What is the handball law - and was Bobby Madden right to award Rangers two penalties?

Rangers were awarded two penalties by Bobby Madden in the 5-1 win over Motherwell. Picture: SNSRangers were awarded two penalties by Bobby Madden in the 5-1 win over Motherwell. Picture: SNS
Rangers were awarded two penalties by Bobby Madden in the 5-1 win over Motherwell. Picture: SNS
The rule has provoked plenty consternation over the weekend in Scottish and English football

Rangers thoroughly deserved their comfortable win at Motherwell on Sunday afternoon.

Steven Gerrard saw his side win 5-1 with a double from both James Tavernier and Cedric Itten, plus a fine goal from Jordan Jones after brilliant team work.

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Jones was lauded for his role in the win, starting only his second match this year.

However, the aftermath was dominated by the two penalties awarded to Rangers by Bobby Madden with the Steelmen literally giving their Glasgow opponents a helping hand at Fir Park.

On Sportscene, Michael Stewart expressed his disbelief at the decision to punish Bevis Mugabi and Liam Grimsahw for their offences.

"For a start, the law is a nonsense, for me," he said.

Anyone who has a passing interest in English football will also have noticed the dismay at the handball rule following numerous incidents over the weekend, amplified by the use of VAR.

Newcastle United manager Steve Bruce, who saw his side benefit from a handball decision, said it is "ludicrous”.

Paddy Power are offering odds of 1/2 for the handball law to be changed before the start of the 2021/22 season.

The law

But what exactly is the handball law?

In the 2020/21 Laws of the Game, International Football Association Board (IFAB) say it is a handball offence if a player:

- deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, including moving the hand/arm towards the ball,

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- scores in the opponents’ goal directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental, including by the goalkeeper,

- after the ball has touched their or a team-mate’s hand/arm, even if accidental, immediately: scores in the opponents’ goal or creates a goal-scoring opportunity

- touches the ball with their hand/arm when: the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger, the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level (unless the player deliberately plays the ball which then touches their hand/arm)

The above offences apply even if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close.

Except for the above offences, it is not an offence if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm:

- directly from the player’s own head or body (including the foot)

- directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close

- if the hand/arm is close to the body and does not make the body unnaturally bigger

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- when a player falls and the hand/arm is between the body and the ground to support the body, but not extended laterally or vertically away from the body.

IFAB made tweaks to the handball rule ahead of this season, defining where on the body constitutes handball. The boundary is the bottom of the armpit. Anything above is shoulder, anything below can be deemed a handball.

In addition, the organisation noted an “‘accidental’ handball by an attacking player (or team-mate) is only penalised if it occurs ‘immediately’ before a goal or clear goal-scoring opportunity”.

Was Madden right?

First up was the penalty just after the 10-minute mark when Mugabi handled a Calvin Bassey cross.

Madden was correct with his decision to penalise the centre-back, even if Mugabi has every right to feel unlucky.

His left arm which is stretched out by his side makes contact with the ball which stops the cross from reaching Jones. Going by the IFAB laws his arm has made his “body unnaturally bigger”.

There is a degree of sympathy with Mugabi in that Scott Arfield ducks under the ball which the Motherwell defender would not have been expecting.

The second incident is far less cut and dry.

Ryan Kent whips a corner in and this time Bassey ducks under the ball, the ball then diverting off Grimshaw's forearm.

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It is hard to see which of the explanations this incident falls under as to why it was deemed an offence.

Grimshaw's wasn't an deliberate action, nor did it make his “body unnaturally bigger” in fact his hand/arm was close to his body and wasn't above shoulder level.

Plus, like Mugabi, there is sympathy to be had with the player surely unaware Bassey was going to miss the ball giving him little to no time to react.

Robinson reaction

As mentioned previously, penalties aside, Rangers were more than deserved winners on the day.

Motherwell boss Stephen Robinson refused to hide behind Madden’s decisions after the match. Instead he sought to query the lawmakers.

“I certainly won’t be using it as an excuse for losing the game," he said. “We have conceded nine penalties this season and they weren’t all handballs. But there are people who have never played the game making rules these days.

“Everyone used to enjoy the game – leave it alone. The referees have an impossible job now. Even with VAR it’s impossible to make a decision.

“The penalties are a concern. We have conceded them in Europe, which you can half-understand with the lack of experience when you just touch someone they go down.

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“But handball penalties – I think that’s three or four now. The rule itself is very difficult for the referees so I’m not going to criticise them.

“It makes life difficult but let me reiterate, we didn't lose the game because of the penalties. We lost the game because we weren’t at the races. We were jaded, we were tired and we didn’t perform.”