Wednesday, 24 Jul 2024

Handball Rule in Soccer: A Comprehensive Guide

Handball Foul

The handball rule in soccer can be quite challenging for referees to navigate. It’s often unclear, consistently divisive, and subject to frequent changes. Did you know that before 2020, the specific area on a player’s arm where a handball could occur hadn’t been defined?

What is Handball in Soccer?

Handball refers to the act of a player touching the ball with their hands or arms. When this happens, a direct free kick or penalty is awarded to the opposing team, and the offending player may receive a yellow or red card.

For years, players often used their shoulders to control the ball, thinking it was permissible. However, this was still considered a handball offense, even if referees ignored it. Since 2020, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) clarified that the shoulder is 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, which can frustrate fans, players, and pundits. It’s important to understand the specifics of the handball rule to bring more transparency to the game.

Key Points of the Handball Rule

As of July 2021, there have been some changes to the handball rule, largely influenced by the unusually high number of penalties awarded for handballs in the English Premier League. Here are the key points of the new ruling:

  • It is considered an offense if a player deliberately touches the ball with 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 using their hand or arm.
  • It is not considered an offense if an accidental handball leads to a teammate scoring or having a goalscoring opportunity.
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What Part of the Body Counts as Handball?

Handball Rule in Soccer

The image above illustrates the parts of the body that are considered handball offenses (red) and those that are not (green). Hands and most of the arms are classified as handball, while the shoulders are not.

According to the new regulations, any part of the arm below where the sleeve on a short-sleeved soccer jersey ends can be considered a handball. This means that if the position of a player’s hand or arm is not a consequence of their body movement for that specific situation and they touch the ball, it is deemed a handball offense.

However, the interpretation of the handball rule can be challenging as it allows referees to use their common sense in assessing each situation on the pitch. Consequently, what may be considered a foul in one game may not be a foul in another, leading to varying decisions and managers’ frustrations.

Handball Inside the Penalty Box

Penalties for handball offenses inside the penalty area have been a subject of controversy. In 2020, during 380 Premier League games, 19 penalties were awarded for handballs inside the penalty area. After the IFAB’s rule changes in 2021, by the time only 26 games had been played, six penalties had already been awarded for handball offenses inside the penalty area. Extrapolating this throughout the season, it was estimated that the number of penalties awarded would have risen to around 88, a significant increase compared to the previous season.

Referees must now determine if a handball inside the penalty box was intentional, if the player’s arms were in a natural position, and if a clear advantage was gained. Additionally, an accidental handball that leads to a teammate scoring or having a goalscoring opportunity is not considered an offense. Striking the right balance in making these decisions remains a challenge.

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Handball Outside the Penalty Box

Similar to handball incidents inside the penalty area, handball offenses outside the area are judged on their own merits. As these incidents are less likely to lead to clear and obvious goalscoring chances, referees are generally less concerned about making the wrong decision. In such cases, they typically call for a foul, and the offending player and managers tend to accept the decision without much argument.

Accidental Handball

Referees face various considerations when deciding on a handball offense. They must determine if the handball was intentional, if there was a clear advantage gained, and if the player’s body position made the arm unnaturally bigger when the ball struck. If the ball ricochets off another part of the body and then onto an arm, it is generally considered an accidental handball and play continues. However, if a player deliberately shields the ball with their arm to retain possession, it is viewed as an infringement of the rules.

Regardless of where the handball occurs on the pitch, the referee must assess whether it was accidental and allow play to proceed or call for a foul. The determination of accidental or intentional handball can vary among referees.

How Can Field Players Use Their Hands in Soccer?

Although field players cannot touch the ball with their hands during the game, hands still play a role in certain aspects of soccer. Here are a few ways hands are involved:


Hands can be valuable tools for defenders when it comes to positioning and jockeying for the ball. While there are limits to the amount of physical contact allowed, defenders often discreetly use their hands and arms to gain an edge.


Hand gestures play a crucial role in communication on the soccer pitch, especially in loud stadiums. Players use hand signals to convey information to their teammates, particularly when verbal communication is difficult. Coaches also employ hand signals to relay instructions and set plays.

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Hands and arms are essential for players to maintain balance and execute precise movements during gameplay. Players are free to use their hands and arms for regular running and balancing, as long as they do not make contact with the ball.

Examples of Handball Offenses

Handball offenses have been a source of attention and controversy throughout soccer history. Let’s revisit two famous handball incidents:

The Hand of God

Argentine striker Diego Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” incident during the 1986 World Cup is perhaps the most well-known handball offense. Maradona punched the ball past England’s goalkeeper Peter Shilton, but the referee failed to notice the handball. Argentina went on to win the game and eventually the World Cup.

Manchester City vs. Everton – Premier League 2022

In a Premier League game in February 2022, Manchester City midfielder Rodri committed a clear and blatant handball offense in his own penalty area. Despite VAR’s assistance, the referee made the wrong call, denying Everton a valuable point. This incident highlights the difficulty in making accurate handball decisions, even with video technology.



Refereeing a soccer game is an incredible challenge, with referees needing to keep up with the fast-paced action while facing scrutiny from players, fans, and camera angles. The handball rule adds complexity to their task, and its frequent changes further complicate matters. However, controversy surrounding handball decisions fuels discussions and adds to the passion of the game. Soccer fans wouldn’t have it any other way, even if it means enduring occasional frustrations. After all, there’s always another match on the horizon.

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