One rule that makes soccer different from many other sports is the restriction on players being able to touch the ball with their hands. The laws around handball are foundational to the way soccer is played and need to be understood to appreciate and enjoy the game fully.
When it comes to the rules of handball in soccer, you need to know:
- The definition of a handball
- Where on a soccer player’s body is considered handball
- What are the rules about handball
- The one player on the team who can handle the ball
- What the consequence of a handball is
- If a handball results in an indirect or direct free kick
- If a player will receive a caution or red card for a handball
- What the rules of a handball in the penalty area are
In this article, I’m going to take you through each of these areas. By the end, you should have a much better understanding of handball and found the answer to any questions you may have had.
Let’s get started!
Definition of Handball in Soccer
Let’s start with the definition of a handball.
Handball in soccer is a foul where a player intentionally touches the ball with their hand or arm, between the tips of their fingers and the bottom of their shoulder. Touching the ball with the shoulder is not a handball and unintentional contact between the ball and hand is not handball.
As you read through this article, I’ll explain what is permitted and what’s not when it comes to handling the ball. It can come as a surprise to some people that there are certain circumstances when a player handles the ball, and it isn’t considered a foul or offense.
But we’ll get onto that in just a second.
First, let’s clarify what part of a player’s body has to be in contact with the ball to be considered handball.
What Part of the Body Is Handball?
The rules of soccer repeatedly refer to the hand or arm when describing what a handball is.
But this has often led to confusion about when the arm ends and where the shoulder begins.
And if the ball touches a player’s shoulder, is that OK, or is it part of the arm? (You can find out the answer to that question in an article I recently wrote all about using your shoulder in soccer.)
To be clear about what part of the body we are talking about when we say the hand or the arm, let’s refer to the official Laws of the Game.
The rules of soccer state that:
“The upper boundary of the arm is in line with the bottom of the armpit.”IFAB Laws of the Game
This means that if you take a straight line around the arm from the armpit, everything above that line is the shoulder, and everything below is the arm. The arm begins at the end of the armpit.
In the image below, you can see where it would be a handball if the ball comes into contact with the player and where it would not be a handball.
For a player to commit a handball offense the ball must touch them on the hand or arm.
So in light of this and to answer the question – Is it handball if the ball hits your shoulder?
It is not a handball if the ball hits your shoulder during a soccer game. The rules of soccer are clear that a handball offense only occurs when the player touches the ball with their hand or arm. The rules don’t consider the player’s shoulder to be a part of the arm.
What Are the Rules for Handball in Soccer
Now we come to the key part of this article – what is and isn’t allowed regarding a player handling the ball.
Just now, I defined a handball as when a player handles the ball in a way that is not permitted within the rules of soccer.
The rules around handball in soccer are not as simple as “if the ball touches a player’s hand or arm, then it’s a handball.” The reality is that there are several different factors to consider when deciding if a player has committed a handball offense.
The rules for handball in soccer are as follows.
It is a handball offense if a player:
- deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm
- scores in the opponents’ goal directly from their hand/arm
- scores in the opponents’ goal immediately after the ball has touched their or a team mate’s hand/arm
- creates a goal-scoring opportunity immediately after the ball has touched their or a team mate’s hand/arm
- touches the ball with their hand/arm when their hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger
- touches the ball with their hand/arm when their hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level
Let’s break that down.
Deliberate or Unintentional Action
The first thing to consider is if the contact between the ball and the player was deliberate or unintentional.
The rules of soccer state:
“It is an offense if a player deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, including moving the hand/arm towards the ball.”IFAB Laws of the Game
There’s not much room for misunderstanding here. If a player deliberately handles the ball, then they have committed a handball offense.
The bigger question is what happens if a player accidentally, or unintentionally, touches the ball with their arm. Does the referee allow play to continue, or should they stop the game for a handball offense?.
The answer to this depends on two things:
- What happens immediately after contact between the player’s hand/arm and the ball
- Where the player’s arms were at the moment of contact
Soccer rules state that:
“It is an offense if a player scores in the opponents’ goal directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental.”IFAB Laws of the Game
“It is an offense if a player after the ball has touched their or a team-mate’s hand/arm, even if accidental, immediately scores in the opponents’ goal or creates a goal-scoring opportunity.”IFAB Laws of the Game
This makes it clear that if a player scores a goal or creates a goal-scoring opportunity immediately after they have touched the ball with their hand or arm, then it is a handball offense.
In this situation, it doesn’t matter if the contact was intentional or not.
The rules of soccer also state that:
“It is an offense if a player touches the ball with their hand/arm when the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger or the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level.”IFAB Laws of the Game
In this case, the intention of the player is also irrelevant when it comes to deciding if the player has committed a handball offense or not.
The player has chosen to put their arm and hand in an unnatural position. By doing this, the player risks the ball touching their hand/arm and committing a handball offense.
Ball to Hand
The rules also make it clear that these 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.”
A player cannot use the “ball to hand” excuse that the ball touched their hand before they could do anything about it, such as move their arm/hand out the way for any of the above offenses.
The only times when it is not an offense if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm is when the ball touches the player’s hand/arm:
- directly from the player’s head or body (including the foot)
- direct from the head or body (including the foot) of another close player
- 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
If you want to understand even more about this, have a look at the article, I wrote explaining the differences between an intentional and unintentional handball.
Having said all this about handball, there is one player on a team who works under slightly different rules when it comes to handball.
The One Player on the Team Who Can Handle the Ball
The role of a goalkeeper is to protect their team’s goal and stop the ball from getting past them. To help them do this, they are permitted to use their hands to touch the ball when the ball is in their penalty area.
Outside of the penalty area, the same handball rules apply to them as do to every other player.
Although this seems straightforward, you need to be aware that there are a few exceptions to the rule allowing the goalie to handle the ball in their penalty area.
Situations where the goalie cannot handle the ball in their penalty area:
- The goalie cannot handle the ball with their hand or arm for more than six seconds before releasing it
- The goalie cannot touch the ball with their hand or arm before it has touched another player after releasing it
- The goalie cannot handle the ball with their hand or arm, unless they have clearly kicked or attempted to kick the ball to release it into play, after: it has been deliberately kicked to the goalkeeper by someone else on their team or receiving it directly from a throw-in taken by someone else on their team [source]
To find out more about what a goalie can or can’t do in soccer, check out one of these previous articles I’ve written for a more in-depth explanation of these topics.
- The 8 rules every soccer goalie must follow
- Where and when a goalie can use their hands
- Or Can a goalie pick up the ball from a throw-in
What Is the Consequence of a Handball
Now we’ve established what a handball is, let’s look at what happens when the referee judges that a player has committed a handball offense.
Is a Handball a Direct or Indirect Free-Kick?
The first thing to be aware of is what type of free-kick the referee will award for a handball offense.
As with any offense during a game of soccer, the team that did not commit the offense will receive possession of the ball and will restart the game with a free-kick from the location the offense took place. (The only exception to this is when a penalty kick is awarded.)
There are two types of free-kicks that the referee may award to a team.
- A direct free-kick
- An indirect free-kick
At a direct free-kick, the ball can be kicked straight into the goal, and a goal will be awarded.
At an indirect free-kick, the ball cannot be directly kicked into the goal. If this happens, the referee will award a goal-kick or corner-kick to the team that did not take the free-kick.
In most circumstances, the referee will award a direct free-kick for a handball offense. The only exception to this is when the goalkeeper commits a handball offense in their penalty area.
If the goalie commits any of the handball offenses that I mentioned earlier, then the referee will award an indirect free-kick at the exact position in the penalty area where the offense took place.
Is Handball a Red Card?
Another factor to consider is if a player will receive a yellow or red card for a handball offense.
The referee will show a player a red card for handball if the player denies the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by using their hand or arm. Whether this action was intentional or unintentional does not matter.
For any other handball offense, the player will either be cautioned or receive no caution. This will depend on the circumstances of the offense.
- If a player handles the ball to interfere with or stop a promising attack, they will be shown a yellow card and receive a caution.
- Or if a player handles the ball in an attempt to score a goal or in an unsuccessful effort to prevent a goal, they will be shown a yellow card and receive a caution. [source]
But in the situation where the player scores a goal after unintentionally touching the ball with their hand/arm, the player won’t be cautioned.
To find out more about red or yellow cards in soccer, have a look at my guide to red cards here and my guide to yellow cards here.
Handball in the Penalty Box Rules
I wanted to end this article by specifically looking at a handball in the penalty area, as this is one area where lots of people have questions.
We have covered some of this information already, but let’s think about it directly in relation to the penalty area.
A Defensive Handball in the Penalty Area
Firstly, a handball in the penalty area does not always result in a penalty. If the ball makes contact with a player’s arm or hands while their arm is close to their body or the ball comes directly from a close player, then the referee won’t award a penalty.
Although in these circumstances, the ball has touched the player’s hand/arm, they have not committed a handball offense.
If the player handles the ball in their penalty area in an illegal manner according to the rules of soccer, then the referee will award a penalty to the opposition.
As we’ve just seen above, depending on the type of handball offense committed, the player may receive a caution, a red card, or no direct punishment at all apart from the penalty kick.
An Attacking Handball in the Penalty Area
When an attacking player commits a handball offense in the opposition team’s penalty area, then the referee will award the opposition a direct or indirect free-kick depending on the type of handball offense.
The type of handball offense will also determine whether the player is cautioned, shown a red card, or receives no direct punishment apart from the free-kick awarded to the opposition.
I really hope this article has been helpful to you, and you feel more confident in your understanding of handball in soccer.
I’ve attached an infographic image to the end of this article that you can download and keep with you or share with others to help you remember all the details of the rule.
If you want to find out more about the rules in soccer, check out my Easy to Understand Guide to the Rules of Soccer.
Or be inspired by looking through my list of the 100 Greatest Soccer Quotes.
All the statements about the rules of soccer in this article can be found in the official Laws of the Game Document found here.