Saturday 19 October 2019

Miguel Delaney: 'Best of intentions might not be on display if players manipulate handball rule'


Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Miguel Delaney

The only important question over the penalty decision that effectively won the 2019 Champions League final was over intent - but not regarding Moussa Sissoko.

Whether he meant to handle the ball was utterly irrelevant to the laws, which indicated referee Damir Skomina had made absolutely the correct decision.

What is much more relevant to the rules, and the very future of the game, is whether Sadio Mane intended it. Did he mean to hit Sissoko's arm with that shot?

If so, it may prove a deeply meaningful moment for football, way beyond just winning the sport's greatest club trophy.

And even if he didn't, it points to a huge potential issue for the future, as well as a possible unintended consequence that such changes to laws of the game can bring.

Even if the tactically smothered nature of a negative match was out of keeping with the raucous football from this season, it was fitting that the final was settled by one of the other main themes of the campaign. This was just the latest, and most high-profile and high-stakes, handball decision.

That theme started in the last-16, after Head of UEFA Referees Roberto Rosetti specifically told officials that he wanted this type of offence, where a player has their arm out so wide it does not allow the ball to pass, to be picked up on and punished.

Again, intent is irrelevant. It is about players not gaining an advantage from an "unnatural" position, where a body part you cannot use in the game interferes with play.

There are two potential consequences of this, though, that the Sissoko moment crystallised.

The first is that the most innocuous and, yes, natural of movements could become disproportionately influential.

If a player is merely pointing at an area he wants a team-mate to run into - as they so often do, and as many felt Sissoko was doing on Saturday - it can give away a penalty.

That is concerning because it is in itself so much more basic than the more difficult debate over how you 'naturally' jump. It is as organic a part of the game as picking the team, or choosing where to play the ball.

The same applies to moments that bring in unconscious body language like demanding a pass, imploring a team-mate to do something, or just remonstrating.

And it gives rise to the most important element of all, which makes the question of Mane's intent so crucial.

Will we now see players actually alter their attacking intentions, and trying to hit the hands or the arms of the opposition? It's a point Mick McCarthy addressed yesterday.

Why not? It makes perfect sense to, but may lead to an imperfect aspect of the game.

More matches might well be decided by referee guidance that doesn't fundamentally promote in-play attacking; that instead encourages a more cynical calculation to target minor movements that wouldn't usually have any kind of bearing on a game.

It would increase the effect of basic chance on the game, and potentially affect the focus of play. It could increase the element of chaos, too, maybe to a level of farce against what is actually desired from such rules.

Normally negligible movements could now have major impact, and cause the defending team to second-guess themselves in a way that doesn't contribute to complete commitment to 'play', while causing the attacking side to constrain themselves and doesn't necessarily promote proactive football.

This is the genuine danger of this move away from concentrating on intent with handball, as was the case for referees throughout most of the past few decades, and towards just the basic position of the arm.

"There will be some controversy over the decision, but that is largely because people are still adjusting to how the handball rule is now interpreted," former referee Keith Hackett said.

"That will change as people get used to this sort of evolution in the Laws of the Game and we saw that with Liverpool's second."

But have attackers already got used to it, to maybe bring even more controversy?

With the guidance towards referees set to be formalised ahead of next season, it is something the authorities must get a proper handle on.

Moving away from intent with handball could influence football in a way no one intended.

Independent News Service

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