It has surely been the most discussed situation of last Saturday's UEFA Champions League Final between Juventus and Barcelona, specially for those who have not only watched a tremendous match in Berlin, but, in addition to that, intensely followed the performance of Cüneyt Çakır's refereeing team: Neymar's goal annulled for deliberate handball.
Before starting to analyze this situation, I would like to briefly sum up the prerequisites for a punishable handball. The six steps I would like to pursue with you are:
1) Prerequisites for a punishable handball
2) Analysis of the Neymar-situation (perception & interpretation)
3) Are there precedents?
4) The role of the unwritten "Law 18" - pros & cons
6) Your View?
1) Prerequisites for a punishable handball
The main premise for a handball to become punishable is the deliberate act being behind the handball. In other words: Handballs are not punishable as long as there has not been a deliberate act. It is important to highlight that "deliberate" may not be interpreted literally though. "Deliberate" in the sense of Law 12 does not equal "intentional"! In most cases, it does, but not in all of them. Apart from classical criteria of handballs where (un)deliberate and (un)intentional can be used as synonyms (e.g. moving the hand towards the ball), there are guidelines which also concentrate on identifying careless (or evitable) handballs. Three examples:
A: A player is standing in his own penalty area and has both arms stretched out. He makes his body surface bigger by that. The ball touches one of the outstretched hands.
B: A player being part of a wall at the opposing team's free-kick has his arm raised highly above his head and makes contact with the ball coming from the free-kick.
C: A defender sees the ball coming from a huge distance but does not change his arm position (not too far away from the body), thus handling the ball.
In all three cases, UEFA and the European national associations would typically rule the handballs as deliberate, as they are careless or evitable. There does not have to be too much intention in these acts, but they are ruled as deliberate.
Nonetheless, this does not change the fact that, as long as none of the criteria in favour of a deliberate (intentional, careless, whatever) act is fulfilled, the respective player cannot be blamed for his handball which is to be deemed as undeliberate.
2) Analysis of the Neymar-situation
Please rewatch the goal and decision taken by the referee and particularly the additional assistant referee 1, Hüseyin Göçek, before we start to analyze this incident:
What the several replay angles tell us (lucky guys & girls), is that Neymar heads the ball to his slightly outstretched arm, from which it is deflected into the goal. With some delay, AAR1 and the referee take the decision "DELIBERATE HANDBALL! DIRECT FREE-KICK JUVENTUS! NO GOAL!". AAR1 Göçek is, from his position, maybe unable to see that the ball was headed towards the hand. We cannot be sure, as the incident definitely looks differently from different angles and in full speed.
Neymar has touched the ball with his hand, so far, so good. But, as elaborated in 1), this is not enough. Handballs have to involve a deliberate act (intentional, in limited kind: careless) in order to become punishable. The mere decision of AAR1 and the referee implies that they have accused Neymar of having deliberately handled the ball. Is this decision correct or incorrect?
Neymar has no intention to handle the ball. There is no movement from the hand to the ball, but vice versa, the ball strikes the hand. Furthermore, the ball comes from another part of his body - his head. This is often one criteria against a deliberate handball. More important: The distance is very small, the hand position is absolutely player-typical and therefore not unnatural. And: Neymar does not clearly enlarge his body surface. His arms are not too widely outstretched.
All in all, the decision is technically wrong. Neymar cannot be blamed of a deliberate handball and therefore his goal should have counted on a technical level.
3) Are there precedents?
Yes! It might be useful to look at two situations that are quite similar (situation 1) and very similar (situation 2) to the Neymar-goal.
In both cases, the referees - Marco Fritz and Tobias Welz - decided in favour of the attacking player and deemed the handballs as undeliberate, which was later ruled correct by the DFB Referee Committee.
In the following paragraphs, I shift attention on the game's and incident's aftermath, not on the real match situation. Much was discussed, after multiple replays. Nobody on the field had this opportunity. To be fair with the officials, all what comes next therefore concentrates on normative thoughts and how the decision should or should not be in an ideal world.
4) The role of the unwritten Law 18 - pros & cons
Many say: No, it is not enough. In numerous comments, we read statements approximately like "No deliberate handball, but Neymar gained an advantage by the handball". Even experienced referees to whom I have spoken (and I guess most of you did the same) have emphasized the technical incorrectness of the decision, but also the practical acceptability of this decision. Why? Because of the unwritten Law 18.
Law 12 nowhere cares about whether someone has gained an advantage by a handball. At least not directly. The deliberate act is the only huge criteria the laws of the game focus on. However, a goal scored by using the hands - deliberately or undeliberately - seems to be a problem and not reconcilable the people's understanding of football, with common sense and, most important, the human feeling of justice. For sure, it is not Neymar's dream to decide a Champions League final by decisively touching the ball with his hand making him cross the line behind Gigi Buffon - even if he does so undeliberately.
A goal being scored implies an advantage to one team or subject and at the same time a disadvantage to the other team or subject. In such win-lose-constellations, fairness and justice belong to the human basic needs and criteria to be checked before normatively accepting such a constellation. So if Juventus suffers from a goal scored by a player's hand, it is only human or natural if people and especially Juventus supporters have a deep problem with that.
The question is: Does that change anything?
Some people - maybe the majority, nobody knows that - would argue yes, it does. The Laws of the Game are there to promote the good of the game and to provide normative rules (what has been agreed on) with validity on the field of play. So if those who are concerned most (players and fans, not referees!) and depend on the Laws of the Game consider a specific Law in a specific context as unfair or violating the principle of justice or fairness, is this rule still valid?
You can argue that usually the deliberate-handball-criteria are thought to protect the culprit - mostly this culprit is a defender. Probably in 99/100 cases penalty area handballs are committed by a defender. The criteria we have (body surface enlargement, distance, natural position...) are, more or less, targeting at handballs made by defenders, you could say. There is no passage in the Laws of the Game saying that though. There is no passage either that says that attackers have to be treated differently.
Most likely, the widely spread sympathy for deeming such goals irregular comes from a paradoxical and slightly biased interpretation of who deserves to be protected by the Laws. It is about either identifying with a culprit or with a victim of a (potential) infringement:
Normally, when a defender makes a handball, he is protected. He is the defendant, he needs to be defended as long as he is "innocent". The costs those who are suffering are not that high - yes, a promising attack of the attacking team was maybe stopped, they could have got a penalty... but protecting the culprit might be more important.
When an attacker scores a goal by handling the ball though, it is vice versa. Now, people's focus turns on the defending team who would suffer a goal from a decision favouring the attacker. Here, one seems to seek more support for a deliberate handball as otherwise, a goal would stand. However, actually the attacker, in this case Neymar, should be seen like a defender. Is he guilty of the handball? Did he do it on purpose? Deliberately? No. That should be the whole story - actually.
Actually, because practically, things look differently. Most people argue that Law 18, i.e. common sense, should tell you that in a Champions League final and also in other matches your tolerance of handballs should be the lower the closer an attacking team approaches the penalty area. The other way round: If the goal had stood and ruled regular, what would have happened? What problems would have the referee team faced then, being technically correct, but practically "incorrect" (not literally meant)? A handball leading to a goal, does that make any sense in modern football? Should a final be decided this way?
You see, these questions can be asked after the match. The referees surely did not have enough time to think about that in detail on the pitch. Nonetheless, this incident touches on vital issues in current officiating, actually observable in every huge final of the last years: How comfortable may refereeing be? And how dogmatical does refereeing need to be?
The answer? I am not wiser than those referees who face this weighing-up-process (maybe even this dilemma) in professional football. It is a balance between Laws and your game feeling, between theory and praxis. For sure, a referee is no good referee if he focuses on Laws only. But a referee who does not care about the Laws of the Game at all surely neglects his duties. Less roughly said: Mistakes should not be justified or even excused on the basis of common sense.
The argument that those for whom football and its Laws of the Game are made - fans, players, clubs - as well as their desires should be the basic target group for the Laws of the Game is valid. It cannot be that referees live in their own world and do not look beyond their horizons. Same has to count for the IFAB, the football world's rulemakers. So of course one can discuss about whether there should be a sentence in Law 12 that a goal cannot be scored from an attacking player's hand or alike.
But: those principle Laws of the Game which count today such as the circumstance that only those who deliberately handle a ball are penalized for it have to count for everybody and in every match. Also in a Champions League final. We cannot say that on the one hand the NO penalty kick decision at the beginning of the match was correct as no criteria had been fulfilled to deem it deliberate, while we support the technically incorrect handball decision taken by AAR1 later in the match, even though there was no criteria fulfilled either. I admit, it would have been painful for the quality of the match and Juventus, there would have been a small taste in this goal. Nevertheless, I am more interested in protecting the culprit if he needs to be protected - and this culprit was Neymar, not Juventus.
Specially with regards to education, we create more damage than benefit to call the decision taken in Berlin as "practically correct": Our goal should be to support the correct decisions and separate them from the incorrect decisions in a contrasting way. Referees need to be educated correctly.
If "we" fail to do that - here I include UEFA and the national associations - we create acceptance for a decision which convicts an attacking player of an infringement of the Laws of the Game he has not been guilty of. As an amateur referee I do not agree on blaming players of any level for something they have not made. And even getting positive feedback for that does not help me either.
And: we should never underestimate football fans. Referees are not always wiser than them. The first reaction of the people with whom I watched the final was "He did not do that intentionally!" - people who do not know the Laws of the Game too much.
If we care too much about the acceptance of a decision we take, because we guess that the contrary decision would be neither understood nor accepted, then we are the reason for our own worries. That's the point where we start a vicious cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy. Additionally, operant conditioning tells us that behaviour, which is reinforced - by understanding, sympathy for a decision, positive feedback -, will be shown more frequent in future. So: honest feedback prevents that similar mistakes are made in future again! The opposite is devastating.
To close it: Allowing Neymar's goal would have been the opportunity to show the entire world:
Handballs have to be deliberate! Otherwise there is no infringement!
It is a pity that the referee team made a mistake and thus did not use this chance. But making the same mistake days after the game, having all the replays they did not have, does not help us at all. And that's why I hope that UEFA will honestly use all their channels of communication they have to tell their referees and domestic associations: This goal was valid!
Or, in the words of Hugh Dallas (WC 2002, USA-Germany):
"If it's not intentional it's not a foul, no matter where it is."
6) Your View?