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Hand Ball! (Handball Offense) – Part of Law 12

HAND BALL! (Handball Offense) – Part of Law 12®

Law 12, “Fouls and Misconduct,” of the IFAB Laws of the Game, states that:

A direct free kick is awarded [to the opposing team] if a player commits… a handball offense (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area).”

“It is a [handball] offense if a player:

  • deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, including moving the hand/arm towards the ball
  • scores in the opponents’ goal directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental, including by the goalkeeper
  • after the ball has touched their or a teammate’s hand/arm, even if accidental, immediately:
    • scores in the opponents’ goal
    • creates a goal-scoring opportunity
  • touches the ball with their hand/arm when:
    • the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger
    • the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level (unless the player deliberately plays the ball which then touches their hand/arm)

The above offenses apply even if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close.

Except for the above offenses, it is not an offense if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm:

  • directly from the player’s own head or body (including the foot)
  • directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close
  • if the hand/arm is close to the body and does not make the body unnaturally bigger
  • when a player falls and the hand/arm is between the body and the ground to support the body, but not extended laterally or vertically away from the body

The goalkeeper has the same restrictions on handling the ball as any other player outside the penalty area. If the goalkeeper handles the ball inside their penalty area when not permitted to do so, an indirect free kick is awarded but there is no disciplinary sanction.  However, if the offense is playing the ball a second time (with or without the hand/arm) after a restart before it touches another player, the goalkeeper must be sanctioned if the offense stops a promising attack or denies an opponent or the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.”

[If the goalkeeper attempts to ‘clear’ (release into play) a throw-in or deliberate kick from a teammate but the ‘clearance’ fails, the goalkeeper can then handle the ball.  When the goalkeeper clearly kicks or tries to kick the ball into play, this shows no intention to handle the ball so, if the ‘clearance’ attempt is unsuccessful, the goalkeeper can then handle the ball without committing an offense.]

There are two significant points concerning application of the handball rule during the normal run of play.  The first has to do with the parts of the body which contact the ball and the second has to do with the judgment of the Referee.

The parts of the body subject to the handball rule are both the hands and the arms, extending from the tips of the fingers up to the articulation of the shoulder.  The articulation of the shoulder has been defined by the IFAB as being level with the armpit.  The fact that the ball may contact the hands or the arms during the course of the game is not sufficient, in and of itself, for a penalty to be called.  In order for a violation to have occurred, the Referee (or Assistant Referee) must have seen the contact and must have judged that the contact violated the Law.

In order to determine that the contact with the ball was a handball offense, the Referee uses three general criteria:

  1.  If the player moved his hand or arm to the ball; or,
  2.  If the player had sufficient reaction time to move his hand or arm out of the way of the flight of the ball and failed to do so; or,
  3.  If the player had his hand or arm in an “unnatural” position, including away from the sides (“making the body bigger”) or above shoulder level.

If, in the opinion of the Referee, any of these acts occurred, a handball offense should be called.  If the contact was determined to have not been deliberate, then play is allowed to continue, unless as a result of the contact: a.) a goal is scored, b.) possession is gained and a goal is scored, or c.) a goal scoring opportunity is created.

Difficulty with the application of the handball rule mostly occurs at the youth level where few hand balls are truly deliberate.  However, players must learn to keep their hands and arms out of situations where they could inappropriately influence play.  In order to do so, coaches must teach young field players to keep their hands near their sides when the ball is bouncing around and to overcome the desire brought on by American sports such as football, basketball and baseball, to try to catch the ball.  In addition, coaches must teach young players to overcome the natural tendency to protect the body from a fast moving ball, particularly the face, by blocking it with their hands.  Instead, they may first duck or turn the body, but as they get older they must learn to aggressively strike, deflect, or absorb the pace of, the ball.

Soccer Coaching Tips:

  • The term “handball offense” or “handball” is now preferred by the IFAB instead of “handling.”
  • Even adult players run afoul of having their arms in the wrong place, usually outstretched or above their head, and wonder why handball is called when they are hit by the ball without sufficient time to withdraw their arm.  They need to be taught that this is an “unnatural” position to the sport and not to have their arms there.
  • If the goalkeeper leaves his own Penalty Area, he becomes a field player and is subject to regular hand-ball rules.
  • The IFAB offers the following additional explanations:  “Greater clarity is needed for handball, especially on those occasions when ‘non-deliberate’ handball is an offense.  The re-wording follows a number of principles: – [soccer] does not accept a goal being scored by a hand/arm (even if accidental), – [soccer] expects a player to be penalized for handball if they gain possession/control of the ball from their hand/arm and gain a major advantage e.g. score or create a goal-scoring opportunity, – it is natural for a player to put their arm between their body and the ground for support when falling,  – having the hand/arm above shoulder height is rarely a ‘natural’ position and a player is ‘taking a risk’ by having the hand/arm in that position including when sliding, – if the ball comes off the player’s body, or off another player (of either team) who is close by, onto the hand/arm it is often impossible to avoid contact with the ball.”


NOTICE:  This article is based on the soccer Laws of the Game as maintained by The International Football Association Board (IFAB).  As represented in the article, the Laws may be paraphrased, edited for “American English” readability, or quoted in part or in whole.  Every effort has been made to be faithful to the letter, spirit and intent of the Laws however, since the Laws are subject to modification annually by the IFAB, recent changes may not be currently reflected.  Although national associations are permitted to institute local rules changes to the Laws, particularly for “youth, veterans, disability and grassroots football,” the IFAB is the original source for the official English-language version of the Laws of the Game.  If there is any question, the Laws of the Game may be found at


Any undefined soccer words, terms, or phrases may be found in The ULTIMATE SOCCER DICTIONARY of American Terms available at

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John C. Harves®

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