Accidental (or Not) Handling

Russ, an adult amateur referee, asks:

An attacker at the top of penalty area, with their back to the opposing GK receives a pass which deflects from her foot to an outstretched arm. The ball lands directly in front of her. She is able to shield the defender and take a shot or pass for a great chance to score.
Would this fall under goal scoring opportunity?
I understand some say it has to be immediate…
It seems unfair to reward the attacker when there was handling, intentional or not.
If this occurred at mid field, play on, unless there’s a direct shot on goal.


It’s a little more nuanced than that.  The IFAB stated its clear intention that, if an accidental hand contact occurs, this should not result in an offense based on three decisions made in the opinion of the referee:

  1. The contact occurs above the shoulder (i.e., accidental or not, hand contact above the shoulder is per se suspicious and, in the Board’s language, is taking a risk).  This issue applies regardless of what follows.
  2. The attacker whose hand/arm made accidental contact with the ball gained control and scores a goal directly (i.e., immediately and without intervening play by that player’s foot, chest, head or any combination thereof) has committed an offense.
  3. It is also an offense if the initial contact is accidental but, immediately following this, the player or a teammate immediately scores or creates a clear goal-scoring opportunity.  The International Board clarified the meaning of this scenario by declaring that the accidental contact is not an offense if the ball travels “some distance” and/or there are “several passes” before the goal is scored or the goal-scoring opportunity exists.

We suspect that, even with 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 explanations by the Board, there will still be debate and what it comes down to is “what soccer wants.”  We don’t mean this facetiously but the further clarification provided in the 2020-2021 edition of the Laws really does emphasize that accidental (which is the decision of the referee) hand contact is not an offense unless it leads quickly (which is the decision of the referee) to a goal by the accidentally-touched attacker or a subsequent transfer of the ball to a teammate of the accidentally-touched attacker.  The span of time between accidental contact and a goal or goal-scoring opportunity is the decision of the referee.  “Immediate” and “several passes” are the decision of the referee.…