After a contentious late penalty left Newcastle stunned and brought handball rules into focus again, the data shows spot-kicks are far more likely to be awarded for handball in the Champions League than in the Premier League.
Newcastle were just a few minutes from a famous win at the Parc des Princes; 1-0 up away to Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday, they were on the verge of becoming the first team to do the double over the French champions in the group stage of the Champions League since 2004-05.
Alexander Isak’s first-half opener put PSG, who’d started the game in electrifying fashion, under pressure and staring at the possibility of dropping out of the top two in Group F heading into Matchday 6.
But deep into second-half stoppage time, after Newcastle had so valiantly clung on to their slender lead, they were cruelly denied victory. Ousmane Dembélé’s pass into the danger zone deflected off Tino Livramento’s torso and onto his arm; referee Szymon Marciniak – hounded by roughly eight PSG players – was advised by the VAR to look at the pitchside monitor and he duly obliged.
We all know what that means.
He pointed to the spot and Kylian Mbappé unsurprisingly smashed beyond Nick Pope in the Newcastle net, ensuring PSG are second in the group before the final round of games in mid-December, while Eddie Howe’s men are left two points adrift in third. They must now beat Milan and hope PSG don’t defeat already-qualified Borussia Dortmund.
The post-mortem has been noisy. Many pundits and commentators have been eager to insist the decision, however harsh, was technically correct in line with UEFA’s adoption of the International Football Association Board’s (IFAB) rules because they say there is an offence if the ball strikes an arm that is “making the body unnaturally bigger”. But the law is actually slightly more nuanced, as it outlines the arm/hand position must not be “the result of their body moving fairly as part of play” for there to be an offence.
Additionally, the UEFA Football Board – described by UEFA as “a distinguished group of current and former football stars and elite coaches” that advises on “fundamental football-related topics, including the laws of the game” – made the case in April that incidents such as that which impacted Livramento shouldn’t be deemed offences.
UEFA said: “In their guidelines for the next season [2023-24], the [UEFA Football] Board recommends that UEFA should clarify that no handball offence should be called on a player if the ball is previously deflected from his own body and, in particular, when the ball does not go towards the goal.”
Furthermore, UEFA’s chief refereeing officer Roberto Rosetti said in August that officials must “try and take into account the movement of players in making decisions related to handball”.
“We must be aware that football is a sport of athleticism and movement,” he added. “We will ask referees and VARs to show understanding for this.”
It’s unclear whether any of this advice has been officially ratified by UEFA, and former PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited, the group responsible for officiating in the Premier League) boss Keith Hackett claimed on Wednesday that the Football Board’s guidance wasn’t implemented. However, the VAR on duty for the game in Paris, Tomasz Kwiatkowski, was due to be in the same role for Wednesday’s clash between Real Sociedad and Red Bull Salzburg but was stood down; this may not be open acceptance of an error, but most will interpret it that way.
The other issue here is that every competition and governing body will have its own interpretation of the IFAB laws and guidelines to reflect that. Therefore, what constitutes an offence in the Champions League might not be one in the Premier League, for instance.
The language adopted by the PGMOL is: “A player is considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger when the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation.”
Considering the evidence of the penalty awarded against Newcastle and the data around handballs leading to spot-kicks in the Champions League, it’s difficult to conclude the words of Rosetti or the Football Board have been acted on, unless the VAR just forgot them…
This season (prior to Wednesday’s matches), 42.3% of penalties awarded in the Champions League group stage have been for handball. Now, obviously they haven’t all been as controversial as Livramento’s, but as a proportion, it’s significantly greater than in any of the top five European leagues and UEFA’s other two club competitions.
Serie A has seen the second-greatest proportion of penalties given for handball (34.9%), and La Liga is just behind (31.1%). However, the Premier League is considerably lower at 16.7%, and Ligue 1 comes in at just 3.2%; France’s top tier has seen only one penalty given for handball this season.
Over the course of the whole 2022-23 season, the situation was somewhat similar in the Champions League. La Liga actually saw a greater share of penalties coming from handball (37.4%), though UEFA’s flagship tournament (36.7% – excluding shootouts) still ranked ahead of the rest of the top five leagues. The UEFA Europa League led the way overall, however, with 40% of spot-kicks in that competition last season a result of handball offences.
The IFAB’s current laws around handball came into effect at the start of the 2021-22 season, and of the last three campaigns, that’s the one where we see the least deviation between percentages of penalties given for handball in the top five leagues and the three UEFA competitions. There were 11.7 percentage points between the Europa Conference League (24%) and the Bundesliga (35.7%) in 2021-22; the gap was 17.6 between the Europa League (40%) and Ligue 1 (22.4%) last term, and we’ve already highlighted the massive difference this term (albeit we’re only part way through the campaign).
So, over the past two-and-a-bit seasons since the IFAB’s latest major changes to handball laws, the Champions League sees proportionately more penalties given for handball (34.2%) than any of the top five leagues and UEFA’s other two club tournaments.
It should be stated that this isn’t suggesting the Premier League is the home of great/sensible refereeing or anything, and we obviously wouldn’t expect these percentages to be the same across the board because that’s just not how sport works.
But the fact the Champions League has already seen 10 more handballs lead to penalties than Ligue 1 this season from many fewer matches is further evidence – if needed – that something isn’t right.
Until IFAB’s laws are interpreted with uniformity across all of these major competitions, confusion and frustration will continue to reign.