The handball rule in soccer is a subject of seemingly constant debate. Since the introduction of Video Assistant Referees (VAR) in the game, even more time has been spent examining the precise application of the handball law, and there remains plenty of confusion to this day.
In this article, we'll be clearing up some of that confusion by fleshing out the laws of the game relating to handball. We'll explain what is considered a handball, the history of this type of offence, and the consequences of a handball foul in soccer, as well as digging into one of the most infamous handball incidents that has ever occurred in soccer.
In association football, it is against the law for players to touch the ball using their hand or arm. Any other part of the body — including head, chest, or thigh — is allowed, but anything below the shoulder is illegal.
When a player does use their arm or hand to control the ball, a foul is called for a handball offence.
Officials have sometimes struggled to define exactly where on the body counts as the "hand" or "arm" (more on this shortly). As things stand, for the purposes of handball the upper boundary of the arm is defined as being "in line with the bottom of the armpit". Touching the ball using anything below that marker is not permitted.
The punishment for a handball offence can vary depending on the exact circumstances in which it happened. In the majority of cases, a direct free kick will be given, and that will be the only punishment — the offending player will not receive a yellow card. However, a yellow card can be given if the referee decides that the foul is more cynical or worse than a standard handball offence (which would be something simple like the ball striking a player's forearm while it is in an unnatural position.
Things can get even more serious; if a defending player denies the opposition team a goal or prevents a clear goal-scoring opportunity using a handball offence, the player will receive a red card instead of a booking. They will be sent off in this situation regardless of exactly where the offence occurs (although given that this pertains to clear goal-scoring opportunities, it will usually be in an advanced area).
The only time an indirect free kick is given following a handball offence is if a goalkeeper handles the ball inside their penalty area following a back pass from a teammate. This is due to the back pass rule introduced by IFAB in 1992 and implemented henceforth across all FIFA and UEFA competitions.
The rules have come under intense scrutiny in recent years due to certain gray areas that exist and the difficulty of ensuring consistency in the age of VAR, when each decision is placed under a microscope and examined closely. The application of rules regarding handball can differ slightly across different matches, competitions, and leagues, despite efforts that have been made to make things simpler across the board.
The International Football Association Board (IFAB), the organisation charged with setting, overseeing and when necessary changing the official Laws of the Game, have made several attempts to simplify handballs in football. However, things haven't always gone as planned.
At the start of the 2020/21 campaign, the rules were changed to define a "handball area" the size and shape of a t-shirt, with any touches above the t-shirt sleeve line permitted and anything below deemed a handball offence. The new rule stated that when the ball hits a defensive player "below the sleeve line" and their arms are in an unnatural position (in this case, defined as any position other than with their hands by their sides) in the penalty area, a penalty kick would be given.
However, this created chaos in the Premier League, with 6 penalties given for handball in only the opening 26 games, a vast amount in comparison with the 19 handball penalties awarded across 380 games in the entire previous season. Outrage ensued and the laws were relaxed as a result.
Then, in summer 2021, IFAB made more alterations, most notably tweaking the definition of an unnatural position, stating that a handball will be given if a player "touches the ball with their hand or arm when it has made their body unnaturally bigger." Effectively, this was about allowing referees to use common sense, deciding on a case-by-case basis whether a defensive body movement has created an unfair advantage or not.
It's important to note that while you will often hear players arguing about whether or not a handball was "intentional", according to the rules this is ultimately irrelevant. Even if accidental, and even if it doesn't directly prevent a goal-scoring opportunity, when the ball strikes a player's arm and the defender's body has been made "unnaturally bigger" it's a handball. 'Intent' doesn't matter.
These are all recent changes made in the age of VAR amid constant debates about refereeing and officiating; but back in the day, things were a little simpler. Before we wrap up, we're going to take you through a brief history of the handball law and discuss the conditions that led to its creation.
When association football first became widespread in the mid-1800s, there was no standardised set of rules for the game; different private schools, colleges, and institutions used different rules, which could lead to a lot of confusion when they met to play each other.
It was decided that an official set of Laws would have to be drawn up, and at the inaugural meeting of the English Football Association (FA) on 26 October 1863 in London, that's exactly what happened.
The result was the official Laws of the Game. Alongside rules regarding throw-ins, kick-offs, the size and dimensions of the field of the play, and more, the Laws also stated: "No player shall take the ball from the ground with his hands while it is in play under any pretence whatever."
These strict rules forbidding players from touching the ball with their hand or arm were one of the key things that distinguished the newly formalised sport from rugby, which at the time was closely intertwined with association football. Not being able to handle the ball is a fundamental element of soccer that has been crucial to its development ever since.
Some rules that seem unusual now persisted for a while following the implementation of the Laws of the Game; for example, until 1912 goalkeepers were allowed to handle the ball anywhere inside their own half of the pitch, and until 1992 keepers could pick the ball up following pass backs from their own defenders. However, despite numerous tweaks and alterations throughout the decades, the handball law is one thing that has remained a constant.
A number of controversial handball offences have taken place over the years, from the Thierry Henry handball incident that denied the Republic of Ireland a place at the 2010 World Cup, to the Luis Suarez goal line handball that made him a Uruguay hero but broke Ghanaian hearts by denying the West African side a certain goal in the quarter-final of the same tournament. There's no denying, however, that the most infamous handball in football history took place at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
It was Argentina vs England, a few minutes into the second half, and the Argentine talisman Diego Maradona was through on goal against onrushing England goalkeeper Peter Shilton. As he rose to connect with the ball, he reached out his arm and punched it over Shilton and into the net, giving his nation the lead with a handball offence that went unnoticed by the matchday officials, to the outrage of England's players.
To this day, many ex-players and fans remain enraged about the incident, but Maradona tended to simply view the moment as some sort of divine intervention — after the match, he gave match reporters a golden line that remains one of football's most iconic quotes: "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God."
On the day of the "hand of God", Maradona's iconic brace (when a player scores two goals in a match) was enough to take Argentina through to the World Cup semi-finals. It remains one of the most legendary memories of the decorated attacker, but he gave so much more to the world of football, from the aptly-named soccer skill the Maradona Turn to scoring one of the best hat tricks ever for Napoli against Lazio in 1985. He'll often come up in conversations about the handball rule, but his legacy is far richer than just that.
If you'd like to educate yourself on another fundamental football rule, check out our article on the role of offsides in soccer.