Tuesday, 28 May 2024

Handball Rules in Soccer: Clearing up the Confusion

The handball rule in soccer has been a topic of constant debate and confusion among players, coaches, and fans. With the introduction of Video Assistant Referees (VAR), the precise application of the handball law has come under even more scrutiny. In this article, we will delve into the laws of the game relating to handball, its history, and the consequences of a handball foul in soccer. We will also explore one of the most infamous handball incidents in football history.

What is a Handball in Soccer?

In association football, players are prohibited from touching the ball with their hand or arm. Any other part of the body, such as the head, chest, or thigh, is allowed. When a player uses their arm or hand to control the ball, a foul is called for a handball offense. The upper boundary of the arm is defined as being “in line with the bottom of the armpit.” Anything below this marker is not permitted.

Handball Rule

The punishment for a handball offense can vary depending on the circumstances. In most cases, a direct free kick will be awarded, and the offending player will not receive a yellow card. However, if the referee deems the foul to be more cynical or worse than a standard handball offense, a yellow card may be given. If a defending player denies the opposition team a goal or prevents a clear goal-scoring opportunity through a handball offense, a red card will be shown.

An indirect free kick is given if a goalkeeper handles the ball inside their penalty area following a back pass from a teammate. This rule was introduced by IFAB in 1992 and is implemented in all FIFA and UEFA competitions.

How Have the Handball Laws Changed?

The International Football Association Board (IFAB), the organization responsible for setting and overseeing the official Laws of the Game, has made several attempts to simplify handball rules in football. However, these attempts haven’t always gone as planned.

In the 2020/21 season, the handball rule was changed to define a “handball area” the size and shape of a t-shirt. Any touches above the t-shirt sleeve line were permitted, while anything below was deemed a handball offense. This led to chaos in the Premier League, with an unusually high number of penalties awarded for handball. The rules were subsequently relaxed.

In summer 2021, IFAB made further alterations, particularly to the definition of an unnatural position. Referees are now allowed to use common sense and decide on a case-by-case basis whether a defensive body movement has created an unfair advantage or not.

Handball Rule in Soccer

It’s important to note that the issue of intentionality is irrelevant when determining a handball. Even if accidental and even if it doesn’t directly prevent a goal-scoring opportunity, when the ball strikes a player’s arm and their body has been made “unnaturally bigger,” it’s considered a handball.

The History of the Handball Offense: Why Was It Introduced?

When association football first became widespread in the mid-1800s, there was no standardized set of rules for the game. Different institutions used different rules, leading to confusion during matches. To address this, the English Football Association (FA) convened in 1863 to establish an official set of Laws of the Game. This marked the birth of modern football.

One of the key rules emphasized in the Laws of the Game was the prohibition of touching the ball with the hand or arm. This rule distinguished soccer from rugby, which allowed handling of the ball. Not being able to handle the ball has been a fundamental element of soccer since its inception.

The Maradona Hand of God: Football’s Most Infamous Handball

Throughout history, there have been several controversial handball incidents in football. However, none is more legendary than the “Hand of God” by Diego Maradona during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. In a match against England, Maradona punched the ball into the net, scoring a goal that went unnoticed by the officials. To this day, the incident remains one of the most talked-about moments in football.

Maradona Hand of God

Maradona referred to the goal as a combination of “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” Despite the controversy surrounding the handball, Maradona’s remarkable skill and contributions to football, such as the Maradona Turn and memorable goals, have solidified his legacy.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Is a handball offense only given when the player intentionally handles the ball?
  2. What are the punishments for a handball offense?
  3. How have handball laws changed in recent years?
  4. What is the history of the handball offense in soccer?
  5. What is the most infamous handball incident in football?


Understanding the handball rules in soccer is crucial for players, coaches, and fans. While the laws have evolved over the years and continue to be a subject of debate, the essence remains the same. The prohibition of handling the ball with the hand or arm is what distinguishes soccer from other sports. So, the next time you witness a handball offense on the pitch, you’ll have a better understanding of the rules and their history.

If you’d like to further educate yourself on another fundamental football rule, check out our article on the role of offsides in soccer. Remember, the beauty of football lies in its complexities and the ongoing discussions surrounding its rules and regulations. Enjoy the game, and may the handball controversies continue to fuel passionate debates.