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Handball Rule In Soccer: A Complete Guide

The handball rule in soccer is one of the most challenging rules referees have to deal with; it’s often unclear, consistently divisive, and changes so often that it’s impossible to get right every time. For instance, did you know that before 2020, where on a player’s arm a handball could happen hadn’t actually been defined? 

Handball is a foul in soccer which happens when a player touches the ball with their hands or arms. When this occurs, a direct free kick or penalty will be awarded to the opposition team and the player that made the handball may be given a yellow or red card.

For years, players had been using their shoulders to control the ball, only for it to actually be an offense. An offense that referees knew about but ignored, but it’s a handball nonetheless. Since 2020, the IFAB (International Football Association Board) has determined that the shoulder is now not part of the body that can incur a handball. 

Constant tweaks to the handball rule have made it difficult for referees to remain consistent, something that drives fans, players, and pundits insane with rage. But we can hardly blame the referee; when the VAR (Video Assistant Referee) can’t make up their mind with video footage, how can a referee in the heat of a game? 

Let’s break down the handball rule and see if it’s more transparent. 

Key Points Of The Handball Rule 

As of July 2021, the Handball rule changed yet again, thanks to a massive increase in the ridiculously odd penalties being given for handball in the English Premier League. Key points to take from this new ruling were: 

  • It is an offense if a player deliberately touches the ball with either their hand or arm, including moving their hand or arm towards the ball. 
  • It is an offense if a player scores a goal directly from themselves using their hand or arm to score a goal. 
  • It is not an offense if an accidental handball leads to a teammate scoring or having a goalscoring opportunity. 

What Part Of The Body Counts As Handball? 

The picture below shows what is determined as a handball and not.

  • Green=Not handball
  • Red=Handball

As you can see in the picture, the hands and most of the arms are classed as handball, while the shoulders aren’t.

Now that the shoulder is not classed as a part of the body that can incur a handball offense, what part of the body actually is able to cause a player to handball?

The new regulations seem to indicate (note that we don’t say states, handball loves to be vague) that any part of the arm below where the sleeve on a short-sleeved soccer jersey ends can class as a handball.

That’s because the rule states that “anyone who touches the ball with their hand or arm when its position has made their body unnaturally bigger” has handballed. You can move your arms to your side or even behind your back, but your shoulders stay put; so if the ball hits your shoulder, you’re fine. 

If the ball hits your elbow while your arms are flat against your body, that’s not offside either; if you’re flapping your arms like an angry pigeon, or spreading your arms to look bigger, then if the ball hits your arm, it’s a handball offense. 

Sadly, this is where the handball rule becomes insanely difficult to govern. The regulation stipulates that a player is “considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger if the position of their hand or arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation.” 

In other words, if you trip over your feet and spread your arms to stop yourself from hitting the floor face first, and the ball hits your outstruck arm, it’s not an offense because you were justified in having your arms out. Probably. 

This part of the handball rule is there to allow referees to use common sense; they can look at each situation on the pitch for its own merit and then make a ruling.

While that may sound great, it means the rule is open to interpretation; what’s a foul in one game isn’t a foul in another, and that sends managers into fits of rage. 

Handball Inside The Penalty Box 

In 2020, during 380 Premier League games, 19 penalties were awarded for handball offenses inside the penalty area, a fairly reasonable number. After the IFAB handball rule changes of 2021, by the time only 26 games had been played, six penalties had been awarded for handball inside the penalty area. 

By extrapolating this throughout the season, it was estimated that the number of penalties awarded would have been around 88, a staggering rise from the previous season’s 19.

Fans, players, and especially soccer managers were infuriated; managers couldn’t figure out how to stop their players from giving away penalties, and so the rules were again scrutinized. 

After further tweaks, things have settled down. Still, a referee has to decide whether a handball was intentional, whether the player’s arms were in a natural position or not, and whether a clear advantage was gained. 

Of course, as we’ve already stated, one of the new rules states, “It is not an offense if an accidental handball leads to a teammate scoring or having a goalscoring opportunity,” muddying the waters even more.

In an ideal world, an accidental handball inside the penalty area is ignored, and a deliberate one is immediately flagged as a penalty kick. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t; it’s the beauty of soccer and its curse. 

Handball Outside The Penalty Box 

In much the same way a referee has to judge each case of handball on its own merits when inside the penalty area, the same rules apply outside of the area.

A handball in the middle of the park is obviously less dangerous to a defending team, and so it’s often the case that players won’t argue with the referee. 

Because a handball outside the area doesn’t lead to a clear and obvious goalscoring chance, referees are less worried about getting the decision wrong, so invariably, they simply call for a foul.

The offending player rarely goes mental with indignation, and managers are less likely to see red. 

Accidental Handball 

A referee has several thoughts running through their head when trying to decide on a handball decision.

Questions ranging from whether the handball was intentional, whether there was a clear advantage gained from the handball, and whether the player made their body bigger when the ball struck their arm have to be asked on every instance of handball. 

If the ball strikes a player on another part of the body at high speed and then ricochets onto an arm, then a referee has to class this as an accidental handball and allow play to continue. 

Likewise, if a player trips and lands on the ball, and their arm hits the ball, this is viewed as an accidental handball and shouldn’t be punished.

It’s not unheard of for a player in this situation to shield the ball with their arm to try to retain possession, and then the referee has to look at this as an infringement of the rules. 

Regardless of where a player is on the pitch, a referee should be assessing whether a handball is accidental and allowing play to proceed or calling for a foul.

How a referee determines accidental or intentional depends on the official and can often vary wildly. 

How Can Field Players Use Their Hands In Soccer?

Players might not be able to touch the ball with their hands, but the hands still play a role in the game of soccer. How do field players still rely on their hands? These are a few of the ways hands still matter.

Defense

Hands can come In handy when playing defense. Fighting for positioning happens frequently throughout the game, which usually means more than just pushing around with the legs.

Even though soccer is a contact sport, defenders still need to be a little discreet about how many pushes and grabs they do with their arms and hands because referees will call a foul if there is too much physical activity. However, every player uses their hands and arms somewhat to have an edge.

Offensive players can get away with using their hands a little bit as well, and the same type of rules apply. There’s always a bit of jockeying for the ball when players are trying to really open things up for themselves.

Communication

A lot of communication takes place on the soccer pitch thanks to hands and arms. Teammates have to know where everyone is going on a particular play.

Hand gestures really come in handy if the stadium is very loud. It can be hard to hear verbal communication, so hand signals are the better way to go.

The coaching staff will also occasionally use hand signals for the same reasons. Teams usually go over a few signals so that each player is on the same page. Some of them are self-explanatory, while others are set plays relayed to the team and/or captain.

Balance

It would be impossible for players to run around and play without using their hands for balance, form, and other little things that go with regular play.

Players are free to use their hands and arms to run around like normal, just as long as it does not make contact with the ball.

Examples Of Handball Offenses

While handball offenses in soccer aren’t rare at all, there are some that have drawn more attention than others.

Here’s one of the most famous handballs in soccer history, as well as one in more recent times.

The Hand of God 

The most obvious handball offense ever seen is the “Hand of God” incident during the 1986 World Cup, where Argentine striker Diego Maradona punched the ball past England’s giant goalkeeper Peter Shilton. 

The tiny yet talented Maradona somehow out-jumped the giant England goalkeeper, and while everyone on the pitch and in the stadium saw Maradona use his hand to punch the ball into the net. Incredibly, the referee didn’t, and Argentina went on to win the game and the World Cup. 

Manchester City vs. Everton – Premier League 2022 

With an Everton team desperate for every point, and the team looking over its shoulder at the serious threat of relegation, the last thing under-pressure manager Frank Lampard needed was a refereeing howler. 

But that’s precisely what Everton got in a Premier League game in February 2022, when the Toffees hosted champions Manchester City. Everton would lose the game 1-0, but a clear and blatant handball in his own penalty area by manchester city midfielder Rodri would have given Everton a valuable point. 

Even with VAR, the referee made the wrong call, leading to the head of the professional referees’ body having to call Everton manager Frank Lampard to apologize. This scenario is another example of how tough it is to get a handball decision right, even with video technology. 

Final Thoughts 

Referees have an impossible job; they must keep up with a soccer game at incredible speed while 22 players do their best to hoodwink them. On top of that, a crowd screams at every decision they make; half of them agree with them, and half think they’re an idiot. 

TV cameras, pundits, managers, even with the help of VAR, a referee can still get it wrong. The rules don’t help, and they’ve probably changed by the time you’ve read this article anyway. One person’s arm is another person’s elbow; one week, it’s a penalty, and the next week, the play gets waved along. 

It’s an infuriating yet integral part of soccer; without the controversy, where’s the passion? If every decision was black and white, yes or no, where would the fans find their reasons to spend all week discussing their team’s good or bad luck?

The handball rule is here to stay, whether it’s in its present state or not. We soccer fans wouldn’t have it any other way. We try to tell ourselves that it’s all evened out in the end, even if it isn’t. After all, there’s always next weekend.