Uh oh, an “explainer” on the topic Laws of Football. Can I assume that something went terribly wrong? You can. On Tuesday in the Champions League, referee Szymon Marciniak overruled Paris Saint-Germain for a penalty in the final seconds of their game against Newcastle. Marciniak ruled that Newcastle’s Tino Livramento had controlled the ball and Kylian Mbappé duly scored the penalty to give the French team an important point. The problem is that the decision apparently did not meet any of the criteria for handball.
Then what are the criteria for handball? Livramento certainly touched the ball with his arm… He did, but ball-to-arm contact (defined as starting at the end of the armpit) is just the beginning of the considerations a referee must make. First and most importantly, if the contact is considered intentional, it is a handball. But assuming it wasn’t intentional, other factors come into play, such as the shape of the player’s body when the ball hit him. If the silhouette of the body is deemed to be “unnaturally large,” a penalty may be assessed regardless of whether the player intended to touch the ball or not.
That’s what the Laws say? Yes, but the guidelines on handball laws go even further. The Legislature Ifab says that if the ball is kicked or headed by a player and the ball then ends up on one’s own arm, it is not handball unless the ball then goes directly into the opponent’s goal or the player scores immediately one goal later. Meanwhile, referees in the Premier League are being urged to consider the player’s proximity to the ball when kicking and whether a larger body silhouette could be considered natural given the player’s action at the time. This leeway is not normally available in UEFA games.
So beautiful and simple? Not quite, and in this case too there is even more complexity, with the question of whether referees in UEFA competitions are expected to use in their thinking the defense of hitting somewhere else on the body first. UEFA’s football board recommended such consideration in April, but it is understood UEFA believes a blanket exemption (even if the body is, for example, “unnaturally large”) would break the law.
I don’t want to sound contrarian, but I think I sympathize with the referee here. It certainly seems that Marciniak made the right decision the first time, as Livramento did not appear to intentionally touch the ball, did not have his body in an “unnaturally large” position and was also in close proximity to Ousmane Dembélé’s shot . This and the consideration of diversion should mean that there was no possibility of punishment. But then the VAR intervened.
Ah, I was wondering when these three-A letter acronym might appear… Yes, it seems that the video assistant referee can still keep his foot in, even when it comes to football’s overly complicated ruleset. Because it turns out that it wasn’t a problem with the laws that led to PSG being fined, it was the act of a villain. Marciniak’s VAR Tomasz Kwiatkowski has been stood down from his duties during Wednesday’s Champions League match between Real Sociedad and Red Bull Salzburg. UEFA has not published the reasons for this, but it has been concluded that Kwiatkowski made a mistake in recommending to his Polish colleague (with whom he has worked many times, including at last year’s World Cup final) that to think again about the decision to leave Livramento alone.
Kwiatkowski’s intervention then raises a final question: Why did Marciniak change his mind? What did he see on the playback monitor that he had missed the first time, and why was it so significant? It seems that the only possible argument is that Livramento’s body shape was actually “unnaturally large” for him, reminding us all how subjective many of a referee’s decisions can be. But it would be even more worrying if Marciniak didn’t see anything like this at all. If he actually just reacted the way he was expected to after being called to his monitor. The VAR was introduced to support the referee in difficult situations. If it turns out that they actually cause even the best referees to make mistakes, that would be a most unfortunate, if unintended, consequence.