Should unnaturally positioned hands be penalised?

Regular readers of this column may recall that last season I finished with a moan about BBC’s Match of the Day and how I felt it failed its audience. Sad to say that I start this season with a classic example of how this programme misleads fans when with a little thought for the game it could be a power for the good. This time it was not one of its regular miscreants to blame, but a guest pundit, former Manchester United goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, who disagreed with Alan Shearer over an incident in the Manchester United v Chelsea game. The cause of their argument was a handball in his own penalty area by Chelsea’s Frank Lampard.

For those who didn’t see it, let me describe the incident that caused a completely unnecessary controversy. Frank Lampard was inside his penalty area when a United player, just over a yard away, blasted the ball towards the Chelsea goal. Lampard’s reflex reaction was I suspect the same many of us would have made; he turned his head and shoulders away from the ball. The ball missed his body but hit one of his hands. ‘A definite penalty,’ said Schmeichel, ‘the referee has no choice, the law says, if the players hand is in an unnatural position then he must be penalised.’ ‘It is the Laws,’ he said many times in the course of the argument. You have to ask the question has Schmeichel ever read the Laws of the Game?

Let’s take it in easy stages. The book that contains the Laws of the Game is in two parts. In the front it contains the 17 Laws of the Game. In the second larger part, there are the Interpretations of the Laws and the Guidelines for Referees. In Law 12, Fouls and Misconduct, the reference to handball is simple. ‘A direct free kick is awarded to the opposing team, if a player handles the ball intentionally (except for the goalkeeper in his own penalty area). A penalty kick is awarded if the offence is by a player in his own penalty area’. The law does not contain, nor has ever contained, any mention about the hand in an unnatural position.

So what about the Guidelines to Referees? These confirm the fact that it has to be a deliberate act and that handball also includes the arm. They go on to say that the referee must take into consideration; ‘the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand), the distance between the opponent and the ball (the unexpected ball), the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement’. Frank Lampard’s closeness to the kicker meant he didn’t have time to think about deliberately handling the ball and the ball hit his hand and not the other way around.

To be fair to Schmeichel, referees do sometimes penalise players when the ball hits their arms in ‘unnatural’ positions but only when it is a deliberate act to make themselves ‘bigger’. This might be jumping with arms held high at the ‘wall’, stretching out to block a shot or cross or holding their arms out wide when anticipating a shot.

Mark Chapman, the new presenter of Match of the Day 2 said at the end of the pundits squabble, ‘I’m now more confused than ever’. A well made point, no doubt echoed by the fans, the youngsters, the local footballers who watched the programme. Gary Lineker is reputed to be paid £2m a season for the Saturday programme, surely it wouldn’t hurt the BBC to lash out a few more quid to have an expert on the laws on hand who could put an end to this mush of confusion and be a real service to the game.

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