“Handles the ball deliberately,” is the phrase in the Laws of the Game, which offer no further explanation, and at first glance it seems that we don’t need any. The words are clear. Yet this is the only place in the laws where referees are expected to judge deliberateness, and footballers, fans and pundits still argue constantly about handballs. Understandably, because the law as it stands implies a view of causation that is much simpler than reality.
What if you deliberately put your hand where you think the ball is most likely to be kicked? Is there anything wrong with that in itself? You can put your hand in the air wherever you like. If the attacker then kicks the ball at your hand so hard that you can’t avoid handling, then it can hardly be said that you “handled the ball deliberately”. You have deliberately made an accidental handball more likely to happen, though. You’ve negligently failed to prevent yourself from handling, or handled half-deliberately, perhaps.
Goalkeepers routinely, and rightly, get credit for this. Even if they make no movement to stop a shot, they are considered skilful for being in the right place when the ball hits them. If you are a not a goalkeeper but you stand like one, arms spread wide in front of the goal, then you should surely be penalised if the ball hits your hand. You have deliberately sought advantage from handling, even if you have not deliberately handled it.
To decide when this applies, referees are now advised by the International Football Association Board to consider whether a player’s hand is “in an unnatural position” - implying that the player is morally responsible for anything that results from their hand being where it didn’t have to be. This solution creates more problems though, even if you could define what all the natural and unnatural positions were. You could have your hand in an unnatural position for innocent reasons after all. You might be gesticulating to a teammate. You might be lifting your arms to jump, certainly a deliberate movement, but not intended to cause handball.
Gary Lineker has argued that a handball should be given whenever the ball strikes a player’s hand, regardless of intent. This would certainly make the rule clear, but it would also lead to players aiming for defenders’ hands in the penalty area rather than trying to beat them, which is less fun to watch and even more unfair. Besides, there is an obvious alternative that would work better. The laws must reflect the fact that half-deliberate handballs exists, like manslaughter in comparison with murder. Deciding what counts must be a matter for the referee’s judgement, but when necessary they should be free to penalise half-deliberate handballs with indirect free kicks, meaning they will not lead to penalties. When a referee is sure that it was deliberate, as with Luis Suarez against Ghana in 2010, that will be a penalty as before.