Match Incident: Nicola Docherty Handball, England vs Scotland

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Handball. Simultaneously the founding rule upon which the game of football is based, yet probably the most divisive and controversial rule of them all.

With brand new handball rules coming into effect just in time for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, it’s probably not much of a surprise to see some controversy already, just a matter of days into the tournament. Arguably the most high-profile incident thus far came in the England vs Scotland group stage match – so let’s have a look (0:17 of video).

  • DATE: June 9, 2019
  • COMPETITION: FIFA Women’s World Cup
  • TEAMS: England vs Scotland
  • REFEREE: Jana Adamkova (CZE)
  • INCIDENT: Handball and penalty

Like many (including the referee), I didn’t see the handball in real time. I saw the English players protesting right after the ball was hit, but it happened far too fast for me to make a snap judgment on a potential penalty decision. Luckily, this is why VAR exists.

Upon viewing the replay, it was pretty clear and obvious after about three seconds that there was indeed a handball on the play. Sure enough, the referee didn’t take too long to look at it either, and duly pointed to the spot.

Let’s quickly review a portion of the new handball rules for a minute, just to really hammer home how blatantly obvious this call was.

p. 104 of the 2019-20 Laws of the Game

Alright, let’s run through the play briefly. The England attacker, Fran Kirby, is shaping up to put a cross into the penalty area. The ball is then blocked by the outstretched arm of Scotland defender Nicola Docherty, altering its flight into the box.

Looking at the pertinent section of the LotG above, you can say with certainty that Docherty’s body was unnaturally bigger due to her outstretched arm, and the fact that the cross came from a short distance away has no relevance in the play. As a result, the long and the short of it is that it’s a pretty stonewall penalty.

Incredulously, however, I saw a lot of utterly illogical arguments to the contrary. Ex-Canadian national team player Kaylyn Kyle, for one (working as a TV pundit for TSN in Canada), brilliantly concluded that it shouldn’t have been a penalty because “it’s the 10th minute of a World Cup game.”

Twitter expert Dave, meanwhile, still thinks that referees should have to judge players’ intent in order to call a handball – despite this being the very problem that necessitated the introduction of the new rule in the first place.

I got a good chuckle out of this tweet. Dave claims that there should be an ‘explanation of deliberate,’ doesn’t actually provide one, but still decides that the penalty call was wrong.

The real funny part about Dave’s analysis here is that even if you were to take his logic, fill it in, and apply it to the England-Scotland game, you’d still end up with a penalty. Although it’s unlikely that Docherty deliberately handled the ball (since there’s no footballer on the planet not named Luis Suárez who goes into their own penalty area to deliberately commit a handball offence), there’s no question that she deliberately played it. The last time I checked, the hand and arm are attached to the body, so the fact that she intentionally touched the ball—with her arm—means that the answer to “was it deliberate?” is, in fact, “yes.”

It’s not as if Docherty didn’t have any idea that a cross was about to come in, either – she’s facing up to Kirby clearly looking to defend her and stop her from getting the ball into the box. She knew that the ball was about to be hit.

Now, you might be thinking, “Where else is she supposed to put her hand?”

To that, I say that it’s the defender’s responsibility to defend within the rules of the game – that includes avoiding putting your hands in places that could get you in trouble. If you defend crosses with your arms outstretched, you’re basically asking the referee (or, failing that, the VAR) to make the call.

VERDICT: Correct decision, handball & penalty

When referee Jana Adamkova stopped the game literally only a few seconds after the incident to make the TV screen signal, I instantly knew there was a penalty call on the way. The VAR, Felix Zwayer, informed Adamkova of the missed handball so quickly that there was no possible way the call on the field wouldn’t be reversed.

It was a textbook example of the correct application of the new handball rules in action. Despite the naysayers, the refs got it right.

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