As it turned out, it didn’t affect the destination of the FA Cup or deny Manchester City a chance at the treble, but it might have done. Manchester United had created very little when suddenly VAR gave them a penalty for something almost nobody appealed. Assuredly, under the laws, as they are now interpreted, the decision was correct. Jack Grealish’s hand was raised almost to shoulder height as Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s header struck it, and that these days is an offence. But really, why should it be?
Why should games be decided not by skill or heart, by organisation or improvisation, but by 75% chances of a goal handed out because of random bounces and bobbles? Grealish was not cheating. He did not seek to gain an advantage. He just jumped and, in twisting to see where the ball went, his arm went out to balance him. This wasn’t a Peter Schmeichel-style star jump, spreading himself to make a block; it was just a man jumping, his arms doing what arms do when somebody jumps.
This is not just an issue of the Cup final, but these big one-off games do draw the focus. This is a time to reiterate that this is ludicrous. It’s as though with the power of VAR to examine what would usually exist beyond the cognitive powers of a referee that the International Football Association Board (Ifab) has decided to ask not whether anybody has deliberately tried to gain an illicit advantage but whether anything has happened for which a penalty could be given. The result is a wilfully and illogically cruel and unfair environment; it’s as though somebody put Theresa May in charge of handball.
The English interpretation is less stringent than in Europe. Take the second leg of City’s Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich in which both sides were awarded a penalty: City for a shot that struck Dayot Upamecano as he moved to block a Grealish shot and Bayern for a Sadio Mané cross that hit Manuel Akanji’s arm. In neither case was there an attempt to cheat; Upamecano was especially unlucky in that he had had his arms behind his back, only for his left arm to stray slightly away from his ribs as he closed Grealish down.
Even that sentence suggests how absurd handball has become: why would any sport want players to have to adopt a wholly unnatural and unhelpful posture when performing a basic element of the game to try to minimise their chances of being penalised? But VAR loves this because a ball striking the arm is less subjective than a shoulder-to-shoulder tussle or a tackle that might be fractionally mistimed or over-aggressive. There is the ball, there is the arm, there is contact between the two, therefore referees can do something.
It has been suggested that penalties are too common anyway, that football is far too keen to hand out free shots at goal for minor infractions. Perhaps, the argument runs, an indirect free-kick would be a more appropriate sanction for that sort of offence, or for a non-deliberate handball. The rise of xG means that we can say with some certainty that a nudge in the back in the corner of the box does not equate to the 0.75 of a goal a penalty equates to. But there are knock-on effects here: it benefits the flow of the game if defenders are cautious about making challenges in the box. A penalty for a foul in the box is not only about compensation but about deterrence. Handball is different because a player can choose not to make a challenge, but barring extremely invasive and probably inadvisable surgery, he can’t choose not to have arms.
By the laws of the game (as opposed to their interpretation), handball is only an offence if it is deliberate, if it is in the act of scoring or the immediate build-up to a goal or if a player “has made their body unnaturally bigger”. The phrasing of that latter point has drawn some mockery, but it’s obvious what is meant. There is a huge (and fairly obvious) difference, though, between a player spreading himself to make a block and his arm going up to balance himself.
There is another argument that, for the sake of clarity, all handballs should be fouls, but referees make subjective calls all time: why should handball be any different? There will be grey areas, but there always are. Some players would still end up being penalised for a stray and unintended arm. But far rather some than most. It’s surely not beyond the wit of referees to make some kind of assessment of whether there has been a deliberate attempt to cheat or whether the ball has just hit the arm.
Just because the technology exists, there’s no need to go looking for offences. Referees are there ultimately so the game may exist in a playable form; they are not vengeful priests administering immutable divine law.