Uh oh, an ‘explainer’ on the laws of football. Can I assume that something has gone terribly wrong? You may. On Tuesday in the Champions League, the referee, Szymon Marciniak, overruled himself to award a penalty to Paris Saint-Germain in the last seconds of their match against Newcastle. Marciniak took the decision that Tino Livramento had handled the ball and Kylian Mbappé duly scored the spot-kick to give the French side an important point. The problem is that the decision apparently failed to meet any of the criteria for handball.
So what are the criteria for handball then? Livramento certainly touched the ball with an arm … That he did, but contact between ball and arm (defined as starting at the end of the armpit) is only the beginning of the considerations a referee must make. First, and most important, if contact is deemed to have been deliberate, it’s a handball. But if it’s thought not to be deliberate other factors come into play, such as the shape of the player’s body when the ball struck them. If the silhouette of the body is deemed to be “unnaturally big” then a penalty can be given, whether the player meant to touch the ball or not.
That’s what the laws say? Yes, but guidance on handball laws go further. The law-making body International Football Association Board (Ifab) says that if the ball is either kicked or headed by a player and the ball then goes on to their own arm, it is not handball unless the ball then goes directly into the opponents’ goal or the player scores immediately afterwards. Meanwhile, in the Premier League, referees are encouraged to take into account the proximity of the player to the ball when kicked and whether a bigger body silhouette could be considered natural given the player’s action at the time. In Uefa matches this leeway is not commonly given.
So nice and simple then? Not quite and there’s further complexity in this instance too, with a question mark over whether referees in Uefa competitions are expected to apply the “hit elsewhere on the body first” defence in their thinking. Uefa’s football board recommended such a consideration in April but it is understood the European governing body believed applying it as a blanket exception (even when the body was “unnaturally big”. for example) would be contrary to the laws.
I don’t want to sound contrarian, but I think I’m sympathising with the referee here. It certainly appears that Marciniak made the right decision first time, given that Livramento did not appear to deliberately touch the ball, did not have his body in a position that was “unnaturally big” and was also in close proximity to Ousmane Dembélé’s cross. That, plus the deflection consideration, should mean there was no possibility of a penalty. But then the VAR got involved.
Ah, I was wondering when that Three-Letter Acronym might pop up … Yes, it seems that even when the matter of football’s overly complicated rulebook is under discussion the video assistant referee can still leave their foot in. Because it turns out that it wasn’t a problem with the laws that led to PSG getting a penalty, it was the action of a rogue individual. Marciniak’s VAR, Tomasz Kwiatkowski, has been stood down from his duties at Wednesday’s Champions League fixture between Real Sociedad and Red Bull Salzburg. Uefa has not made public the reasons why, but the inference has been drawn that Kwiatkowski made a mistake in recommending his Polish colleague (with whom he has worked many times, including at last year’s World Cup final) think again about the decision to leave Livramento alone.
Kwiatkowski’s intervention then prompts one final question: why did Marciniak change his mind? What was it he saw on the replay monitor that he had missed first time around, and why was it of such consequence? It would seem the only possible argument would be that, to him, Livramento’s body shape was indeed “unnaturally big”, reminding us all of how subjective many of a referee’s decisions can be. More concerning, however, would be if Marciniak saw no such thing at all. If he, in fact, simply reacted as he felt he was expected to after having been summoned to his monitor. The VAR was introduced to act as a support to the referee in difficult circumstances. If it turns out they are in fact leading even the best referees into making mistakes, that would be a highly unfortunate, if unintended, consequence.