Another look at the handball rule and Harry Kewell’s incident

Now that the World Cup is over and any emotions have cooled down I’ve decided to look at the handball incident again, that resulted in Harry Kewell being sent off and conceding a penalty against Ghana. So do we need to review the hand ball rule or did the referee get it right?

First of all, a lot of commentators have suggested that it was a penalty but not a yellow. This is completely wrong! The incident could only result in two outcomes:

  1. It is not a deliberate hand ball; so no penalty and play on.
  2. It was a deliberate hand ball; red card for denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity and penalty awarded because it was in the 18 yard box (which what occurred).

FIFA state in the Laws of the Game (LOTG), which are available here, that there are only two instances of hand ball which may be classified as unsporting behaviour and result in a yellow card:

Handles the ball to prevent an opponent gaining possession or developing
an attack (other than the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)

Handles the ball in an attempt to score a goal (irrespective of whether or
not the attempt is successful).

[Page 115]

They also clearly state when a handball is a sending off offense:

Denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goalscoring opportunity
by deliberately handling the ball (this does not apply to a goalkeeper within
his own penalty area)

[Page 35]

So any calls for a penalty but no card (or only a yellow) do not stand as the LOTG are clear on this. With this cleared up we can look at the question of whether Harry Kewell’s hand ball was deliberate and a correct decision by the referee.

The Hand Ball Rule

Before we go into this discussion we really should look at what the LOTG say about the hand ball rule:

Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm. The referee must take the following into consideration:

• 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 infringement
• touching the ball with an object held in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.) counts as an infringement
• hitting the ball with a thrown object (boot, shinguard, etc.) counts as an infringement

[Page 111]

The most important point about the law is whether the hand ball is DELIBERATE or not. A simple way to clear uncertainty is to apply common sense. Was his hand in a natural position? If a player’s arms a swinging in a natural position while they are running and they get hit by a ball then its obviously not a hand ball.

With this in mind lets have another look at the incident and discuss this from both sides.


Kewell was a fair distance away from the shot so he had time to react. Sure, the shot was coming pretty fast BUT he did manage to move or react in some way.

Movement of the arm/hand

Here is where the nitty gritty part of the law and the incident is disputed.

The first angle in the video clearly shows that his arm was struck by the ball but that does not clarify whether it was a ball moving towards the arm or his arm moving towards the ball. I find those ultra slow motions terrible because you can’t tell in those cases.

The second angle clearly shows his arm moving. It’s not towards the ball but it is towards the post and he is increasing the space he is defending. The arm movement is beyond a natural position which by the LOTG is a hand ball.

However, I sometimes ask WHERE could he possibly move his arm? It is still attached to his body and by that matter, he is restricted to where he can move it. Kewell certainly moves his lower arm considerably but it does hit his bicep, which moves out and in during the shot as he shifts his whole body. Try moving your bicep out of the way, pretty hard to do isn’t it?

Of course though to avoid any incident his arms should have been behind his back. His arm is outstretched and so it is a hand ball but don’t forget that he can’t exactly detach his bicep.

Position of the Referee

The referee made a very quick and direct decision but I don’t think he was in the right position to make such a call.

This video shows where the referee is (skip to 3 seconds). Where should he have been? Standing on the edge of the 18 yard box, almost on the point of the penalty box D. The referee was in the middle of the box, so he had no strong angle to view the shot and was chasing after the ball when the cross came in. Even if the decision is correct the referee in this case was probably not doing the best he should have been.

So was it a hand ball?

At first I thought that it was terrible decision (emotion running through no doubt) but now I’m starting to think again. Without a doubt there was some terrible refereeing in that match, notably the Ghanaian player not receiving a red card for that blatant studs up challenge in the first half.

I think that by the LOTG it is a hand ball and the decision is correct. However, using a bit of common sense regarding where exactly Kewell could move his bicep I still think it is a soft penalty to give. I find the remark that “worse hand balls have not been given” a poor argument only because you would be saying that those were wrong decisions!

So should the hand ball rule be changed? No. I think the biggest problem is that most people just don’t understand the rule and automatically call for a hand ball when they see a ball hit a players arm (unless the decision is against you!). Perhaps FIFA could clarify the rule instead of offering ‘points to consider’.

In that respect the key word is deliberate and I don’t think Harry Kewell’s actions were deliberate – but I don’t think he went about the right way to prevent this situation occurring.

I’m not going to have a poll only because I don’t want a yes or no response, I want to know what you guys think? Do you agree with me or think I’m missing something. Give a shout (but not a rant) in the comments.

About Gregory Calacouris

Digital media, social, tech and football nerd. All views expressed here are my own. You can also follow me on Twitter at @gcalacouris if you wish!
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