“Handball” – the rule everyone thinks they understand

One of the most common misconceptions is that any contact between the ball and the hand/arm is an infringement. Players, parents, and coaches are quick to call “handball, ref!” and get upset at the ‘obvious’ refereeing mistake, especially in the penalty box when a ‘handball’ can lead to a penalty kick. “Come on referee! Are you [insert swear word] blind?” It was sooo obvious, right?

Well, in fact, only a small percentage of situations where the ball makes contact with the hand/arm actually infringe on the laws of the game. According to FIFA, there is absolutely nothing illegal about the ball coming into contact with a player’s arm or hand, even if the player may benefit from the ball contacting the hand (it might bounce in a favorable direction, for example).

It is only illegal when the player DELIBERATELY creates that contact or uses unintentional contact in a DELIBERATE attempt to control or manipulate the movement of the ball.

For an infringement to have occurred one or more of the following conditions need to be met:

  1. it has to be DELIBERATE (not accidental)
  2. the arms are in an unnatural position (e.g. outstretched or above the head)
  3. the player could have avoided the touch
  4. player deliberately continued an initial (legal) contact for the purpose of gaining an unfair advantage
  5. even if direct contact is avoided by holding something in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.)

So here are example situations when NO infringement occurred despite the hand/arm making contact with the ball:

  • player might extend his/her arms momentarily to keep from losing balance
  • the ball was kicked from short range and/or with high speed to make it impossible for the player to react (kicked balls travel anywhere from 30 mph to 80 mph, depending on age and gender)
  • player seems to be making a fair attempt to avoid using the hands and arms to play/touch the ball
  • the ball hits a rock or similar and quickly pops up and hits a player’s hand which was in a natural position
  • player turns his/her body to the side and the ball strikes the arm that the player had pressed against the body
  • player attempting to protect himself/herself from injury, for example by placing the hands in front of the face or chest (girls) or genitals (boys) and then being hit by the ball (boys often protect their genitals standing in the wall during free kicks, for example).

To be clear, it is NOT a ‘handball’ even when a goal is prevented through accidental contact with an arm that is in a natural position.

Also note that it is legal to control the ball with the top of the shoulder so this can never be a handling offense, but the side of the shoulder is considered part of the arm and therefore potentially illegal depending on the specific incident.

And, further, keep in mind that deciding on whether an infringement occurred depends on the opinion of the referee. He/she will typically be much closer to the event and will be in by far the best position to determine whether there was any movement toward the ball, for example.

In the large majority of cases you simply cannot see from the sidelines whether the player’s hand/body moved toward the ball or not, or whether the ball hit a rock or bump in the field. The human eye simply cannot determine this from 50 yards away and add to this that players and the ball are typically moving at speed when the event occurs. Only the referee is close enough (within 10 to 15 yards) to determine what happened.

In addition, the referee needs to take the age and experience of the players into account. To use an extreme example to make a point, an infringement by an elite U18 player might not be judged an infringement in the case of a U9 ‘rec’ player.

And, finally, the referee can still decide to play ‘advantage’ even if an infringement occurred. Play can also continue if, in the opinion of the referee, a deliberate ‘handball’ did not result in an advantage for the player/team committing the offense – the preference in this case might be to let the game flow. This last case is rare but possible.

So for the good of the game, coaches and parents, please dial back those ‘handball’ screams.

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

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