Soccer is also known as “football” around the globe for a reason. One of the sport’s premier rules is that a player — apart from the goalie — can not use their hands.
However, this rule is not quite as clear as it seems. The severity of the offense depends on how the ball made contact with the hand/arm and where it occurred on the field.
This guide to handballs in soccer uncovers the ins and outs of this foundational rule.
Table of Contents
- What is a handball?
- What are the rules about handling the ball?
- Is a shoulder a handball in soccer?
- What part of the arm is considered a handball?
- What happens if there is a handball in the penalty area?
- Is it a handball if it’s unintentional?
- Exceptions to the handball rule
What is a handball?
A handball in soccer occurs when a player deliberately touches the ball with their arm/hand anywhere from the fingertips to the bottom of the shoulder.
What are the rules about handling the ball?
The handball rule sounds simple, but it’s more complicated than the referee calling a foul every time the soccer ball touches someone’s hand. This rule is highly dependent on circumstances, such as where the handball occurred on the field, whether it was intentional, and more.
The International Football Association Board (IFAB) created the handball rule used by referees around the globe. The rule enforced by the IFAB states that a handball occurs when:
- a player intentionally touches the ball with their hand or arm
- a player scores a goal directly from the arm or hand
- a player scores a goal directly after the ball touches their arm/hand or a teammate’s arm/hand
- a goal-scoring opportunity occurs right after the ball touches the player’s arm/hand or a teammate’s arm/hand
- a player uses their arm or hands to make their body unnaturally bigger and touches the ball with their arm/hand
- a player touches the ball with their arm/hand while their arms are above shoulder level
The goalie and the handball rule
The goalie is exempt from the handball rule when in their team’s penalty zone. They can use their hands to pick up the ball, block a goal, or throw the ball to another player. A goalie can commit a handball foul if they touch the ball with their arm/hand outside their team’s penalty area.
The opposing team receives a free kick if the goalie touches the ball outside their team’s penalty box. The goalie may receive a yellow or red card for this offense if it stops or attempts to stop the other team from scoring a goal. The referee may even send the goalie off the field for a serious handball offense.
A goalie cannot use their hands if they receive the ball deliberately from a teammate or via a throw-in. They cannot release the ball from their hands and then pick it up again.
Is a shoulder a handball in soccer?
The Laws of the Game, established by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), state that the arm includes everything below the armpit. The shoulder can touch the ball without causing a foul. However, handballs are at the referee’s discretion.
What part of the arm is considered a handball?
If you were to draw a line from under your arm across your body, any part of the arm below that line cannot touch the ball in soccer.
What happens if there is a handball in the penalty area?
The handball rule is especially subjective in the penalty area. Many players and fans assume any handball in the penalty area results in a free kick. However, there are exceptions. Such as when the ball unintentionally hits the arm of a player who has their arms and hands close to their body, and they do not receive an advantage. In this case, the unintentional handball in the penalty box does not result in a free kick.
The following are two instances when a referee will call a handball foul in the penalty area.
- Handball in the box by a defender: A player who handles the ball in the penalty area illegally or intentionally will receive a foul. The attacking team takes a penalty kick. The player may also receive a caution or a red card depending on the severity of the foul.
- Handball in the box by the attacking team: A handball by the attacking team in the penalty area results in a direct or indirect free kick for the opposition. The referee chooses between a direct or indirect kick based on the type of handball foul. An intentional handball in the penalty area may result in a red card or caution from the referee.
Is a handball in the box a red card?
The referee decides if a handball in the penalty box is worthy of a red card. On defense, a handball may result in a red card if it denies the attacking team a goal. The referee may show an attacker a red card if they used their arm/hand to score a goal or create a goal-scoring opportunity.
Is a handball a direct or indirect free kick?
A free kick goes to the team that did not commit the handball foul. Law 12 in the official Laws of the Game states that a referee awards a direct free kick for all handballs except those committed by a goalie in their penalty area.
- Direct free kick: A player can kick the ball directly into the goal without another player touching it.
- Indirect free kick: Another player must touch the ball before taking a direct shot at the goal. If the attacker kicks the ball directly into the goal, the referee can award the opposition a corner kick or goal kick.
An indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team if the goalie handles the ball illegally inside their penalty area. The referee does not enforce any other disciplinary action against the goalie.
Handball offenses committed by the goalie in the penalty area include:
- holding the ball for more than six seconds
- handles the ball when a teammate deliberately passes it to them
- handles the ball directly from a throw-in by a teammate
- handles the ball after releasing it and before another player touches it
Is it a handball if it’s unintentional?
The referee decides whether to call a handball or not. He uses his discretion to determine if the handball was intentional. The referee calls a handball if a player deliberately touches the ball with their arm or hand.
A referee may also call a handball foul if a player unintentionally touches the ball with their hand or arm. This depends on the location of the player’s arms and what happened directly after the hand or arm made contact with the ball.
The IFAB Laws of the Game state that an unintentional handball is an offense if the ball enters the opponent’s goal immediately after touching the arm or hand. It is also an offense if a player scores a goal or creates a scoring opportunity after the ball directly after touching a teammate’s hand or arm.
An unintentional handball is also an offense if the player used their hands/arms to make their body unnaturally bigger when the ball touched their hand/arm. A referee will also call a handball if the ball unintentionally hits a player’s hand/arm when the arms are above shoulder level. The player put their arms/hands in an unnatural position that makes them more likely to come in contact with the ball.
Breaking down when a referee will call a handball if a player unintentionally touches it with their arm/hand:
- The contact with the arm/hand ended in a goal
- The contact with the arm/hand created a goal-scoring opportunity
- The player used their arms/hands to make their body unnaturally larger
- The player had their arms/hands above shoulder level
The player’s intention is not relevant in the above circumstances, and a referee will call a handball.
Exceptions to the handball rule
The handball rule in soccer is not cut and dry. A referee takes several factors into account when calling a handball foul.
- Was it intentional?
- Did the use of the arm/hand make the body unnaturally bigger?
- Did the player or their team gain an advantage from the arm/hand touching the ball?
- Was the player moving their arm toward the ball?
- How far was the player from the ball?
Sometimes the ball moves so quickly that it hits a player’s leg and then their arm/hand because they can’t get it out of the way fast enough. This is typically not a handball because it is not intentional and does not offer any advantage to the player or their team.
The following are several instances when touching the ball with the hand/arm is not an offense:
- The ball touches the arm/hand directly after touching the player’s foot, head, or another part of the body
- The arms and hands are close to the body (not making it unnaturally larger)
- The ball touches the arm/hand directly after touching the foot, head, or body of another player
- The player falls and accidentally touches the ball while using their arms/hands to support their body or break the fall
Handballs are common points of controversy in the sport of soccer because the intention of the player is difficult for a referee to determine.
At first glance, the handball rule appears to be one of the simplest in the sport. Digging deeper, it is far more than a rule stating “no hands allowed,” and it leaves a lot of decision-making to the referee. Understanding what a handball is and what causes a referee to call a handball foul can help you avoid committing this often game-changing foul.