Why Chelsea star's disallowed goal proved we'll never be happy with handball rules

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The handball law can never be perfect - and Belgium’s disallowed goal against Slovakia was only further proof of that.

Death, taxes, and VAR checks that almost nobody likes the result of – the new triumvirate of inevitability in the world of football. Belgium are the latest victims of a multi-angle slow-motion replay (and the very first victims of a snickometer) and a lot of people in the Benelux are suitably aggrieved by the decision to chalk Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku’s equaliser against Slovakia off and provide us with the tournament’s first proper shock. The result, of course, is yet another discussion about the handball law that will end up back at the same place every other such discussion does.

No doubt there are plenty of supporters who would argue there was nothing inevitable about the decision to scratch Belgium’s late goal after the ball brushed the fingertips of substitute Loïs Openda, and indeed it didn’t really seem to meet the ‘moral’ bar we place on such decisions. At first glance, they have a case. Was it ‘deliberate’? Probably not. Did it really make a difference to how the rest of the attack unfolded even if it was? Not appreciably.

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But the fact is that despite decades of tweaks and revisions, there has simply never been a version of the handball law which doesn’t create problems. As long as the rules say you can’t use your hands or arms, we will end up with unsatisfactory outcomes such as this which rub up against our ‘common sense’ appreciation of how football is meant to work. Handball calls we hate are an unshakeable part of the game and should probably be placed ahead of taxes in the clichéd list of grim inevitabilities. After all, plenty of footballers don’t pay tax.

By the letter of the law, the officials’ decision, reached after the intervention of multiple forms of technology, was correct. UEFA has stricter guidelines for its referees over determining handball than the Premier League does, meaning that it might look harsh to English eyes, but so far as the law is concerned, it was a perfectly sound call.

Openda moved his arm towards the ball, however naturally and even involuntarily, and by the guidelines given to referees for Euro 2024, that was enough to class it as deliberate and/or consequential act. Does it feel right? Not remotely, but the referees don’t get the right to use sentiment to guide their calls. If they started trying to apply common-sense thinking at every turn, it would dig an astonishingly deep and subjective rabbit hole.

In the process, UEFA also got unveil its ‘new’ toy – the snickometer, completely familiar to cricket fans who have seen that little pulse end hundreds of promising innings. A chip is now placed in every match ball (probably at some unspeakable cost) which can detect contact with a player’s body. The idea was to use it to judge, say, a tight offside call where it wasn’t abundantly clear as to whether contact was made with a player who was past the last man, and its use here smacked of a team desperate to give their plaything an airing.

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After all, there was no debate about whether Openda touched the ball. That was clear and obvious from any number of angles. It didn’t help the sense that it was being displayed out of smugness that the ‘snick’ was visibly well out of sync with the actual contact, which rather busted its credibility. In any case, it’s hard to claim that its inclusion made the eventual disallowed goal feel any more satisfactory.

Anyway, gizmos and gadgets and replays aside, the real problem wasn’t with the officials making the decision but the rules they were following. If the laws say that Openda’s gentle caress of the outer layer of the ball was a foul, then surely the law is an ass and should be changed. But here’s the challenge – write a version of the rules which excludes every awkward corner case such as this but includes everything that feels like it ‘should’ be a handball. It can’t be done.

It used to be that we cared about whether there was movement of ball to hand or vice-versa, and that created all manner of issues because if the arm is naturally out to balance the body, it moves towards the ball almost every time. Besides, sometimes it was both moving towards each other, for obvious reasons, and that left too much up to interpretation and guesswork.

At other times it’s been up to referees to decide intent as if they were blessed with psychic powers. Sometimes it’s been a handball if the arm is in an ‘unnatural position’ which invariably seemed to include out from the body while jumping. Some guidelines made Moussa Sissoko’s ‘handball’ in the 2019 Champions League final between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool a handball, others didn’t.

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We’ve moved the boundary of where the ‘arm’ begins only to find out that without rules determining the required length of a shirt sleeve, the sleeveline is not a precise measurable point on the human body. We’ve tried to make the rules harsher and become angry when it began raining penalties, and then tried to make them more lenient again and found everyone unhappy about the penalties that weren’t being given instead.

The fact is that either you have a rule where absolutely every contact between hand and ball is a foul or you have a system which requires convoluted guidelines to determine intent, and the latter is impossible to get exactly right. There will always be edge cases where guidelines and common sense clash, and even when they don’t you’re asking still leaving a lot to interpretation.

Handball is not an absolute – and as such, the law guarantees some amount of inconsistency, and some amount of human error. It cannot, by definition, be exact unless you make everything a handball, and that would feel ridiculous pretty quickly. So what can we do? Nothing, save for accepting that sometimes the spinning wheel of the handball rule will sometimes point right at your own team’s face.

There are probably plenty of players and staff in the Belgian camp who are a little bit aggrieved by the outcome of Monday’s VAR review, but no mistake was made – except the mistake of not playing rather better against a Slovakia side that they really should have been able to beat. VAR didn’t rob Belgium of a point – Belgium robbed Belgium of a point. And there’s no snickometer for that.

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