Notre Dame claimed its first NCAA men’s soccer championship on Sunday evening, defeating the University of Maryland 2-1 at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania. And while Notre Dame’s goals in each of the first and second halves were enough to overcome Patrick Mullins’s opening goal for Maryland in the first half, the talking points on the way back to College Park for Maryland may be two non-calls by referee (and MLS referee of the year) Hilario Grajeda.
The first non-call occurred in the first half during the sequence in which Mullins scored for Maryland in the 35th minute. Notre Dame midfielder and consistent tournament goal-scoring threat Patrick Hodan cleared a Maryland shot off of the goal line with his elbow in what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to stop the ball (you can see the play here, and the play starts at the 00:21 mark). The second non-call occurred in the 66th minute when a ball caromed off Notre Dame midfielder Harrison Shipp’s hand from a Maryland cross before landing near the penalty area and being cleared out of danger.
Grajeda’s decision not to call a handball in each case made an impact. Hodan’s movement toward the ball and apparently deliberate attempt to clear the ball with his elbow warranted a red card. Although Mullins eventually scored (and also admitted in the post-match press conference that he handled the ball on the play), a red card would have put Notre Dame at a severe disadvantage for the last 65 minutes of the game and certainly would have made Notre Dame forward Leon Brown’s equalizer in the 40th minute less likely.
The decision not to award a penalty kick for the Shipp hand ball came at a critical stage of the game, with under 25 minutes left, with Maryland down 2-1 and chasing for a goal to tie the game.
The inevitable chorus of comments to every potential hand ball query whether the handling of the ball was “deliberate” or whether the action constituted “hand to ball.” Often the discussion is whether the player handling the ball had his arm or hand in an “unnatural position.” The FIFA Laws of the Game (the “FIFA Laws”) are fairly general when it comes to describing what constitutes a handball by a field player.
Law 12 of the FIFA Laws (“Fouls and Misconduct”) states that a direct kick is awarded to the opposing team if a player “handles the ball deliberately.” If the offense occurs in the penalty box, the referee awards a penalty kick. If the player deliberately handles the ball in a manner that denies the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity, the player should be red carded and sent off.
This is all elementary—even for casual fans—but the debates about whether there is a hand ball offense are heated. The interpretation of what constitutes “deliberate” handling of the ball is a controversial as it is circumstantial.
FIFA’s interpretation guide explains that “[h]andling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm.” Under the current International Football Association Board advice to referees, the referee must consider the following factors in his or her decision-making:
– the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)
– the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)
– position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is infringement
Renowned referee Graham Poll boiled the analysis down to the following:
“Regarding handball they now ask the referee to consider the proximity of the potential offender to the person last playing the ball, the speed of the ball and importantly whether the offender’s arms are in a natural or unnatural position. So the question of intent is now, did the offender deliberately place his arms in an unnatural position to increase the chances of the ball hitting him?”
(For the thorough rules analyst, touching the ball with an object held in the hand, such as a shinguard or boot, or hitting the ball by throwing such an object also constitutes a hand ball offense).
Ultimately, an analysis of whether there is a punishable hand ball offense should be framed by the above rule and guidance. In the case of Hodan’s clearance off the line, it is difficult to argue that Hodan did not place his arms in an unnatural position to increase the chances of the ball hitting him. Indeed, Hodan’s efforts denied a goal-scoring opportunity and Hodan should have been sent off. The referee did not see hand ball, and therefore never applied the rule.
The analysis of Shipp’s hand ball is the same, but with perhaps a different result. Did Shipp put his right hand in an unnatural position to make himself bigger and increase the chances of the ball hitting him? The referee determined that there was no offense, but the question shows how subjective the analysis may be. While Maryland fans may predominantly answer “yes,” Notre Dame supporters would likely disagree. Objective observers could argue the point ad nauseum: if a player is stretching to block a cross, is it unnatural for a player’s arm to be extended waist-high as he reaches?
The subjective nature of the hand ball analysis means that there will be some clear-cut, easy decisions (for example, Luis Suarez’s clearance off the line in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinal between Uruguay and Ghana), but many decisions will be subject to in- and post-game critique. And while such critique is natural, the arguments are more credible if the critique applies the same framework that the referees have been instructed to apply.