By Tim Todd
There was a fierce goal line scramble. Hull City keeper Jakupovic saved a shot by Alexis Sanchez from point blank range, but his save bounced up and off Sanchez and into the goal. In live action it looked like Sanchez headed the ball in. Referee Mark Clattenburg awarded the goal after a brief conversation with his assistant referee, who had a clear view of the action.
For fans at home in the USA, NBCSN showed replays of the action and it was 100% clear that Alexis Sanchez hadn’t headed but instead the ball had gone in off his hand. As soon as I saw the replay I knew there was going to be controversy but I was also confident that the goal should stand, after all, handball has to be intentional.
The Laws of the Game underwent a slight revision this summer, changing the language around whether a handball was a yellow card offence or not but the language of the main infraction, handball, remained unchanged. The 2016/17 IAFB Handbook states:
Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm. The following must be considered:
- 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.) is an infringement
- hitting the ball with a thrown object (boot, shinguard, etc.) is an infringement
It was clear from all the replays that Alexis Sanchez did not deliberately handle the ball. The ball ricocheted off Jakupovic and on to Alexis’ hand. Alexis had no time to get his hand in or out of the way. From everything I knew about the Laws of the Game this was a legal goal.
The commentators on TV were split about the goal with some saying “the hand was in an unnatural position – that’s a handball for me” (see bullet point 3) and others saying (correctly) that it wasn’t a handball. TV viewers in the US were informed at that time that PGMOL, the official body of Premier League referees, had declared this was a good goal because it was clear that this wasn’t an intentional handball.
And then, after the match Hull City defender Andy Robertson told TV reporters “When we came out at half-time, the referee’s apologised to us and said there was handball so he’s obviously looked at it at half-time and seen he was in the wrong.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Referees are not allowed to look at video of the games at any time, much less half-time. This rule is in place to prevent referees from being tainted with the suspicion that they might do a “make-up” call to even out any mistakes they made in the first half.
Andy Robertson continued “[Referee Clattenburg] says he wasn’t 100 percent sure. Obviously we can argue then that he shouldn’t have given the goal if he wasn’t sure but I think he argued it the other way that if he wasn’t sure then he had to give the goal. That’s the explanation he gave us, obviously not many referees admit they’re wrong so it’s good but it doesn’t make it any better.”
This is reasonable, if the referee isn’t sure, he cannot wipe out a goal, just like he can’t award a goal unless he’s 100% sure, but it’s still not the correct call and it’s still problematic that the referee went to speak to players from Hull City at half time, that he said he was wrong (when he was right), and that no one here seems to understand the handball rule.
I need to interject here that in no way do I think Mark Clattenburg changed his refereeing after the half. In fact, to his great credit, he awarded Arsenal a penalty after Hull City’s Clucas handled the ball and gave him a red card for preventing a goal by Arsenal’s Perez. But the idea that he spoke to players at halftime and admitted fault is still something we cannot have referees doing.
After the match, possibly bolstered by the referee’s half-time pep talk, Hull City’s manager Marco Silva demonstrated his own lack of knowledge about the handball rule saying: “Some of the decisions, the important decisions are not good for us today. About the game, Arsenal started well, started better than our team. But the story is that they scored with an illegal goal.”
The correct call is that the ball hit Sanchez’ hand and as a result was not handball. The Laws of the Game are unambiguous about this. There is no such thing as “hand in an unnatural position” and the distance of the hand to the ball is absolutely taken into consideration. This was not an illegal goal. This was a very legal goal.
PGMOL technical director, Howard Webb, agrees with this assessment and speaking to BT Sport after the match explained the rule exactly as I have here in this article.
“It certainly came off Alexis Sanchez’s arm,” said Webb. “And to be fair to Mark Clattenburg he’s gone over to the assistant to talk to him as well. I can only conclude that they came to the conclusion that it wasn’t deliberate.
“And when we see it back I don’t think anybody in the world who sees that sequence of play can say that Sanchez meant to handle that.”
“[It’s] Certainly not intentional. The law requires the handball to be an intentional act and it wasn’t. So as the law is written it was a correct decision by Clattenburg.”
This should be settled, but it isn’t. There are a number of well paid pundits still claiming this is a handball. And adding further confusion to the incident, I was watching the post-match analysis on TV when NBCSN’s Rebecca Lowe added this bizarre explanation of why Clattenburg apologized to Hull for the goal. I captured the audio on my phone and tweeted it as a video but the transcript is below.
Let’s go to the Emirates earlier, Alexis Sanchez’s first goal struck his hand before going into half. Robbie and Robbie at the time felt it was a fair goal because it was not a deliberate hand ball and the laws of the game back that up but referee Mark Clattenburg apologized at half time to the Hull City players saying ‘we should have disallowed it’ because apparently you’re not allowed to score a goal from your hand even if it’s not deliberate because it doesn’t sit well in the game. And that’s the quote that we were given from the head of the PGMOL (Mike Riley) who we have since called.
This is a bombshell revelation if true. First that the PGMOL knew Clattenburg spoke with Hull City at halftime and had no problem with this. Second that PGMOL knew that Clattenburg saw a replay of the incident and again had no problem with this. And finally, the thing that is most worrying, that PGMOL has hidden rules that contradict the laws of the game and which can be invoked when something doesn’t “sit well with the game.”
This last bit is exactly what’s wrong with Premier League officiating. Fans have long suspected that officials don’t follow the letter of the law but now we know that not only do they not follow the laws but they are told to actively contradict those laws when they feel like it violates some unwritten “feeling” about the sanctity of the game.
The Alexis Sanchez goal was a clearly legal goal. No apology was necessary but that Clattenburg felt he needed to make one and that PGMOL then revealed a hidden agenda to throw games when they don’t like the way that the laws of the game are being applied proves to me beyond a doubt that PGMOL are not fit to apply the laws of the game fairly in the Premier League.