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Barcelona-Alavés: The Handball Rule Still Confuses People

Here’s why even VAR won’t solve the issue

FC Barcelona v Deportivo Alaves - La Liga Santander Photo by Laurens Lindhout/Soccrates/Getty Images

Did Samuel Umtiti have an uncalled penalty in Barcelona’s 2-1 victory over Deportivo Alavés?

Maybe, but it wasn’t given. There was also this incident, when Luis Suárez scored the equalizer. The ball scraped off Gerard Piqué’s hand.

There’s a lot of confusion about the hand ball issue. The rules state that in order for a penalty or free kick to be called, the player must intentionally play the ball using their hand.

The tricky thing is, short of mind reading, you can never tell for 100% sure whether someone was doing something intentionally or accidentally. Now of course, some cases are so egregious (Dani Carvajal obviously attempted to save a shot with his hand in the last Real Madrid-Barcelona clash, for example) you can pretty much tell they were intentional. But what about Umtiti’s or Piqué’s?

Umtiti probably didn’t mean to use his hand. But under that standard (which is, taken at face value, the standard in the rulebook) handballs should be extremely rare (only the Carvajal variety should actually be handball.) Could a defender approach every play with his arms spread, saying if the ball hits him in the hands, it was not his intention?

People have interpreted certain aspects as contributing to whether something should be called. Whether the ball was blasted quickly towards them or whether it came from a fair enough distance, whether the hands were in an “unnatural position,” whether the ball bounced off somewhere unexpected first and then hit the hand... these all play into decisions referees make about the degree to which one can call it intentional or not.

Taken these factors into consideration, Umtiti had some elements to defend himself with: the ball was hit towards him at a high speed, for one. But there were incriminating aspects, too, like the fact that his hand was raised rather high.

This logic probably absolves Piqué, the ball is hit at him from close range unexpectedly, he is protecting his face, and so on.

But these are vague and inconsistent, which confuses and frustrates people. Ultimately there is no definitive answer. Umtiti’s is a little bit “more of a handball” than Piqué’s, but should both count as handballs? Neither? Only Umtiti’s? There are opinions but no conclusions.

This is why VAR will only somewhat solve these questions. We have replay and all the time in the world, but we cannot say with certainty whether these were the wrong calls. The assistant referee will not be able to reach the correct answer everyone will agree on in a limited time.

The only way to keep sane, in the end, is to defer to the judgement to the referee, the line judges, and soon, the video assistant referee. Hopefully, with VAR we can rule that, for example, if a player was penalized but actually did not use his hand at all, no foul should be called.

But in gray areas - and there will be gray areas - we can debate, but at the end of the day, we have to respect that someone must make a judgement call and that everyone has to accept it.

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