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Handling the ball: Deliberation in the act of Borchers' handball call

Nat Borchers facial expression is unequivocal, too. "No," he's saying to himself.
Nat Borchers facial expression is unequivocal, too. "No," he's saying to himself.

It's that time of year where we are forced to talk about - sigh - the infamous "handball" section of FIFA's Laws of the Game. After Nat Borchers provoked a refereeing decision that seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, it cropped up again.

Let's first review the actions Nat Borchers took, both intentionally and unintentionally, and then we'll get on with how the Laws apply.

1. The defense is caught out a bit on a high ball and immediately starts the sprint back. Nat Borchers is one of them running back.

2. Tony Beltran is the first to the ball on the right side of the box; his touch carries the ball into the path of a backpedalling Nat Borchers.

3. Borchers, in an attempt to clear the ball, slips on the proven-terrible Vancouver Whitecaps pitch.

4. Falling to the ground with his legs slipping from beneath him, Borchers attempts to stop his fall by putting his hands against the ground.

5. Borchers' hand hits the ball on his way down, causing it to pop up. It then hits his arm.

6. Nat Borchers recovers from his fall and clears the ball. The referee has already called for a foul and an ensuing penalty.

Next, let's review specifically the text from the Laws of the Game. Law 12 is specific enough in its wording, so let's go there: "Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm."

First, let's ask the important question: What is a deliberate act? Without diving too deeply into the philosophy of mind, we can say that an act of deliberation is one that involves the thoughtful weighing of opinions. Merriam-Webster is succinct, too: "Deliberate (adj). Characterized by awareness of the consequences." That definition is well agreed upon. This deliberation doesn't require a long period; we see plenty of passes being made deliberately even if the thoughts are split-second in nature. We don't yet have a crystal-clear definition of deliberate acts as relates to soccer, but this gives us a very strong position to move forward from. Let's also note that there's nothing about intention here; indeed, we should focus our criticisms on deliberate acts.

The laws of the game as they relate to handling the ball don't start applying until the fourth item, so let's start there. When Borchers falls to the ground, he does so because he has lost his footing. Whether this is because of the poor quality of the pitch or not is inconsequential in consideration of the rules. He has not lost his footing through a deliberate act.

Next, his hands the ground as he naturally attempts to stabilize himself. Is this a deliberate act? This is a difficult one to answer succinctly, as it requires a thorough analysis of instinctual acts and their role in deliberation. Regardless, during the very short time in which he is falling before he stabilizes himself, we will say with a high degree of certainty that he did not deliberate about where to put his arms when falling. Should we definite his stabilization as instinctual, we can say definitionally that it isn't a deliberate act, even if instinctual acts play a role in deliberation.

By now, we've identified that neither Borchers' slip nor his stabilization efforts were deliberate. It is during his fall that his hand first makes contact with the ball, and we can clearly define that as not deliberate. He next makes contact with the ball when it pops up and hits him on the arm; this, too, we cannot call deliberate as he has had no opportunity to even make a substantial movement with his body. He next recovers and clears the ball. The clearance is deliberate, but not an instance of handling.

It should be clear and unequivocal: That was not an instance of a deliberate handling of the ball. To say otherwise is to either confuse popular cliches about the nature of handling - ball to hand, hand to ball, for instance - with the Laws of the Game, or to confuse an act of deliberation with an act of instinct. As acts in and of themselves and not as smaller parts of larger acts, they are mutually exclusive.