West Ham denied late winner vs Aston Villa – handball rule explained

West Ham United were denied a late winner in Sunday’s Premier League game against Aston Villa after a lengthy VAR check eventually led to the goal being disallowed for handball.

In added time, defender Konstantinos Mavropanos thought he sealed a 2-1 victory, but VAR checks showed the ball had deflected off West Ham team-mate Tomas Soucek’s right arm. Play was delayed for over six minutes before referee Jarred Gillett was advised to go to the pitchside monitor by VAR.

“I have nothing to say on the VAR decisions,” said West Ham manager David Moyes after the game.

“Yes (there is frustration), but you have VAR and if they think it’s right, then maybe they are right? But I think football people see things differently. Maybe that’s why I see some of them differently. We had two incidents last week where it hit a player’s arm and not one of them went our way.”

It is the fourth time in two weeks that VAR decisions have gone against West Ham following handball incidents. Danny Ings had a goal disallowed in the 2-2 draw against Burnley, and the Hammers were not awarded a penalty in their 1-0 Europa League first-leg loss at Freiburg.

Michail Antonio scored the opener in the 1-1 draw against Aston Villa, but the 33-year-old forward also had a goal disallowed after half-time when he was adjudged to have diverted Jarrod Bowen’s corner in off his forearm.

But what is and isn’t handball?

What is handball?

First, it is worth highlighting that it is not handball every time the ball strikes the hand/arm of a player on a football pitch, nor is it a handball if the ball strikes a player’s shoulder. The boundary for where it becomes a potential offence is the part of the arm in line with the bottom of the armpit.

The laws of the game state that it is deemed handball if a player:

  • “Deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, for example, moving the hand/arm towards the ball”
  • “Touches the ball with their hand/arm when it has made their body unnaturally bigger”

That second point generates the most controversy because that rule is caveated by adding that it is not handball if the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation.

However, in practice, those rules have been about as clear as mud, with no two handball situations being the same. Each close call is, therefore, judged on its own merit, which explains the perceived inconsistency of decisions in the Premier League and beyond.

How do the rules differ when a goal is scored?

When a goal is scored, the handball law is more simple.

If the last touch before the ball crosses the goal line touches the goalscorer’s hand/arm, the goal will not stand. If the ball touches the goalscorer’s hand or arm at any point between him/her receiving the ball and scoring the goal, the goal will not stand.

For both of those, the position of the scorer’s hand is irrelevant and it does not matter whether the touch on the hand/arm was intentional.

Callum Wilson was an unfortunate victim of this rule in Newcastle United’s 1-1 draw against Liverpool in April 2021. His initial strike was saved by Alisson, who was less than a yard away, and deflected onto his arm — which was against his body — before he finished into the empty net.

As it had been missed on-field, the video assistant referee intervened and recommended that the goal should be disallowed as the ball ricocheted off Wilson’s arm.

How has the rule changed?

The handball rule is one of many that has changed in recent years. The latest tweaks were implemented by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) at the beginning of the 2021-22 season.

One of those was similar to the one just mentioned as, along with the goalscorer, the assisting player used to be punished for any use of a hand/arm.

Any touch, however accidental, with the hand/arm from the last attacking player before the goalscorer previously saw the goal ruled out. That rule was scrapped after Josh Maja was denied an equaliser for Fulham against Tottenham Hotspur in March 2021, when a clearance hit the hand and arm of his team-mate, Mario Lemina, before the ball dropped to Maja.

(Top image: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

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