At around 9.10pm on Friday night, Nikolai Topor-Stanley of the Newcastle Jets touched the ball with his hand in the penalty area.
The Western Sydney Wanderers, on a run of solid form, were pushing for victory against the Newcastle Jets in the Round 20 A-League clash, when the ball ricocheted into the defenders forearm.
There are only two players on the pitch permitted to touch the ball, aside from throw ins of course and Topor-Stanley was not one of them.
As one of the most basic and fundamental features of the beautiful game, handling the ball often throws up contentious issues, in a sport that moves at incredible speeds thanks to the athleticism and agility of its combatants.
Doing it intentionally is frowned upon and usually responded to with vigour by officials. Players who have cleverly disguised the intentional use of the hand are forever remembered as cheats, especially those such as Diego Maradona who still to this day makes no categorical apology for his ‘hand of God’ goal that sank England in 1986.
However, more often than not, the use of the hand is unintentional, as was the case with Topor-Stanley on Friday.
On a hot and humid Australian afternoon where bullets were sweat and players and spectators were somewhat uncomfortable, referee Shaun Evans sought the advice of the ever-popular VAR system to confirm his belief that a penalty was warranted.
As players jockeyed for position in front of his face to plead their case, Evans waved them away, attempting to create the space to allow clear thought. The referee feared becoming another example of an A-League official, in a state of panic and under immense pressure, fluffing a decision that would look incorrect in the cold light of the Monday morning media.
Sadly for Evans, get it wrong he did, as the penalty stood and the Wanderers converted from the spot through the ever reliable foot of Oriol Riera.
Whilst some will disagree with my view on the incident, take a moment to consider the full context and the ramifications of the language used by the officials in coming to their final decision.
As the ball was played through to the attacker, Topor-Stanley saw the opportunity to move laterally from his regular centre-back position to intercept the pass. In fact, he was successful in his attempt and applied a firm boot to the ball.
Unfortunately for him and is often the case with players at close quarters, the ball wasn’t cleared and thumped into the opposing body of the attacker.
Subsequently, much like the violent cannoning effect seen on a pin-ball machine and all occurring well within a second of real time, the ball was redirected towards Topor-Stanley and before anyone on the pitch knew exactly what had happened, he had clearly touched the ball.
There was no doubt. A through ball, defensive interception, ricochet, handball, penalty. Case closed.
Fortunately, football is a lot more nuanced than that and that nuance should have been considered in the application of the rules on this occasion.
Undoubtedly, Evans would have sympathised with the defender and certainly not attempted to claim there was any intention in has actions, however, his decision to award the spot kick fell back on one flawed piece of rhetorical evidence that creates a argument so full of holes that it resembles a piece of Swiss cheese.
The key phrase for officials in incidents such as these is ‘natural position’. As a defender attempts to match wits with an attacker close to goal, the intention is to either take possession of the ball with a well timed challenge or provide an effective barrier between the ball and the goal in order to deter a shot.
In the building of that wall, any attempt to extend the arms to broaden the width or height of that barrier is deemed to be the creation of an ‘unnatural position’. If a ball was to then strike the arm, a penalty it would be.
The error made on Friday relates to context. When defenders face a skillful opponent with the ball at their feet they are in defensive mode, attempting to repel the attack and they must remain in a natural state.
Topor-Stanley was not. He was, in fact, putting boot to ball and was in a completely ‘natural position’ to do that. Kicking a ball powerfully and accurately takes great balance. Photos of players lacing the ball will show their arms extended to the side in a variety of idiosyncratic positions. All of them are natural in the process of kicking the ball.
Topor-Stanley had done exactly the same thing and attacked the ball, using his arms and body to maintain balance whilst moving at high speed.
The lightning paced rebound that thundered into his forearm caught him in an utterly natural position; one in which he was kicking the ball. To suggest that it was unnatural is absurd as reaction time was non-existent. Expecting players to assume a ‘hands by the side’ defensive position within the space of a second defies scientific logic and common sense.
Thankfully, future Socceroo Andrew Nabbout scored the goal of the season minutes later to level things up at two goals apiece and the match ended in a draw.
In a weekend of drama where penalties were common, missed penalties were laughable and the VAR system failed to see the grey in their black and white, slow motion interpretation of the rules, those who suffered were the fans.
A core element of fandom is faith and if the officials keep using technology at the expense of all common sense, that faith will continue to erode.