’t understand the simplicity of the word. But most decisions in both professional and amateur games were more or less correct and uncontroversial.

The rot set in when FIFA issued some extra directives – a few years ago – to “help” referees understand the meaning of intentional and expressions such as “arm in an unnatural position” or “gaining an advantage” entered the lexicon.

They didn’t help. They confused players and referees because of the uncertain status of such explanatory directives against the actual laws of the game which only referred to the word intentional and expressly stated that it didn’t necessarily matter where the arms were – especially in the context of a sudden deflection.

Having played the game for several decades, I reckon I can always tell when a handball is truly deliberate. It’s rare. Players almost never, in my experience, intentionally handle the ball but handball decisions happen all the time.

They will now happen even more frequently because the new changes, frankly, are a pig’s breakfast.

Handball - Law 12


  • Deliberate handball remains an offence
  • The following ‘handball’ situations, even if accidental, will be a free kick:
    • The ball goes into the goal after touching an attacking player’s hand/arm
    • A player gains control/possession of the ball after it has touched their hand/arm and then scores, or creates a goal-scoring opportunity
    • The ball touches a player’s hand/arm which has made their body unnaturally bigger
    • The ball touches a player’s hand/arm when it is above their shoulder (unless the player has deliberately played the ball which then touches their hand/arm)

The following will not usually be a free-kick unless they are one of the above situations:

  • The ball touches a player’s hand/arm directly from their own head/body/foot or the head/body/foot of another player who is close/near
  • The ball touches a player’s hand/arm which is close to their body and has not made their body unnaturally bigger
  • If a player is falling and the ball touches their hand/arm when it is between their body and the ground to support the body (but not extended to make the body bigger)
  • If the goalkeeper attempts to ‘clear’ (release into play) a throw-in or deliberate kick from a team-mate but the ‘clearance’ fails, the goalkeeper can then handle the ball

Greater clarity is needed for handball, especially on those occasions when ‘non- deliberate’ handball is an offence. The re-wording follows a number of principles:

  • Football does not accept a goal being scored by a hand/arm (even if accidental)
  • Football expects a player to be penalised for handball if they gain possession/control of the ball from their hand/arm and gain a major advantage e.g. score or create a goal-scoring opportunity
  • It is natural for a player to put their arm between their body and the ground for support when falling.
  • Having the hand/arm above shoulder height is rarely a ‘natural’ position and a player is ‘taking a risk’ by having the hand/arm in that position, including when sliding
  • If the ball comes off the player’s body, or off another player (of either team) who is•close by, onto the hands/arms it is often impossible to avoid contact with the ball
  • When the GK clearly kicks or tries to kick the ball into play, this shows no intention to handle the ball so, if the ‘clearance’ attempt is unsuccessful, the goalkeeper can then handle the ball without committing an offence

Possibly the most ironic words in the history of human endeavour are these: Greater clarity is needed for handball.

Do they not realise how impossibly complicated and contradictory they’ve made it now?

In the past, the only consideration was the ref’s interpretation of the player’s actions: did he/she mean it, or not? Now, even when the referee determines action to be accidental, he has to worry about a whole range of new factors regarding advantage and context.

On top of that, the ref also has to be an expert in biomechanics in order to make sense of words like “body made unnaturally bigger”; “hand or arm above the shoulder”; whether or not another player is “close or near”.

I could go into excruciating detail pulling apart these so-called laws but let’s just focus on the words “unnaturally bigger” and “hand/arm above the shoulder is rarely in a natural position”.

Football is an intensely vigorous, athletic pursuit requiring an almost infinite variety of movements. Anyone who has ever run, jumped, changed direction, slid along the ground, been in heavy body contact with opponents etc will be keenly aware of one factor: your arms do not remain at your side.

Vigorous human activity requires the arms to act as counter balances, which means they swing about all over the shop. Only a river dancer could play football while keeping his/her arms motionless, and only a salmon could leap vertically without getting his hands above his shoulders.

So what I propose is this: if the law-makers wish to continue with this madness, can we at least add yet another “clarification”? Natural position ought to mean “natural position within the context of playing football”.

Michael Jakobsen’s handball last night was very obviously not intentional and no penalty should have been awarded. The explanation was that the arm was in an unnatural position (despite the fact that the ball came at him suddenly from a player who was close). Well where the hell should his arm have been?

There is no way in the world Jakobsen could have tracked the cross and moved towards the attacker on the far post, while turning at speed, without his arm extending slightly as a counter balance. Millions of years of human evolution required that his arm go into exactly that position – that natural position. (I note also that Jakobsen’s arm was not above his shoulder.)

Almost none of the Sydney players appealed. The referee saw it live and waved it away, but was compelled by the VAR to reconsider.

The point is: Michael Jakobsen did not intentionally handle the ball and so play on should have been the call.

This new “clarification” is going to deeply frustrate the players and fans, so either give it proper football context, or go back to the old rule: has to be intentional - end of.


Adrian's books can be purchased at any good bookstore or through ebook alchemy. He will have a new novel out shortly.