Law and Inzaghi

I’ve just caught up with the tail end of William Birdthistle’s soccer-and-law guest stint at The Volokh Conspiracy, and I give him major points for prescience.  As the subject of his suggested rules-and-standards examination of the laws of the game, he offers the handball rule — or, precisely in the terms in which FIFA addresses it, the prohibition on handling the ball.  As a Liverpool supporter, he must have been dismayed to see that the first goal that Inzaghi scored yesterday in the Champions’ League final was deflected into the net off of his arm — a clear violation of the rule, at least if you’re a Liverpool supporter and/or a handball hardliner. 

Ah, the questions that a “standards” inquiry provokes here:  From the perspective of AC Milan, even if the ball ricocheted off of Inzaghi’s arm, did he handle the ball intentionally, as the law appears to require?  And if the referee is in doubt, as he must have been, to whom does he give the advantage, especially in a final?  There, the laws are silent.  I didn’t have a stake in the result, but from thousands of miles away I saw a handball, and I would have disallowed the goal.

Is there any way to cure the rule to make the play less likely the subject of debate (at least until the next time that Liverpool and Milan meet in a cup final)?  One could eliminate the “scienter” requirement that the law requires, or the unjust enrichment element that referees sometimes apply, or both.  But would this harm the aesthetic of the game?  I suspect that the aesthetic would change; harm is in the eye of the beholder. 

The final itself as a whole was hardly a thing of beauty, but that was no fault of the officiating, nor of needless cynicism by the players.  Liverpool had more of the play but couldn’t finish, leading just about everyone (including, perhaps, AC Milan) to wonder why it took so long for Peter Crouch to make an appearance.

4 thoughts on “Law and Inzaghi

  1. Although I was pulling for Milan, I was surprised more wasn’t made out of the handball issue. Here’s the nearest I can figure. If a ball hits a player’s hand or arm, one of two scenarios result:

    1. The ref regards the infraction as intentional. A foul is called and the play is whistled dead. Penalties are assessed (more egregious handballs might get a yellow or worse if in the box or near the goal).

    2. The ref regards the infraction as unintentional. No foul, no whistle, play continues, and whatever happens as a result of the deflection from the arm or hand is part of the continuation.

    So here, the ref clearly seems to have thought the Inzaghi non-handball fell into category 2, hence no foul was called and whatever happened to the ball as a result of the contact with Pippo’s arm–here, a goal–was allowed to take place.

    The rules indeed don’t seem to include any tiebreakers in borderline cases (i.e., close cases are always infractions), but here my guess is that the ref simply didn’t see what went on very clearly. I thought the goal went in direct from Pirlo’s free kick, and only saw the Inzaghi deflection on the replay. By the time anyone realized there might have been a handball, it was likely way too late to revise the non-call.

  2. The assistant referee was likely shielded from the play by Inzaghi’s body position. I didn’t think at the time to notice the referee’s positioning (though to complement the assistant referee, the referee should have been facing the play — i.e., should have had an unobstructed view of the goal). But I think your assessment is right: regardless of their position, the officials didn’t see the play clearly.

    So, since play already had stopped, this is a situation that might call for some kind of instant review based on recorded video. All goals might be subject to review. Was Inzaghi really in an onside position for goal #2? I believe so, but the goal was excellent precisely because it was extremely close. Or Liverpool’s coach, or perhaps the captain of the victimized side, might elect to throw the equivalent of the NFL’s red flag, electing to have the play reviewed.

    Would this upset the spirit of the game? Would it undermine the referee’s authority in any sense? Would it lead the sport down a problematic slippery slope?

  3. I think it actually hit Inzaghi’s shoulder, and it is always interesting to see the player’s reactions, as they are often the closest people to the incident – I didn’t see that Reina or any of the Liverpool players indicate that they thought it was a handball.

    If you know Inzaghi’s game you will know that he invariably plays on the shoulder of the last defender or bats the ball into the net with an improbable piece of his anatomy, start reviewing every unorthodox goal and you will remove a large element of the interest in watching football.

  4. I’m all for instant replay, at least of disputed goals. The institution has been introduced in football and hockey and those games are much the better for it. There’s also a nascent movement in tennis to allow player challenges, and I think it’s been largely successful.

    It’s pretty hard to think of an argument against using computer technology to get calls right. The one that seems most plausible in soccer is that it might disrupt the flow of the game, which isn’t constantly broken by time outs like American sports. But I don’t buy this. First, soccer is far from a continuous flow, but has stoppages all the time (ref whistles blow play dead on a frequent basis for fouls, balls gone into touch, etc.). Second, goals are already stoppages of play. Adding a few moments won’t change much, especially if the review is limited only to disputed goals.

    Given FIFA’s centralized command-and-control structure, change will come more slowly to soccer, but it’s only a matter of time before they give in to the rising replay tide, and when they do the sport will be the better for it.

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