The average first innings score in a Test match is around 325. Suppose the ICC introduced a new rule which, overnight, altered a decent total to 850? That is what the new handball law has done to English football.
It has impacted the game so dramatically it can only be an aberration. It is impossible to justify such a seismic effect. FIFA’s arbiters have not changed a rule; they have changed a sport.
The greatest number of penalties awarded in a Premier League season — the modern era is our only realistic comparison here — is 112 in 2009-10. Coming out of Sunday’s games there had been 20 given already, in just 26 matches.
Andy Carroll headed the ball against Eric Dier's arm and Newcastle were awarded a penalty
At this rate there will be 292 penalties this season — so 2.6 times the record rate. That is not fair, logical or reasonable.
Take any mean statistic in sport and multiply it by 2.6 and the ludicrousness of this becomes apparent. The average score in the NBA last season was 111.8. What rule change would be required to make that 290.6? A ban on defensive players jumping? A basket six times the size? Hitting the backboard counts as three points?
The average driving distance on the 2019 PGA Tour was 293.8 yards. What if technology stretched that to 763.8 yards? Par fives could be reached in one shot, with a middling iron. That’s no longer golf. But it’s also just a multiplication of 2.6.
And, remember, the example here is not the average number of penalties, but the record. The average is low 80s. We’re almost a quarter of the way to that number already and four teams haven’t played three games yet.
So this is wrong. It doesn’t matter whether you can see what the officials were trying to do. It doesn’t matter that they had the game’s best interests at heart. This is a terrible mistake and, if it is not corrected, the sole rationale would be that certain teams have already been so affected that it can only be fair if every club is equally disadvantaged over 38 matches.
No way to run a game, though, is it, all lurching swings and 180 degree turns? Last season, the rules were unfairly weighted towards defenders.
A ball could strike a defensive arm in the penalty area and be viewed as accidental, but if it so much as glanced a player who was on the attack, anywhere in the build-up to a goal, that was a foul.
When Tottenham played Sheffield United, a ball was kicked against Lucas Moura as he fell after being tripped, but it rebounded to Harry Kane, who scored. The verdict? Handball and a disallowed goal. For the restart, Tottenham did not even get a free-kick for the foul tackle.
When West Ham played Sheffield United the ball was headed against Declan Rice as he ran. Sheffield United’s John Egan was actually across Rice’s body to divert the ball off his chest and on to his arm.
VAR intervened last season after the ball was headed onto Declan Rice's arm via his chest
It was a point-blank collision, impossible to avoid. Robert Snodgrass then scored, and VAR intervened, ruling against the oblivious Rice. Everyone agreed the system was a joke. So IFAB looked at it and came up with something worse.
A handball rule that remained punitive — Moura and Rice would still be judged to have handled under the new laws — but now widened its net to target innocent defenders, too. And as defensive handballs often take place in the penalty area, an even greater corruption of the game is taking place.
Yet we all know why we’re here. On August 25, 2018, Willy Boly of Wolves scored with a hand against Manchester City. He didn’t mean to. Joao Moutinho crossed, Boly arrived at the far post, missed the ball but accidentally diverted it into the net.
He didn’t try to cheat, he just got lucky, because the handball wasn’t spotted and the goal stood. And that, plainly, wasn’t right.
So if a rule had been introduced to ensure no player could score with a hand or arm, even accidentally, that would have solved the problem. What has followed is the work of fevered former officials, like Pierluigi Collina, seeking involvement.
First, any handball in the build-up got caught in the net, followed by an attempt to impose black and white judgments on an area that would be healthier left grey.
VAR has caused this by promoting the idea we can make perfect judgments, previously beyond the capability of officials. That was the promise: perfection. Now we will always know whether a shot is over the line, or a player is offside or a ball is handled. Except that isn’t true.
Even goal-line technology proved fallible when Aston Villa played Sheffield United last season while, for offsides, precision has hardly eradicated feelings of injustice, particularly as the moment a pass is played cannot be recorded as precisely as the movement of a forward’s armpit or toe.
Yet handball is the literal game-changer because it attempts to make finite an aspect of football that was more fairly judged by individual perception.
Former referee Pierluigi Collina has played his part in the new change to the handball rule
As Roy Hodgson, the Crystal Palace manager, argued, handball was about intent. Perhaps about advantage, too.
Kai Havertz did not intend to handle the ball late against West Brom, but Chelsea certainly gained when he did because the move eventually led to their equaliser. Nobody would have complained had that been given as a foul.
Equally, there have always been penalties awarded against players like Joel Ward of Crystal Palace, who protested the ball merely struck his arm as he tried to get it out of the way against Everton.
Tough: some get given, some do not. That was football and we accepted its contradictions because we could always follow its logic, and see both sides of the argument.
The current situation is unfathomable. Eric Dier receives a glancing blow he could not avoid: penalty. Havertz watches the ball come in, misjudges, handles and gains an obvious benefit: no foul.
We were better off before because, amid the inconsistency, there was still consistency: it was the referee’s judgment, his call, and he was sincere in making it. You could disagree, but at least you understood. This is nonsensical.
Hockey has a foot fault rule which, when first witnessed, appears harsh. Pretty much, if the ball hits