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VAR and the World Cup Revisited: Handball Edition

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The controversial handball decision in the final exemplifies the potential benefits and failings of VAR.

France v Croatia - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Whether we like it or not, controversy is part of the game. As we covered in great detail last time, the referee is given significant leeway in determining what is and is not a foul. One referee’s dive is another’s stone-cold pen. One ref’s decision to wave “play on” is another’s foul or card.

And as we know from experience, what some might call ball-to-hand, other’s might call handball (though, seemingly, never against Liverpool). This distinction was brought into focus during the last few minutes of the first half, with the game on level terms. France’s Blaise Matuidi rose to head a corner goalward, only to be deflected behind by Ivan Perisic’s hand. Argentinian referee Nestor Pitana first waved “play on,” ignoring the protesting French players, only to overturn his initial decision after a long look at the replays on the sideline.

It was a first for a World Cup final, and in a World Cup with a record number of penalties already awarded (thanks in no small part to VAR). Before going into greater detail, let’s quickly review the law regarding handball, per FIFA’s “Laws of the Game” (p. 101-102):

See also offences in Law 3 Handling the ball Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm. The following must be considered:

• the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)

• the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)

• the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an offence

When watching this play live, it looked more or less like any other chaotic corner kick: pulled shirts, players toppling over each other, and not ending in a goal. On replay, it became clear that the ball did, in fact, hit Perisic in the arm. This is where the clarity ends.

Among the dozen or so people I was watching the game with, there were a dozen or so opinions as to whether this was a handball. Perisic was fairly close to Matuidi, and likely didn’t have time to make deliberate contact with the ball. However, his hand was moving toward the ball (whether or not this was a natural action, as the result of jumping, is up to debate).

It seemed harsh, especially given the circumstances, especially because it overturned the ruling on the pitch.

This brings me back to another point I made in the last post:

The rules for the awarding of a penalty still probably need to be clarified in some way. Handballs are a particularly wide grey zone of ambiguity, and you can argue for days whether a hand was in a “natural” position, and whether the player was too close to avoid contact.

During the 2018 World Cup, VAR worked best when it was correcting clear and obvious infractions that get overlooked due to the quick and chaotic nature of the game. Neymar’s horrible dive (that probably shouldn’t have fooled anyone to begin with)? Got it covered. Any number of clear-cut penalties that were missed by the ref? Sure thing.

The problem comes when you try to use VAR to officiate a match perfectly. Football is an imperfect game, with an imperfect set of rules. Pitana could have reviewed the same incident and decide that it was ball-to-hand, and could have given well-founded reasons for doing so.

Thankfully in this case the goal scored from the given penalty did not prove to be a decisive one. We surely will not be so lucky in similar situations going forward.

VAR can be great for the game going forward, but it will only ever be as good as rules that govern the game. Hopefully FIFA can use this as an opportunity to create clearer guidelines on fouls, ones that take the toughest decisions out of the referee’s hands.