Players and coaches around Europe are becoming increasingly perplexed by the current handball rule, which one has said is best suited to table football.
Forwards have seen goals chalked off for almost imperceptible handballs while defenders have conceded penalties for unintentional ones in innocuous situations because their arm was seen as making the body “unnaturally bigger.”
“We’re going in a direction that is very bad for a game which was the game that everyone fell in love with,” said Tottenham Hotspur coach Jose Mourinho after his team recently had a goal disallowed at Sheffield United for a handball in the build-up.
One of the most extreme cases saw Cagliari forward Giovanni Simeone denied one of the best Serie A goals of the season against Atalanta.
The ball brushed his hand from a defender’s header, was collected by another Cagliari teammate and then passed back to Simeone who curled it into the net.
The ‘handball’ did not change the course of the ball and Simeone’s arm was not unnaturally raised. However, under rules introduced this season, any handball in the build-up to a goal means it has to be ruled out, no matter how slight.
“That goal was disallowed because of a rule invented by someone who likes those table football games, where the playing figures do not have arms,” said Cagliari coach Walter Zenga. “It’s not in the spirit of the game.”
There have been a plethora of similar cases, most of them only visible to VAR officials who often take several minutes to make a decision.
Meanwhile, defenders risk giving away penalties, even when there is no hint of a scoring chance and no possibility to get out of the ball’s way, as twice happened to Atalanta against Juventus in their 2-2 Serie A draw on Saturday.
In the first case, Paulo Dybala fired a cross against Marten De Roon’s elbow and, although it was at point-blank range and the Dutchman’s arm was close to his chest.
Then, with Atalanta 2-1 ahead in the last minute, Juve forward Gonzalo Higuain flicked the ball against Luis Muriel’s hand.
The Colombian could not possibly have avoided contact, and the ball was travelling away from the penalty area – yet the referee gave a penalty and had little option but to do so.
“What do we do, cut off the player’s arms?” said Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini.
From next season, the rule will be slightly more specific saying that goals will only be disallowed if scored “immediately” after a handball, but what would happen in a case like Simeone’s remains unclear.
In another tweak, the boundary between the shoulder and the arm will be defined as the bottom of the armpit – although that would not have helped Atalanta on Saturday.
Neither alteration will address what many feel is the biggest problem – that an attacking arm can be active when a defensive arm is not.
Handball has always been a thorny subject and one positive change is that referees are no longer getting the blame, which is being shifted towards soccer’s rule-makers instead. But the new rules seem even more controversial than before.
“I cannot think of a player who jumps or moves with his arms behind his back,” said Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso.
“It’s become a different sport.”