June 11, 2015

Handballs Have To Be Deliberate - Even In A Final

It has surely been the most discussed situation of last Saturday's UEFA Champions League Final between Juventus and Barcelona, specially for those who have not only watched a tremendous match in Berlin, but, in addition to that, intensely followed the performance of Cüneyt Çakır's refereeing team: Neymar's goal annulled for deliberate handball.

Before starting to analyze this situation, I would like to briefly sum up the prerequisites for a punishable handball. The six steps I would like to pursue with you are:

1) Prerequisites for a punishable handball
2) Analysis of the Neymar-situation (perception & interpretation)
3) Are there precedents?
4) The role of the unwritten "Law 18" - pros & cons
5) Conclusion
6) Your View?

1) Prerequisites for a punishable handball

The main premise for a handball to become punishable is the deliberate act being behind the handball. In other words: Handballs are not punishable as long as there has not been a deliberate act. It is important to highlight that "deliberate" may not be interpreted literally though. "Deliberate" in the sense of Law 12 does not equal "intentional"! In most cases, it does, but not in all of them. Apart from classical criteria of handballs where (un)deliberate and (un)intentional can be used as synonyms (e.g. moving the hand towards the ball), there are guidelines which also concentrate on identifying careless (or evitable) handballs. Three examples:

A: A player is standing in his own penalty area and has both arms stretched out. He makes his body surface bigger by that. The ball touches one of the outstretched hands.

B: A player being part of a wall at the opposing team's free-kick has his arm raised highly above his head and makes contact with the ball coming from the free-kick.

C: A defender sees the ball coming from a huge distance but does not change his arm position (not too far away from the body), thus handling the ball.

In all three cases, UEFA and the European national associations would typically rule the handballs as deliberate, as they are careless or evitable. There does not have to be too much intention in these acts, but they are ruled as deliberate.

Nonetheless, this does not change the fact that, as long as none of the criteria in favour of a deliberate (intentional, careless, whatever) act is fulfilled, the respective player cannot be blamed for his handball which is to be deemed as undeliberate.

2) Analysis of the Neymar-situation

Please rewatch the goal and decision taken by the referee and particularly the additional assistant referee 1, Hüseyin Göçek, before we start to analyze this incident:

Perception Level:

What the several replay angles tell us (lucky guys & girls), is that Neymar heads the ball to his slightly outstretched arm, from which it is deflected into the goal. With some delay, AAR1 and the referee take the decision "DELIBERATE HANDBALL! DIRECT FREE-KICK JUVENTUS! NO GOAL!". AAR1 Göçek is, from his position, maybe unable to see that the ball was headed towards the hand. We cannot be sure, as the incident definitely looks differently from different angles and in full speed.

Interpretation Level:

Neymar has touched the ball with his hand, so far, so good. But, as elaborated in 1), this is not enough. Handballs have to involve a deliberate act (intentional, in limited kind: careless) in order to become punishable. The mere decision of AAR1 and the referee implies that they have accused Neymar of having deliberately handled the ball. Is this decision correct or incorrect?

Neymar has no intention to handle the ball. There is no movement from the hand to the ball, but vice versa, the ball strikes the hand. Furthermore, the ball comes from another part of his body - his head. This is often one criteria against a deliberate handball. More important: The distance is very small, the hand position is absolutely player-typical and therefore not unnatural. And: Neymar does not clearly enlarge his body surface. His arms are not too widely outstretched.

All in all, the decision is technically wrong. Neymar cannot be blamed of a deliberate handball and therefore his goal should have counted on a technical level.

3) Are there precedents?

Yes! It might be useful to look at two situations that are quite similar (situation 1) and very similar (situation 2) to the Neymar-goal.

In both cases, the referees - Marco Fritz and Tobias Welz - decided in favour of the attacking player and deemed the handballs as undeliberate, which was later ruled correct by the DFB Referee Committee.

In the following paragraphs, I shift attention on the game's and incident's aftermath, not on the real match situation. Much was discussed, after multiple replays. Nobody on the field had this opportunity. To be fair with the officials, all what comes next therefore concentrates on normative thoughts and how the decision should or should not be in an ideal world.

4) The role of the unwritten Law 18 - pros & cons

Many say: No, it is not enough. In numerous comments, we read statements approximately like "No deliberate handball, but Neymar gained an advantage by the handball". Even experienced referees to whom I have spoken (and I guess most of you did the same) have emphasized the technical incorrectness of the decision, but also the practical acceptability of this decision. Why? Because of the unwritten Law 18.

Law 12 nowhere cares about whether someone has gained an advantage by a handball. At least not directly. The deliberate act is the only huge criteria the laws of the game focus on. However, a goal scored by using the hands - deliberately or undeliberately - seems to be a problem and not reconcilable the people's understanding of football, with common sense and, most important, the human feeling of justice. For sure, it is not Neymar's dream to decide a Champions League final by decisively touching the ball with his hand making him cross the line behind Gigi Buffon - even if he does so undeliberately.
A goal being scored implies an advantage to one team or subject and at the same time a disadvantage to the other team or subject. In such win-lose-constellations, fairness and justice belong to the human basic needs and criteria to be checked before normatively accepting such a constellation. So if Juventus suffers from a goal scored by a player's hand, it is only human or natural if people and especially Juventus supporters have a deep problem with that.

The question is: Does that change anything?

Some people - maybe the majority, nobody knows that - would argue yes, it does. The Laws of the Game are there to promote the good of the game and to provide normative rules (what has been agreed on) with validity on the field of play. So if those who are concerned most (players and fans, not referees!) and depend on the Laws of the Game consider a specific Law in a specific context as unfair or violating the principle of justice or fairness, is this rule still valid?

You can argue that usually the deliberate-handball-criteria are thought to protect the culprit - mostly this culprit is a defender. Probably in 99/100 cases penalty area handballs are committed by a defender. The criteria we have (body surface enlargement, distance, natural position...) are, more or less, targeting at handballs made by defenders, you could say. There is no passage in the Laws of the Game saying that though. There is no passage either that says that attackers have to be treated differently.

Most likely, the widely spread sympathy for deeming such goals irregular comes from a paradoxical and slightly biased interpretation of who deserves to be protected by the Laws. It is about either identifying with a culprit or with a victim of a (potential) infringement:
Normally, when a defender makes a handball, he is protected. He is the defendant, he needs to be defended as long as he is "innocent". The costs those who are suffering are not that high - yes, a promising attack of the attacking team was maybe stopped, they could have got a penalty... but protecting the culprit might be more important.
When an attacker scores a goal by handling the ball though, it is vice versa. Now, people's focus turns on the defending team who would suffer a goal from a decision favouring the attacker. Here, one seems to seek more support for a deliberate handball as otherwise, a goal would stand. However, actually the attacker, in this case Neymar, should be seen like a defender. Is he guilty of the handball? Did he do it on purpose? Deliberately? No. That should be the whole story - actually.

Actually, because practically, things look differently. Most people argue that Law 18, i.e. common sense, should tell you that in a Champions League final and also in other matches your tolerance of handballs should be the lower the closer an attacking team approaches the penalty area. The other way round: If the goal had stood and ruled regular, what would have happened? What problems would have the referee team faced then, being technically correct, but practically "incorrect" (not literally meant)? A handball leading to a goal, does that make any sense in modern football? Should a final be decided this way?

You see, these questions can be asked after the match. The referees surely did not have enough time to think about that in detail on the pitch. Nonetheless, this incident touches on vital issues in current officiating, actually observable in every huge final of the last years: How comfortable may refereeing be? And how dogmatical does refereeing need to be?

The answer? I am not wiser than those referees who face this weighing-up-process (maybe even this dilemma) in professional football. It is a balance between Laws and your game feeling, between theory and praxis. For sure, a referee is no good referee if he focuses on Laws only. But a referee who does not care about the Laws of the Game at all surely neglects his duties. Less roughly said: Mistakes should not be justified or even excused on the basis of common sense.

The argument that those for whom football and its Laws of the Game are made - fans, players, clubs - as well as their desires should be the basic target group for the Laws of the Game is valid. It cannot be that referees live in their own world and do not look beyond their horizons. Same has to count for the IFAB, the football world's rulemakers. So of course one can discuss about whether there should be a sentence in Law 12 that a goal cannot be scored from an attacking player's hand or alike.

But: those principle Laws of the Game which count today such as the circumstance that only those who deliberately handle a ball are penalized for it have to count for everybody and in every match. Also in a Champions League final. We cannot say that on the one hand the NO penalty kick decision at the beginning of the match was correct as no criteria had been fulfilled to deem it deliberate, while we support the technically incorrect handball decision taken by AAR1 later in the match, even though there was no criteria fulfilled either. I admit, it would have been painful for the quality of the match and Juventus, there would have been a small taste in this goal. Nevertheless, I am more interested in protecting the culprit if he needs to be protected - and this culprit was Neymar, not Juventus.

Specially with regards to education, we create more damage than benefit to call the decision taken in Berlin as "practically correct": Our goal should be to support the correct decisions and separate them from the incorrect decisions in a contrasting way. Referees need to be educated correctly.
If "we" fail to do that - here I include UEFA and the national associations - we create acceptance for a decision which convicts an attacking player of an infringement of the Laws of the Game he has not been guilty of. As an amateur referee I do not agree on blaming players of any level for something they have not made. And even getting positive feedback for that does not help me either.

And: we should never underestimate football fans. Referees are not always wiser than them. The first reaction of the people with whom I watched the final was "He did not do that intentionally!" - people who do not know the Laws of the Game too much.
If we care too much about the acceptance of a decision we take, because we guess that the contrary decision would be neither understood nor accepted, then we are the reason for our own worries. That's the point where we start a vicious cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy. Additionally, operant conditioning tells us that behaviour, which is reinforced - by understanding, sympathy for a decision, positive feedback -, will be shown more frequent in future. So: honest feedback prevents that similar mistakes are made in future again! The opposite is devastating.

5) Conclusion

To close it: Allowing Neymar's goal would have been the opportunity to show the entire world: 

Handballs have to be deliberate! Otherwise there is no infringement!

It is a pity that the referee team made a mistake and thus did not use this chance. But making the same mistake days after the game, having all the replays they did not have, does not help us at all. And that's why I hope that UEFA will honestly use all their channels of communication they have to tell their referees and domestic associations: This goal was valid!

Or, in the words of Hugh Dallas (WC 2002, USA-Germany):

"If it's not intentional it's not a foul, no matter where it is."

6) Your View?

In your opinion, the Neymar handball was ...

... deliberate.
... undeliberate.
... a grey area, I cannot decide.
Poll Maker

Imagine you would define new football laws. In your lawbook, the Neymar goal would ...

... be regular.
... be irregular.
Poll Maker


  1. Fantastic article Niclas, if only we could know what was said between referee and AAR1 we would understand better the motivation behind the decision- a sense of justice i.e you can't score with your arm or simply a misreading of the situation-the handball was deliberate, I would imagine the latter was what was communicated, but as for what the AAR was actually thinking we will never know!

  2. I must admit: fantastic article, great sense for everything surrounding situation described. Also, I agree with your conclusion: handball was undeliberate.

  3. Wonderful article Niclas, I stand beside you in this matter. I hope this situation (or one very similar) comes in the next RAP.

  4. In my view, this handling is deliberate. I am VERY generous with handling. If I have any doubts, it is NOT deliberate.

    In my match yesterday (a Provincial match), I had 2 players play ball into own arms after contact elsewhere (one off chest, one off leg). I determined both to be deliberate handling. In both cases, players had time to control ball correctly and did not. Every other situation (100+, players with time [many with little] controlled balls correctly). It was a high-speed match and many plays for ball were challenging. Both cases of handling were PREVENTABLE. In my view, when a player with time misplays an easy ball from one body part into their own arm (despite it appearing as a "deflection" with "little distance" and "no reaction time") that makes the subsequent handling deliberate. A true deflection, little distance, and no reaction time is typically created by another player.

    Neymar played the ball directly with his head from distance. He was not pressured, interfered with, or challenged. He then played into his own hand. Preventable = deliberate. Players receive headers about 30-100 times in a match x 100's of matches. Only 1 in very many is deflected into player's own arm = preventable = deliberate. Neymar, 999 out of 1000 will not head this into his hand. One time he does, he should be held accountable.

    I would do exactly same against defending team for same reason. Easy to play ball into own arm = deliberate. Challenging ball played into own arm = not deliberate.

    There will be grey areas. Was original play easy or difficult? If unsure, not deliberate.

    I reviewed the two video examples. I agreed with the first because defender (another player) played ball into attacker's arm. That would be a goal. I disagree with second because player played an easy ball into his own arm = preventable = deliberate. Had player lunged for a difficult ball, I would have allowed the goal.

  5. Anonymous12/6/15 04:58

    We all know that referee's make it up on the fly when it comes to handballs.
    The very same referee will call a handball one week and not call the very same type of handball the following week.
    It is what it is when a law has that much "grey area" and room for interpretation.

  6. Great post, excellent explanation, I really appreciate it.
    Two seasons ago I had a similar situation, the ball deflected from the goal bar hit the player in the arm (the arm was in natural position) and went into the goal. I awarded the goal and have been thinking about it ever since. I respected the Rules but did not think it was correct and that is why today I voted it was a deliberate handball… I hope this incident will be part of the new RAP.
    In my opinion it was deliberate simply because the goal was scored by the player using his arm, and I firmly believe that allowing such goal would not be in a spirit of the football game. Almost a decade ago, the match report included statement on how the goal was scored (by head, foot…). It was impossible to write in “scored by arm/hand”. Yes, the “handball” rule changed since then, however I would prefer if the goals scored by arm, like Neymar’s one, would be disallowed. In addition, Neymar’s handball interfered goalkeeper’s reaction, which is irrelevant for judging un/deliberate handball play.
    I also viewed results of the vote, 51% voted it was undeliberate, app 25% it was grey area and the rest voted it was deliberate. If the vote was there before the article/explanation, I am sure the figures would be different. But it does not matter.
    For the closure, if we strictly respect the Rules, than we should not be talking about unwritten Rule 18 as it does not exist.

    1. Shearer, ball off bar into player (if no reaction time and hand in natural position), I would allow the goal with no hesitation. That situation is different than Neymar's who played ball into his own hand.

    2. Thanks Ref Al. I did allow the goal as I was implementing the Rules, but my personal opinion about Neymar's handball was the goal should have been disallowed, just like it was the case in the match.

    3. Thanks Ref Al. I did allow the goal as I was implementing the Rules, but my personal opinion about Neymar's handball was the goal should have been disallowed, just like it was the case in the match.

  7. It is not only about being deliberate or not. You cannot let a player score a goal if the last part of his body is his hand just before scoring. This is called "COMMON SENSE". It is not something written in the book but it is always mentioned in each kind of referee instructions or seminars. Believe me if you try to find a related part for each on-site referee applications in Rules of The Game book, you will fail to find a counterpart for most of them. On-site application and written rules does not match exactly and this is something widely accepted in all referee environments.

  8. de lucia, I am a Provincial Instructor in my country. Last touch being an attacker/hand into goal is not relevant. Niclas makes this very clear and he is correct.

    Consider these circumstances. All would be good goals (presuming all balls are unexpected, from a short distance, and arm/hand is in a natural position). Attacker plays ball into teammate arm = good goal. Defender plays ball into attacker arm = good goal. Ball strikes arm unexpected from blocked view, deflection, ground, crossbar, or post = good goal. Attacker faced with very challenging play and plays it from one body part into arm (more grey), but I'd be inclined to give a goal.

    Where I disagree with Niclas is as follows: Neymar heads a relatively "easy" ball into his own hand into goal = preventable = no goal. Not because ball last touched hand, but because handling was preventable. If Neymar is a Recreational Men's player, I'd be quite inclined to give goal. However, Neymar is far from that. At his skill level, handling is preventable (and therefore deliberate) in this situation.

    1. Well the problem is that we need to find a solution that is applicable at every level of football. Arguing that Neymar has a certain skill level which makes his handball preventable (of course I agree, the header was odd) and therefore deliberate, does not help referees who face players who have a lower skill level. This and similar situations should have a clear solution or at least guideline (which exists and to add that, I consider the debate also slightly opportunistic as Cakir decided that way - imagine the other way round, I cannot be sure of course, but I would bet that most of us / you would support Cakir as the handball was not deliberate). Referees at every level must know what the Law wants. Treating players differently just based on their skill level is a no go when it comes to such incidents. Maybe you can have a different approach in terms of judging fouls when you know that the teams you handle are from a lower level, for example. But not if we talk about a handball.

      Once again, I emphasize that we are speaking about kind of "culprit". Neymar cannot be blamed just because he plays better than 99% of the football world's rest. I have a problem if a defendant is treated differently than others who would commit the same.

      Finally, your basic argument is the term "preventable". What does that mean? From what I learnt through DFB & UEFA guidelines handballs can be "evitable" (probably we mean the same by that) if an attacker does not change his hand position even though the ball is travelling from a large distance and even though he had enough time to avoid the handball. Transferring that to a player who heads the ball WHILE MOVING (this header was not easy, he had to continue his run and keep balance simultaneously..) is not valid in my view.

      But I very much appreciate different views here, the article is not supposed to be the truth, far away from that, it is supposed to be a statement of this blog's author(s) who worry about the application of actually clear laws in professional football. And I find the statistics of the polls interesting, what I expected to be honest.

  9. Niclas, an honest and very reasoned response. "Preventable" is a term we use in NA. It is similar to "evitable".

    I always have and continue to referee all levels of play (an inevitability in NA for any referee below the National level). I do have to adjust my thinking and decision making to match the skill level of players. A "serious injury", for example, should be interpreted slightly different in a U10 match than it is in a recreational adult match than it is in a semi-pro match than it is at the world stage.

    It is, in my view, the same for deliberate handling. Poor bounces off the body (or head) and potentially into the arms/hand are much more frequent with players with less skill. They should rarely happen (and they do rarely happen -- hence our wonderful discussion with Neymar's situation) at the professional level. :)

  10. I understand the discussion about this handball. It isn't an easy situation. Act according by the book means valid goal, not deliberately. But always following instructions by the book doesn't make it always understandable. In my opinion it was tactical very clever to disallow this goal. Only we referees are still talking about this handball. But for most part of the media, supporters, players etc it's logical that scoring with the hand is not acceptable. Sometimes we referees must do what everybody understand and also that what prevents us for huge discussions or criticism. For example: we always say that a 2nd yellow card must be a 100% one. However, would have been it the first yellow then it's correct. Where is this written in the book? When several players approach the referee for protest, the first player who arrives must receive a yellow card. But if this player has been booked allready, then we just take another player to caution. Is this written in the book? What I try to say is: the correct decision is not always the best decision. Would have been the handball dicisive and awarded, then it would have caused major problems. I seriously think we must not want to explain every single situation according to the LOTG. Sometimes we have to be clever and make wise decisions.

    1. Anonymous13/6/15 10:49

      I can only underline your phrase: "What I try to say is: the correct decision is not always the best decision. Sometimes we have to be clever and make wise decisions."

      I agree with it generally. But not in this situation! Common sense should apply when b&w-guidelines would destroy the game (e.g. repeating a penalty kick after 10 cm encroachment, YC for every player who continues his run and scores after a whistle for offside, ....) or in situations where the interpretation of the referee is crucially important and relevant (no b&w situations). For example an already booked player who commits a foul that could be a YC if he had not been booked previously (like you, Francisco, said). The referee can decide whether he wants to let him live or die. He can consider the spirit of the match, game context, the player reactions etc. This is common sense.

      Imagine the handball would even more clearly undeliberate (I agree it is not deliberate in general, but there are clearer undeliberate handballs). Would you then blame Neymar for a deliberate handball, annule the goal Barca has just scored just because "sometimes we have to take wise decisions"? No, we have to take correct decisions as long as there are clear laws known to everybody everywhere. Handball belongs to that!

  11. Francisco speaks of wisdom and discretion in decision making. Even Neymar knows the wisdom of this decision. As soon as he realises that AAR has seen his handling, he knows the goal will stand because he could have avoided the handling with a better play. In his pleas he repeats the same gesture a number of times. He does not point to his head or show that ball deflected. Instead he does something almost all players guilty of handling do. Watch video again and you will see that Neymar accuses himself of guilt by handling with his feeble pleas of innocence by gesturing that the ball struck his.....

    1. Anonymous13/6/15 15:13

      This situation and your argumentation is so damn complicated. It is brilliant and wise but one thing will not change even when repeating it often: preventing a handball by better play is NO (!) criteria for a deliberate handball. Don't construct something which not exists. Good to philosoph about the nature of decision making but the whole discussion could be like 'handball? Yes, deliberate? No. Discussion finished, full stop.

    2. I notice that you don't answer to the point made, that Neymar as soon as he sees his goal was going to be disallowed tries to fool the referee by arguing it was with the shoulder, not with his hand.
      No answer, hein?

  12. Anonymous16/6/15 09:11

    Francisco, I follow Your attitude 100%. refereeing is mostly taking simplest and most clever decisions (sometimes it is penalty and red card for home team in 1st minute), but it's not philosophy, it's not introducing some spectacular decisions.
    This one was not gray, it was CLEAR handball. Fortunately there're sports where this goals are awarded: handball and waterpollo. But not in football neither in CL final nor in lowest league everywhere else in the world.

  13. Anonymous19/6/15 17:19

    Great article, IMO correct decision by the Turkish referee team

  14. Nonsensical article, all of it, sorry to say:

    1. Common Sense would have been enough to rule out the goal: just like it's argued it would have given a huge advantage and would have decided a game (introduced a goal) by using a hand, against the rules of the game. The "opportunity to show the world the deliberateness blablabla" is just the author's "common nonsense" showing off: it's not valid as an argument.

    2. It's not even necessary the common sense rule, because the hand is deliberate: in the same sense as a defending player is stretching his body (in his team's advantage) by stretching his arms, so does Neymar: he's stretching his head: in the case the header goes slightly off, the hand is there to assure it goes to goal. Or just to fool the goalkeeper. Allowing this goal (and other referees thinking like the author) would introduce strikers flying to a header with arm stretched in a superman position so that in the case the header goes slightly off, it can be properly adjusted (undeliberately, according to the author): that's not the game of football

    Nonsensical opinion.


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