Handball law: Explaining the new rule causing chaos in the 2020-21 Premier League

Andrew Gamble
·3-min read
Joel Ward reacts at full-time (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Joel Ward reacts at full-time (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Almost like clockwork, outrage sparked across social media after Everton were awarded a rather contentious penalty on Saturday afternoon – with anger directed towards VAR and the handball rule.

After a seemingly harsh call against Crystal Palace defenderJoel Ward, Richarlison scored a penalty to restore Everton’s lead. The Palace defender, who appeared to be standing in a natural position, conceded the penalty when Lucas Digne headed the ball down and it struck Ward’s arm. It appeared accidental and hardly impeded Everton’s attack, yet Palace found themselves behind after the referee’s intervention.

Matthew Upson expressed his anger on Radio 5 Live while Gary Lineker sent out a string of tweets, so let’s look at how the handball rule has changed and why.

What’s changed?

Prior to the beginning of the 2020/21 Premier League season, the handball laws were amended following several goals being disallowed rather harshly thanks to a new rule instated the year before. This new handball rule was introduced ahead of the 2019/20 season, whereby referees would remove the degree of intent surrounding such an action if the ball hit an arm in an unnatural position. This is important.

This was scrapped for the new season, and was replaced by a new set of clarifications: accidental handball would only be penalised if it happened immediately before a goal, and any handball below the bottom of the armpit would be punished.

Ifab’s instruction

The International Football Association Board (Ifab) is the body that determines the laws of the game of football. An amendment to the handball rule they made was ensuring that an accidental handball will only be punished if it occurs “immediately” before a goal was scored. If play continues for some time after this, accidental handball will not be penalised.

If the ball strikes a player who has made their body “unnaturally bigger”, then they will be punished. Ifab deems that an arm above shoulder height is rarely, if ever, a “natural” position, with the only exception coming when a player is falling to the ground.

The body also stated that extra leeway will be granted in regards to ricocheted handballs, or if the player in question cannot see the ball.

Premier League interpretation

The Premier League – and crucially, the FA – seems to interpret the rule slightly differently and far more harshly regarding defenders.

The Premier League appears to ignore the unnatural position ruling, focusing far more on the bottom of the armpit update.

It is all well and good ensuring that attacking players will not gain an advantage, but now it appears that accidental handball for a defensive player will not be tolerated in any shape or form. Attacking players simply need to strike the ‘golden zone’ below the armpit and, in this modern world with VAR in place, they will be awarded a penalty.

The rules are being heavily scrutinised as they seem to benefit attacking players, despite being disguised as an aid to defenders. The 2019/20 unnatural position ruling, particularly in the instance of Joel Ward this afternoon, has clearly been scrapped in favour of the new amendment. It is all about the bottom of the armpit.

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Richarlison’s controversial penalty sends Everton past Crystal Palace and top of the Premier League