Whenever there are some changes in the rule book, which typically happens no more often than every four years, there is always some apprehension among players, coaches and referees, and some confusion on the part of general handball public. The changes that took effect on July 1 this year were quite limited in scope, so this is likely to be one reason why there has not been a loud debate about the impact of the changes. But there have been a number of comments in the media, with views expressed by both team representatives and spectators, so I will focus on three specific areas that have received some attention. In doing so, I have not just picked up media reports, but I have also had conversations with some former colleagues on the IHF Rules & Refereeing Commission.
The major change in the rule book in terms of structure and text was in Rule 8, the very fundamental rule on fouls and misconduct. This clearly makes people wonder if the intention was to change how the game is supposed to be played, but I referred to ‘structure and text’ precisely because the intention was not to change the meaning of the rules and their interpretation more than marginally. Nevertheless, it seems that there have been some isolated instances in some countries, where the instructions have been misinterpreted or have not reached out to everyone. We do know that, unfortunately, not even all of the traditional handball countries have a strong structure in the area of referee education and rules interpretation. So for many of the ‘small’ handball countries the challenges are obviously even greater.
Anyway, it seems that some referees and instructors had misunderstood the intention to be that, from now on, fouls and ‘dirty play’ should really be clamped down on and be punished more harshly than before. But this was/is not the case. The goal of the changes in structure and wording was to provide more clarity. The structure of rule 8, with one ‘ladder’ for fouls and one for unsportsmanlike conduct now better matches the concept of ‘progressive punishment’ and also makes much more clear what are the differences between fouls that are more of a ‘routine’ nature and those that need to be singled out for tougher punishment immediately.
Moreover, instead of examples, the explanations and distinctions are now based on criteria. This should have the effect that the referees could now feel more secure in their decisions; so to the extent that this meant that previously they were in some cases less certain and therefore went for a more lenient action, then on the margin there could be some sense that in some individual cases we now see a tougher line. But any general trend towards more 2-minute punishments or ‘direct red cards’ should not really exist. So any suggestion that the IHF has generally escalated the interpretations is wrong!
One particular situation has caused some debate or dispute: the new statements in the rules regarding the situation where a goalkeeper leaves the goal area to try to intercept the ball during a counterattack for the opponents. For reasons of injury prevention, it has now been made abundantly clear that it is the goalkeeper who carries the basic responsibility for avoiding dangerous body contact. He/she can observe the evolving situation, whereas the opponent, with a typical focus on the ball that is coming from behind, is more vulnerable. It is almost impossible to try to make this rule crystal clear on paper or by describing a specific game situation verbally. One must see it live or have it on video, but at least the principle just mentioned should be clear.
The intention is not to find more reasons to disqualify goalkeepers. The objective is to greatly reduce the risk for major injuries and to make the goalkeepers think and act accordingly. They must change their instincts. This may mean that in some cases they decide to stay in their goal area and that, in other situations where they find themselves outside and confronting an opponent, they think ‘safety first’ and literally go out of their way to avoid a collision. And the good news is that goalkeepers generally seem to have gotten the message. They seem to think and act in the way we were hoping for, and there have been very few reports of situations where goalkeepers had to be disqualified for careless actions. It is understandable if a goalkeeper sometimes feels inhibited or frustrated by this ‘threat’, but surely this is much better than the option of considering a change whereby the goalkeeper is prevented from leaving his area!?
Finally, just a short comment on a third aspect of the new rules: the IHF decided to introduce the concept of a ‘coaching zone’. There is full understanding for the instincts and wishes of a coach to be physically active during the game; but it was felt that the job can be done without moving in front of the time/scorekeeping table, blocking the view of the people working there and ‘being in the face of’ the match delegates and increasing the risk for confrontations. There were some arguments that we would now hide behind bureaucratic rules, instead of trying to make the more important distinction between a correct working method and an unsportsmanlike behavior on the part of the coaches. But all the indications so far are that the concept of the ‘coaching zone’ is workable and has served its purpose.
In other words, there seem to be reasons for satisfaction both with the desired effect of the changes and with the willingness and ability of the coaches and the players to adapt! However, it may be a bit premature to jump to the conclusion that the rules have helped the referees put the game on the right track. We have not yet reached the critical stages of the Champions League, which through television reaches out and sets examples that could be both good and bad. And above all, in less than 2 months we have the men’s World Championship. Here it will really be critical for the IHF and its very best referees to show that the new rules help achieve consistency, and more specifically at the right level!