Monday, 22 Jul 2024

Handball Rules in Soccer: Understanding the Laws of the Game

The handball rule in soccer is a topic that has sparked constant debate and confusion. With the introduction of Video Assistant Referees (VAR), the interpretation of this rule has become even more scrutinized. In this article, we aim to provide clarity by exploring the laws of the game relating to handball, its history, and the consequences of a handball foul in soccer.

What Constitutes a Handball in Soccer?

In association football, players are prohibited from using their hand or arm to touch the ball. Every part of the body, such as the head, chest, or thigh, is allowed, except for anything below the shoulder. When a player does use their arm or hand to control the ball, it is considered a handball offense.

The exact definition of what constitutes the “hand” or “arm” has sometimes posed challenges for officials. Currently, the upper boundary of the arm is considered to be “in line with the bottom of the armpit.” Touching the ball below this marker is not permitted.

Punishments for Handball Offenses

The punishment for a handball offense depends on the circumstances. In most cases, a direct free kick is awarded, and the offending player does not receive a yellow card. However, if the referee deems the handball offense to be more cynical or worse than a standard infraction, a yellow card may be given.

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In more serious situations, such as when a defending player denies the opposition team a goal or prevents a clear goal-scoring opportunity through a handball offense, a red card is issued. Regardless of where the offense occurs on the field, the player will be sent off.

An indirect free kick is only given if a goalkeeper handles the ball inside their penalty area following a back pass from a teammate. This specific rule is a result of the back pass rule introduced by IFAB in 1992.

Evolution of Handball Laws in Recent Years

The International Football Association Board (IFAB), responsible for setting, overseeing, and changing the official Laws of the Game, has made multiple attempts to simplify handball offenses in football. However, these efforts have not always been successful.

In the 2020/21 season, the rules were changed to define a “handball area” the size and shape of a t-shirt. Touches above the t-shirt sleeve line were allowed, while anything below was deemed a handball offense. However, due to the high number of penalties awarded, the rules were relaxed.

In summer 2021, IFAB made further alterations, including tweaking the definition of an unnatural position. Referees were given the discretion to determine whether a defensive body movement has created an unfair advantage or not when deciding on a handball offense.

The History of the Handball Offense: Origins and Significance

The handball law in soccer has a rich history that dates back to the mid-1800s. The English Football Association (FA) played a crucial role in establishing the first set of official Laws of the Game in 1863. These laws included a specific rule stating that players could not touch the ball with their hands or arms.

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The clear distinction between soccer and rugby, which allowed handling of the ball, contributed to soccer’s development. Despite various tweaks and alterations over the years, the handball law has remained a constant in the game.

The Maradona Hand of God: A Legendary Handball Incident

Throughout history, there have been numerous controversial handball incidents in soccer. One of the most infamous occurred during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, involving Argentine player Diego Maradona. In a match against England, Maradona punched the ball into the net, unnoticed by the officials, resulting in a goal. The incident became known as the “Hand of God.”

Despite the outrage it caused, Maradona saw the moment as divine intervention. He famously described the goal as “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” This incident remains a significant part of soccer history, but Maradona’s legacy extends far beyond this single act.

In Conclusion

Understanding the handball rule in soccer is essential for players, officials, and fans alike. Over the years, the laws surrounding handball have evolved to address gray areas and ensure consistency. By exploring the history and consequences of handball offenses, we hope to shed light on this often-debated aspect of the game.

For more insights into essential soccer rules, be sure to check out our article on the role of offsides in soccer.


Q: Can a player purposely commit a handball offense?

A: The intention behind a handball offense is ultimately irrelevant. Even if accidental, when the ball strikes a player’s arm and the defender’s body has been made “unnaturally bigger,” it is considered a handball.

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Q: Are handball rules consistent across all matches and competitions?

A: While efforts have been made to simplify handball rules, slight variations may exist across different matches, competitions, and leagues. The introduction of VAR has added an additional layer of scrutiny to these decisions.

Q: What is IFAB?

A: The International Football Association Board (IFAB) is responsible for setting and overseeing the official Laws of the Game in soccer. They regularly review and make changes to these laws as necessary.

Q: Can goalkeepers handle the ball anywhere in the penalty area?

A: No. Goalkeepers can only handle the ball inside their penalty area if it is played to them from a teammate’s back pass. This rule was introduced in 1992 to prevent time-wasting tactics.