In a game that could have had a bearing on the outcome of the Brazilian Championship, Atletico Mineiro centre back Leonardo Silva was shown the red card – only to earn a quick reprieve.
The second yellow card was awarded for handball, but the fourth official told the referee that the ball had in fact struck the player on his chest. This was a cut-and-dried decision, a question of fact that was remedied. But handball is a part of the laws which is full of pitfalls, grey areas that no video technology can ever turn into precise shades of black or white.
Because handball needs to be deliberate in order to warrant sanction, it inevitably becomes a matter for interpretation. Did the defender move his arm to block the ball on purpose? Or did he place his arm in a position – the so-called ‘unnatural position’ – where he was seeking to block the ball? If neither of these apply, no offence has been committed.
A few years ago I did a round table debate on Brazilian TV with a former player who wanted to do away with any of these doubts. If the ball struck an arm in the area, he argued, a penalty should automatically be given, whatever the level of intent. I was shocked to hear it, and not only because in his playing days he had been a defensive midfielder rather than a striker, who might have more cause to bemoan seemingly certain goals being denied by stray arms.
But the main reason for my surprise was that the suggestion was such obvious nonsense. A change of this type would swiftly run into one of the problems that legislators have faced down the ages; a new law or interpretation does not only ‘correct’ past patterns of behaviour, it also encourages new ones.
Football is a low scoring game. Overcoming the rival defence and beating the goalkeeper is a difficult task. Much easier, then, to win a cheap penalty by firing the ball against the arm of an opponent. This kind of thing has been happening during the course of the current Brazilian Championship.
This year the CBF (Brazil’s FA) have issued guidelines calling on referees to take a stricter line on handball, to crack down on the ‘unnatural arm position.’ Indeed, the CBF recommendation was almost certainly behind the rescinded red card awarded to Leonardo Silva, since the player opened out his arms for balance as he sought to control the ball on his chest.
Plenty of dubious penalties have been awarded when speculative crosses and balls pumped into the box have struck inadvertent arms. The great Tostao, centre forward in the 1970 side and the wisest voice in the Brazilian game, recently had his say.
“For a long time,” he wrote in his twice weekly column, “there has been a proliferation of Brazilian players who dive, denigrating the image of our football all over the world. Now a new breed of sharp practice is beginning to emerge, specialists at kicking the ball at an opponent’s arm, with the collaboration of absurd penalties being awarded by referees.”
It is not always possible to foresee the changes that will emerge from a change in the laws. This one, however, could hardly have been more predictable. Too many games this season have been decided by penalties which would not have been awarded under a more sensible interpretation of handball.