Much ado about nothing; Declan Rice handball more comedy than tragedy
Background image: Bill Boaden, CC BY-SA 2.0
Last spring, a cross whipped into the Manchester City penalty area first found Fernando Llorente’s arm then the net behind Ederson Moraes. Tottenham’s long, lean Spanish forward hadn’t scored often as Harry Kane’s emergency stand-in and, unless you were a City fan, it didn’t appear he knew much about this goal. After a meticulous review, VAR allowed it to stand.
Outrage ensued. Even though most observers concluded the contact was ball to hand rather than hand to ball, in other words, accidental or lacking intent, the ruling still felt wrong. While Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi owners have more money than God if you believe, and a third of the countries on the planet if you don’t, they rule a country in which homosexuality is a capital crime and women’s rights are severely curtailed. Yet, here was a reason to feel sorry for them.
Accordingly, the powers that be amended the rule to remove intent as a criterion. Now, any goal that derives directly or indirectly from a handball must be disallowed. Indirectly is defined as occurring at any point during an uninterrupted buildup.
In theory, a ball may strike City defender Nicolas Otamendi’s arm in his own box at sufficient velocity or from such proximity that the referee waves off any penalty shout but, after the carom drops at John Stones’ feet and the Sky Blues conclude a typical [for them] 80-pass movement with a Raheem Sterling square ball across the goal mouth tapped in by Sergio Aguero, VAR must mark off the goal. If you prefer the more direct counterattacking goals produced by teams like Burnley or Sheffield United, the word you’re looking for is over-compensated.
This season, more than one club fell victim to the new rule’s rigidity. On Friday evening, West Ham were the latest victims. Trailing in stoppage time, Declan Rice inadvertently handled a headed ball, kept playing, fed Robert Snodgrass in on goal and celebrated the Scot’s equaliser only for VAR to deny the goal.
Again, outrage ensued, this time fueled by Rice, himself. In a post-match interview, the Hammers midfielder claimed the majority of Premier Leaguers want VAR abolished. It’s unlikely the 20-year-old took a survey on the topic during the season’s first-half but, then again, it's probably true simply because no one likes a tattletale.
Cooler heads noted that the rule rather than VAR was the problem. Defender John Egan headed the ball down into Rice’s arm from a mere two or three feet away. The England international knew less about the contact than Fernando Llorente.
On the other hand, Rice is as undeserving of pity as the wealthy Sheikh Mansour. In the instant before the ball connected with his arm, the late-arriving youngster was busy planting his elbow between Egan’s shoulder blades and his hip into the Irishman’s kidneys. Not attempting to play the ball, he not only won possession via an unintentional handball but also through a blatant, clearly intentional foul that might have motivated a different referee to brandish a yellow card. Whether through a dubious rule or one that was overlooked in the confusion, the goal deserved to be chalked off.
That said, the handball rule merits a second review. The revision clearly overshoots the aim. Intent shouldn’t be reintroduced but at the same time, the cause of the accident should be considered.
When a player attempts to control the ball only for it to ricochet from one body part to his hand, or perhaps up from the turf, he benefits from his own mistake, intentional or not. That isn’t fair to the defending side. Conversely, when he cannot avoid a ball kicked or headed by an opponent, he shouldn't be punished for handball.
That’s only common sense and the game can use more of it. The rule should be revised again to factor in the previous touch.