There’s a well known saying in football that goalkeepers are protected species. I present you now with my argument whereby I stand on a hill and shout out “defenders need to be a protected species too”.


Anyone who has spent time watching a football game with me, will know it’s the work of defenders that truly gets me off my seat and yelling with childlike excitement. The crunching tackles. Last ditch sliding challenges. Intercepting the ball to go on and run from deep in the field to set up a counter attack with direct purpose. Plus there’s the tactical brain of quality defenders and defences to keep their opponents at bay. These are the bits about football I love. 


But. We need to protect defenders.


You might be pulling your hair right now saying “but Molly, defenders are the last players who need protection on the field. They’re more than capable of looking after themselves on the pitch”. And look. No doubt, it’s the position filled with pure brute at times. However the Women’s World Cup playing out right at this moment has shone a light on the need to protect defenders from outlandish, impossible to follow laws. 


The heart of the law that’s being enforced to an impossible measure? The handball rule. 


Yes by the rules of the game, the ball hits the hand, that’s exactly all the referee requires to call a handball. And sure, it’s not just defenders who are penalised with this. On the whole though, it’s those handballs in and around the box, normally by defenders, that cause the most heartache and trouble.


So, let’s go back to basics with the handball rule.


What’s the purpose of the handball rule? In my book, the most important reason for its necessity is to stop a player picking up the ball and playing rugby. We can all agree that’s at the very heart of the rule.


Further, handball is supposed to stop a side gaining advantage from using the ball with their hands. My dad is English. I know all about how Maradona used his hands to gain that critical advantage in the Men’s World Cup against England many years ago. So, yeah. We’re trying to cut that out. 


The last thing that the rule attempts to stamp out is those reflex ‘saves’ by a player other than a goalkeeper. That’s where it gets a bit murky and the old “ball to hand or hand to ball” matter comes out. It’s the grey area the new rule tries to deal with by simply finding any contact with the arm as a foul.


Where’s the balance?


On the other side of this rule is the reality of players actually having two limbs attached to their torso, called arms, that aren’t an optional extra to bring on and off the pitch. 


A rule that disadvantages a player for possessing arms is damaging to the game. With the reality that it’s felt heaviest by defenders. It’s bleeding obvious players who are defending the ball in the box are the ones to feel the full weight of the repercussions of such a law. Because ultimately a ball smashed into your arm at lightning speed can quickly result in a game changing penalty. 


Add in VAR, where it can literally catch the ball nipping the arm slightly and call a foul. Whereby to the letter of the current rule book, it’s a clear and obvious error to MISS ball to hand contact like that. The rule creates a requirement for arms to move fast enough to avoid situations that aren’t actually visible to the naked eye in real time.


The Women’s World Cup has thrown up plenty of examples of the injustice unfolding of defenders being penalised for shutting down attackers whilst having arms in the box. 


The latest? It’s tied up at one all in the round of 16. The Asian Champions against the European Champ. Minutes are ticking down. The Japanese defence are crowded around the box while the Netherlands search for a key to unlock it in the 88th minute. Miedema takes a strike at goal. Kumagai is there, throwing her body in front of the ball heading on target. The ball smashes into the Japanese defender’s arm. The shot from the Dutch forward is so quick, Kumagai is left with no chance of moving her arm which was in a natural position to prevent the contact. The ref blows her whistle for a penalty. VAR confirms there’s contact. The Queens of Asia bow out without a chance to fight for extra time. All because a ball hit a defenders arm who knew very little about it and couldn’t be expected to have done much more.


Defending is an art. 


For the sake of our game at a broader level, requiring a defender to hold their arms behind their back the moment they hit the 18 yard box for fear of a penalty should not become part of the art form that is defending. Having laws introduced to deter ANY PLAYER from wanting to learn the art of defending should be given the boot. A law such as this deters a player from wanting to defend the ball in and around the box. This is a defenders bread and butter. I mean, if some of the world’s best players can’t deter a penalty from happening, how are those of us with much slower reflexes and an inability to keep our hands behind our backs and maintain balance whilst jockeying a player at the same time are supposed to defend in the area?


My heart would sing of one hundred Christmas dinners if the Matildas actually took defending seriously as an art form. That’s another rant though. 


So for now. My heart will sing once the laws of the game come back to protect the art of defending and change the handball rule to something that doesn’t cause heartache, distress and unfairly given penalties.

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