Remember the penalty Tottenham Hotspur's Moussa Sissoko gave away in the 2019 Champions League final? Or Eric Dier conceding a spot kick even though the Spurs player had his back to the ball? What about Stade Rennes defender Dalbert being sent off for a second yellow card for handling the ball in the Champions League at Chelsea?
ESPN has spoken to the head of referees in Germany plus high-profile ex-referees from each of Europe's top leagues, which have seen a plague of controversial handball penalties in recent seasons. Why do some leagues have many more penalties than others? Who is to blame? And what needs to happen to fix the problem?
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin is leading the charge for change, proclaiming that "many unfair decisions are being made which have been met with growing frustration and discomfort by the football community."
On Monday, Nov. 23, the technical and football advisory panels of football's lawmakers, the IFAB (International Football Association Board), meet to discuss proposed law changes. This is the one and only chance for Ceferin's argument to be heard, for the matter to be debated by the referees and former players who matter, and where hope for a new handball interpretation for 2021-22 lies.
"It's not about the Laws of the Game, it's about knowing the game of football. We need to drastically go back to interpreting handling the ball as we always have done." -- former Premier League referee Mark Halsey
How did we get here?
The handball law was not changed for the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system, though VAR has undoubtedly led to it being enforced to the absolute letter.
In 2014, the IFAB created its advisory panels -- featuring former players such as Luis Figo and Hidetoshi Nakata -- to work on the development of the Laws of the Game.
The IFAB wanted to "eliminate inconsistency in the judgement applied by officials" on handball. This search for consistency has removed common sense and rational interpretation -- much to the anger of players, coaches, former referees and supporters.
This strict interpretation -- which removed intent and judged the arm being in an "unnatural position" away from the body and blocking the path of the ball -- was first implemented by FIFA at the 2018 World Cup (the first major international tournament to have VAR). It led to nine spot kicks for handball in the 64 games, compared to just one in the 2014 edition. France were awarded a hugely controversial penalty in the final, given against Croatia's Ivan Perisic when the score was 1-1; France went on to win the game 4-2.
In 2019 a "more precise and detailed wording for the different types of handball offences" was added to the Laws (p104). This was supposed to clear up all the confusion about what FIFA and the IFAB wanted, what was a handball and wasn't. But top-level former referees say it has just led to confusion, which leaves us where we are today.
Two years on from the World Cup, and at the plea of Ceferin and many within football, the IFAB has been asked to reconsider. Ceferin wants a complete backtrack, for the old handball law to be reinstated to allowed the referee to make his or her own judgement on intent. But ESPN sources have said that just because some leagues shout loudest does not mean the IFAB will recommend a significant law change.
Here's how it's affected all the top leagues and the Champions League.
The Premier League had always operated with a more relaxed interpretation of handball, leaving it more to the judgement of the referee rather than trying to apply the law to the letter. In 2017-18 just six penalties were awarded, compared to 20 in Italy and 31 in Spain. The number rose in the Premier League after the 2018 World Cup to 14, then the introduction of VAR only caused the number to rise to 20 -- the lowest across the top leagues last season.
However, the Premier League's resistance to using the VAR protocol in full last season irked FIFA. So when world football's governing body took control of the VAR project this summer, the Premier League was told to toe the line. And that included adopting the handball law as the IFAB intended.
Even though Mike Riley, the head of referees in the Premier League, had warned that there would be an increase in penalties, it proved to be a baptism of fire. In the first 28 games, six penalties were given for handball. Averaged across a season, that would lead to 81 spot kicks -- 24 more than the 57 Serie A endured during its controversial 2019-20.
It came to a head when Newcastle United boss Steve Bruce and Crystal Palace boss Roy Hodgson criticised the application of the law. Palace's Joel Ward was adjudged to have handled which resulted in a match-winning penalty to Everton. Hodgson said: "I'm disillusioned that the game that I have loved and served for so long, I'm finding very hard to recognise now because I'm not seeing anything that even looks remotely like a penalty." Just a week earlier, Palace had received a dubious penalty of their own for handball by Man United's Victor Lindelof.
Newcastle were given an injury-time penalty at Tottenham when Dier, who had his back to the ball, accidentally handled following an Andy Carroll header. Newcastle were losing 1-0 at the time and earned a draw. "If you're going to tell me that is handball then we all may as well pack it in," said Bruce, despite profiting with a point. "It's a nonsense, a nonsense of a rule. It's gone for us today -- however, it's ludicrous."
The Premier League backtracked, agreeing to a more relaxed interpretation based on the expected position of the arm; the irony being that, despite the hullabaloo, Dier would still concede the penalty as his arm was above his shoulder -- considered a mandatory penalty by the IFAB.
After that early flurry, the penalty furore calmed down, but fans had been lulled into a false sense of security. Afterwards there was only one example of a possible handball, when Sheffield United's Jack Robinson was penalised for having his arm in the air, but Aleksandar Mitrovic missed from the spot.
Mark Halsey, who was a Premier League referee for 14 years and FIFA listed for six, didn't hold back in his criticism.
"We're confused of what's natural and what's unnatural," Halsey told ESPN. "That's where we're having a lot of problems and that deliberate act, or movement. The Premier League have talked about an expected position, well that word 'expected' is not in the laws of the game, so why have they brought that in? It's either a natural, or an unnatural position making the body bigger.
"Look at the Leicester City penalty against Wolves, and the Manchester City penalty against Liverpool; their arms are in a natural position, because they are running. You look at the penalty Dier conceded, and the Premier League say they still going to give that. He's got his back to the ball and you need your arms to elevate that lift. That is a natural position. If a player is jumping and acting as another goalkeeper, that's totally different.
"I remember, before I retired [in 2012], we sat in a room, all 18 professional referees. Seven or eight videos were shown for what should be deemed deliberate handball and what should not. We were astounded even then, and said 'we're not giving those.' All the referees were in agreement that we're not giving handballs of that nature, and at that time it was left to our discretion.
"People are telling me they can't watch it anymore and they are switching their TV off. They need to start listening to ex-referees, players and managers. It's not about the Laws of the Game, it's about knowing the game of football. We need to drastically go back to interpreting handling the ball as we always have done."
UEFA's chief refereeing officer is Roberto Rosetti, and he is also the chairman of the IFAB Referees' Committee and sits on the IFAB Technical Subcommittee, so it will come as no surprise that the handball law has been strictly applied in UEFA competitions.
Before 2018, the frequency of handball penalties was around the same as in the top leagues, but after the World Cup the number of spot kicks doubled.
This season, penalties have increased again dramatically. The first three matchdays have seen 11 handball penalties awarded in just 48 games, with the frequency nearly trebling from a spot kick every 12.13 games to 4.63. It's part of a remarkable glut of penalties for all offences, now averaging one every 1.33 games -- the highest in the domestic leagues is 1.90 in the Premier League, which in itself has doubled from 2019-20.
In the 2019 Champions League final, Sissoko was penalised in the very first minute when the ball accidentally hit his outstretched arm, and Liverpool went on to win the game 2-0. UEFA's referees were already officiating to the definition as used in the 2018 World Cup.
"The big challenge is the position of the arm," Rosetti had told The Times earlier that year in warning that handball penalties were likely to rise. "When the arm is totally out of the body above the shoulder it should be penalised. If the defender is making the body bigger in order to block the ball it is not fair. If he is looking to block a cross or a shot on goal and the player is trying to spread his body then it is a handball."
This season, Rennes conceded a penalty for handball against Dalbert, when they were trailing 1-0 at Chelsea. The controversy was doubled in this instance, as Dalbert was already on a yellow card. The ball deflected off Dalbert's foot onto his arm, but because Tammy Abraham's shot was on target it was a mandatory booking. Rennes were 2-0 down and left with 10 men.
"The Rennes player was adjudged to have deliberately handled the ball and then sent off for a second yellow card," Halsey said of this incident. "That was absolutely scandalous, absolute nonsense. To be given as a handball and then be dismissed? It's madness, they are going to kill the game and drive fans away. OK, give the penalty but it's not a second yellow card."
In his letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, Ceferin made it abundantly clear he wants a rethink. But he will also need to persuade Pierluigi Collina, the chairman of the FIFA referee's committee and on the same IFAB Technical Subcommittee as Rosetti.
"The spirit of the game must be preserved at all times," Ceferin wrote. "I believe that going back to the previous wording, perhaps reviewed and integrated by a provision which does not allow goals to be scored with a hand/arm, is an option to be taken into account.
"There is no shame in admitting that sometimes decisions that are made for the good do not achieve their objectives and should be reviewed. The use of VAR in many competitions has simply exacerbated the problem and pushes referees and media to vivisection every situation, with paranoid effects and controversial outcomes."
Handball has been treated very differently in Spanish football, to the point that the ball hitting the hand usually led to a yellow card. Before the 2018 World Cup, La Liga's numbers were consistent: 20, 18 and 19 penalties awarded in the preceding three seasons. The introduction of VAR for 2018-19 saw decisions rise by 75%, with another spike last season to 48. It meant the combination of VAR and the law change had led to a 140% increase in handball penalties within two seasons.
Eduardo Iturralde is Spain's most high profile former referee, having spent 17 years as a top-flight official and 15 years on FIFA's International Referees List before retiring in 2012. Iturralde has never been afraid to speak his mind after stepping away from the game, and that is no different when it comes to handball.
"In Spain, we're going toward an indoor-football type sport where I believe all handballs are punishable," Iturralde told ESPN. "We should give more freedom to referees to interpret handballs.
"There hasn't been any change compared to last season. This 'natural or unnatural hand' thing looks good in a book but it depends how you're challenging for the ball and a lot of other things. We're heading towards all handballs being punishable. There's dialogue between the refereeing chiefs in Italy, Germany, Spain, England to all head in the same direction."
When it comes to controversies, Real Madrid have been involved in many. On Sept. 26, Los Blancos were heading toward a 2-2 draw at Real Betis until they were awarded an 82nd-minute penalty, via a VAR review. Defender Marc Bartra appeared to be nudged over by Borja Mayoral, but on his way to ground the ball hit the top of the arm. The referee gave the spot kick, and Madrid won 3-2.
Perhaps the most controversial incident came on the final day of last season, when Leganes were denied what looked to be a clear spot kick. With the score at 2-2, the ball clearly hit the outstretched arm of Madrid's Luka Jovic inside the area. A 3-2 win would have given Leganes the extra two points they needed to avoid relegation.
"Leganes are in Segunda because of a handball that wasn't given that is always given," Iturralde said. "Jovic's handball in the Madrid game is a handball that's been given for years. If that isn't clear and obvious... If a handball's given and they score the penalty, Leganes would still be in the Primera. So the system is failing."
"The IFAB has changed 178 Laws," Iturralde added. "They want to check everything and take the responsibility away from referees. They have so many directives that they now don't know what's handball and what isn't.
"Handball is the most difficult thing to assess. It was in my time too, but before there weren't so many problems. Now with VAR and the criteria they've broken football's spirit. They have stopped referees from interpreting the laws.
"Not all handballs are the same, that's the big problem. VAR was brought in to deal with the obvious and now it's getting involved in actions which should be down to the referee.
"Fans can be confused, but the problem is that the players are confused, the coaches... that's the worst thing that can happen to a sport. It's been bad, not just for La Liga, but for football in general. I think referees would be more comfortable if they left them to interpret the law, if they didn't restrict them so much, and football would be better off."
Serie A already faced the highest number of penalties before the 2018 World Cup. Thirty-one were given in the 2017-18 season, Italy's first season with VAR, which was over 50% more than La Liga and five times as many as the Premier League. After the World Cup, there was only a small rise, but after the Laws were amended in the summer of 2019 there was a 54% season-on-season increase.
But this isn't only about handball, as 187 penalties were awarded in Serie A last season, 65 more than in 2018-19, with handball accounting for almost a third. It meant that roughly half of all games in the Italian top flight saw a penalty.
"It's curious to see how the Italian and Spanish statistics are very similar, but distant to the Anglo-Saxon nations," Italy's referee designator, Nicola Rizzoli, said about the higher number of handball penalties in Italy and Spain compared to the other top leagues. "This denoted a substantial cultural influence in the Latin countries. There is a problem."
Atalanta were very much in contention for the Serie A title when they made the trip to play Juventus in July. Juve were given two questionable handball penalties, the first when the ball hit Marten de Roon's elbow as he turned away from the play; the second when Luis Muriel had no chance of getting out of the way of the ball as Alvaro Morata played it out of the box.
Atalanta were leading when both penalties were awarded, scored by Cristiano Ronaldo -- the second coming in the final minute to earn Juve a 2-2 draw.
"These are the rules, well, they are above all the rules in Italy, anyway," Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini told DAZN. "What are we meant to do, cut our arms off? It's madness and the interpretation of the rule is not the same here as elsewhere. Other countries don't give penalties like that."
Rizzoli was determined that Italy would not face the same situation this season, insisting "some penalties were too soft" and that "the objective is allowing defenders to play football without having their arms clamped to their side like penguins." He used the De Roon incident as a specific example of a handball which so no longer be given.
His assertion that "not every contact equals a penalty" has got through. So far in 2020-21, only five penalties have been awarded for handball -- with the frequency more than halving from one every 6.67 games to 14.00.
Luca Marelli is a former Serie A referee who now writes a blog on officiating and is a regular pundit on Italian radio and TV.
"The principles governing what handballs are punishable and the interpretative guidelines have not changed," Marelli told ESPN. "The truth is that IFAB tried to harmonise language in the law that wasn't clear by using more granular and specific language, but, in so doing, they made a cardinal error: they failed to clearly explain that nothing would change in the concrete application of the law.
"Unfortunately, this change in language was treated like some kind of revolution, which it was never intended to be. That's precisely the problem we've had in Italy."
Marelli is glad that, as of this season, referees are taking more responsibility for decisions rather than officiating in a matter-of-fact way.
"Without question this year we'll see fewer handball penalties in Serie A and you're already noticing this in the first few match days," he added. "Referees have been given specific instructions. They've been told to be less severe in their judgement of touches in the box and VARs have been told to have fewer reviews for handball. VAR will only intervene in extreme cases, situations where arms and hands are well beyond the body's natural silhouette and in clearly unnatural positions.
"It's obvious though that the rise in penalties awarded for handball has a specific cause; without VAR these incidents remained 'invisible.'"
Germany suffered the biggest "shock" when it implemented FIFA's new interpretation straight after the 2018 World Cup. Referees were applying a strict definition without having a written law. It led to penalties more than doubling from 15 in 2017-18 to 31 in 2018-19.
When the definition was added to the Laws in 2019, it gave German officials a clear framework to apply the Law in an objective manner. Germany returned back to a level similar to that seen in 2017-18, with 18 awarded. Players in the Bundesliga had also learned from their own experience, defending crosses into the box with their arms behind their backs.
However, penalties have been on the rise again this season with five given in the first seven matchdays. If that ratio is to continue, the Bundesliga would up to 24 by the end of this campaign.
As in La Liga, the most controversial decision came when a penalty was not awarded.
Borussia Dortmund hosted Bayern in a crucial Bundesliga title match in May. With Bayern leading 1-0, Jerome Boateng blocked Erling Haaland's shot with his arm and it caused outrage that neither the referee nor the VAR awarded the penalty. Germany's referee chief, Lutz-Michael Frohlich, told ESPN that this was a mistake.
"It's important for the referees that there is more clarity," Frohlich said of the mixed messaging since 2018. "The Law changes in 2019 were regarded more positive, but 2018 was not that helpful. It was a major step forward last season."
Frohlich explained how referees from the major leagues are in regular dialogue to try an ensure a level on continuity, though as Rizzoli had explained there can be cultural differences between leagues. Frohlich is not in favour of making changes for next season.
"There is a regular exchange between the referees of the top five leagues," he added. "There is not a great difference between the assessment of the individual cases. Maybe our focus in Germany has been more on the change of rules in 2019, on the aspect of the absolute intention to play handball.
"What we now have is a remarkably simple definition of when it's handball or not. We have well-founded exceptions. But the handball rule will always remain part of the discussion. Football has become more complex and with it the laws. You can change the laws how you like, there will always be discussions. It's less a question of the law, but rather one of the zeitgeist."
Ligue 1 has followed a similar trajectory to Germany. Both leagues had an average of a handball penalty every 20 games before the 2018 World Cup. It then rose to 11.18 in France and 9.87 in Germany.
French referees appear to have hit the right note, though, as this season the frequency of handballs has fallen close to the levels pre-2018. Some of the harsher any penalties awarded in Spain, Italy and England wouldn't be given in France. But that doesn't mean there aren't still issues.
Former Ligue 1 referee Bruno Derrien, who now works as a consultant for RMC Sport, told ESPN that it remains controversial even if fewer penalties are being given. Rather than there being a change in interpretation, it's player behaviour which has reduced the number of handballs.
"It's the same here in France," Derrien said. "Now, we punish more defenders for handballs. It's considered to be an offence when the player can't move his arm out of the way. That's why you'll see defenders put their hands behind their backs so the ball doesn't touch their hand."
Strasbourg were only 1-0 up at Brest last month when Ludovic Ajorque headed a ball back across the box and it hit the helpless Julien Faussurier on the arm. Penalty given by the VAR, and Strasbourg won 3-0.
Derrien said that he would support a revision to the handball law, to bring it closer to the old interpretation.
"By wanting to help the referees to judge the intention of handball, we've just complicated matters," Derrien added. "We must return to the origins of the law for handballs where it's a deliberate action in the case of the hand going towards the ball. Not every single handball should be punished.
"VAR was put in the place to amend big mistakes but not to re-officiate instead of the match official. VAR should only intervene in handball situations similar to Diego Maradona or Thierry Henry. When the handball is completely intentional, and the referee misses it, which happens and it's happened to me, then that's when VAR should help out. But when it's not so obvious and the referee has seen it, there's no reason to reverse the decision."