Handling the Ball

Leroy, a parent involved in youth soccer, asks:

Can the goalkeeper handle the ball in the penalty arc of the goal being defended?


Nope, not legally (at least not while the ball is in play).  The “penalty arc” is specifically defined as the portion of the area ten yards around the penalty mark which is not in the penalty area.  It is rather like the center circle except that only the part of the circle that is outside the penalty area is actually marked.  So, the important things to take away from this are that (a) the penalty arc is not part of the penalty area, (b) the only time anyone cares about the penalty arc and its area is at the taking of a penalty kick, and (c) a goalkeeper handling the ball in this area during play has committed a handball offense.

The Handball Violation

An adult amateur coach from the Czech Republic asks:

[After describing several potential handball violations which depend on the position of the hand or arm and wondering which, if any, violate the Law, the question ends with the following request.] Maybe you can describe some model situations, which can help me. IFAB LOTG 16/17 does not explain it clearly.


The handball violation (and, yes, it is now permissible to use this phrase to describe the infraction rather than the traditional  “handling offense” so we will take off our grumpy hat and bow to common usage) is the quintessential foul that cannot be described — you have to be there.  Nevertheless, it is possible to offer some generalizations that may assist both new and experienced officials in properly evaluating all the facts and circumstances so that our understanding of it is better grounded.  What makes the handball such a contentious issue is its history as one of the most important reasons why and how the sport of soccer originated.  It is also useful to remember (particularly for Americans) that the sport in most parts of the world other than North America is called football.  Simplifying dangerously, soccer is soccer rather than rugby because the use of hands is forbidden to all participants except for one specially identified player for each team and only if he or she is in their own penalty area.

Law 12 uses just 17 words to define the offense: “involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm.”  The physical act itself is simple and very concrete (contact with the ball by the hand) which may be easy to see or it may be hidden from the referee but seen by others or it may be so brief that no one is entirely sure it even occurred.  What requires us to earn our money, however, hinges on one word — “deliberate.”  The act must be deliberate, and that is where we can supply some guidelines.

Law 12 (notably in the current edition of the Laws) itself offers several thoughts.  For example, the contact might be entirely reflexive or instinctive as when a player sees a hard object hurtling toward some part of the body which he or she is conditioned by nature to protect due to its importance or sensitivity.  The face, for example, but there are others, and while many may be assumed for male and female players, others could be entirely individual (as, for example, a player attempting to protect an area of the body which was previously injured and has not yet healed).  A reflexive or instinctive act is not deliberate.

What triggers an instinctive act?  One factor might be the speed of the object as in the case of a ball hard struck in a volley as opposed to rolling on the ground.  Another factor might be the lack of time to avoid contact using any other means as might be the case when the origin of the ball’s movement is close rather than distant.  A third factor might be the unexpected nature of the imminent contact, as when the ball coming from a peripheral direction is not noticed until bare moments before the inevitable collision.  These factors underlie, in part, the common aphorism that handball offenses usually involve the hand moving to the ball but rarely the ball moving to the hand.

The notion has been around for a long time that an important factor might be where the hand is at the time of contact, often verbalized as a “natural” versus “unnatural” position.  Given a player in motion, pumping legs, driving forward, trying to maintain balance, pivoting quickly, trying to get the attention of a teammate, and so forth, we are hard-pressed to conclude that there really is any such thing as a “natural position” for the hands unless we picture such extreme examples as a player standing still with a hand up in the air waving to someone in the crowd at the moment the hand is struck by a ball played in the air.  Furthermore, it has been argued that players may protect their balance while in motion by using their arms differently due to gender-based differences in body structure and/or how weight is carried on those structures.  This has frequently confused officials and has resulted in their making mistakes through not understanding gender and age differences in players.  The IFAB emphasized this concern when they stated in Law 12 that “the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement.”

We have heard of and have ourselves seen players running with arms pumping back and forth being whistled for handling because the ball, struck from behind the player, has hit the hand while it was in motion extending behind the player!  We have seen players whistled who have fallen and are in the process of lifting themselves off the ground when the ball rolls into the weight-bearing arm!

The bottom line is that, while extremes in hand positioning might be a factor in deciding whether ball contact should be treated as deliberate based on that fact alone, it is far more important to focus on the totality of the player’s situation and what led to the contact.  Moreover, referees must consider that contact which initially should be judged as not deliberate (for reasons noted above) may become deliberate (and therefore a violation) if the player then uses that contact to subsequently control or direct the ball.  Actually, truly “whistleable” handball offenses are surprisingly rare — most hand contacts with the ball are accidental and often a surprise to the player.  Many fall under the “doubtful or trifling” rubric and are not a justifiable reason for stopping play.

By the way, you may feel that, regarding the handball offense, the 2016/2017 Laws of the Game “does not explain it clearly,” but we would suggest instead that the current Law does a much better job in this regard than at any time in the past.


Why is the touchline so named? What is the origin of “touch” and “in touch”?

Answer (September 5, 2014):
“Touch” is any area outside the boundaries of the field, particularly the lines that run between the corners across the halfway line to the corner at the far end of the field. It is the area in which the ball may be handled legally by players, i.e., “touched.” Once the whole of the ball has crossed the whole of the boundary line, it is “in touch.”


In a game i played in today the referee sent off the opposition goalkeeper for picking up a back pass and i was just wondering if there are any examples of this happening before and if the referee was right to do so? The situation the ball was kicked long the defender misread the ball and turned at full stretch he tackled the striker the ball rolled to the keeper who under pressure from another striker shutting him down picked up the ball. The referee then decided to send the goalkeeper off for denying a goal scoring opportunity and gave a indirect free kick was he right to do so? thanks harry.

USSF answer (November 28, 2011):
The referee was wrong to send off the goalkeeper in at least two ways: (1) by kicking the ball away from the opposing player, the defender was not kicking the ball to the goalkeeper, he was simply clearing it and it happened to go to the goalkeeper; (2) the goalkeeper may not and cannot be sent off for denying a goal or a goalscoring opportunity by handling the ball in his penalty; that is stated specifically in Law 12.


I hope a dead horse but here goes anyway:

The ball is loose just outside of top of the penalty area, say in the D. And suppose that the ball isn’t moving at all. An attacker is running onto the ball and the only defender, say the keeper runs out and picks up ball outside the penalty area. Can the referee send the keeper off if the referee deems that this action denied an obvious goal scoring OPPORTUNITY?

USSF answer (October 3, 2011):
In the scenario you present, the deliberate handling by the goalkeeper outside his own penalty area, no obvious goalscoring opportunity has been denied. There is no evidence that, but for the handling by the goalkeeper, the ball would have gone into the goal. The horse is dead. Long live the horse.


What is the difference between denying a goal and denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity in the deliberate handling sending off offence.

Where a player including the goalkeeper deliberately handles the ball which denies an obvious goal scoring opportunity outside the penalty area is that player sent off for DOGSO H or for DOGSO F.

The reason I ask is that the USSF opinion is that the 4Ds does not apply to DOGSO H and the ball must be destined for the goal for DOGSO H to apply suggests to some that deliberate handling is not a sending off offence unless it stops a ball entering the goal, which is plainly not the case.  Perhaps that might be explained more clearly.

USSF answer (January 19, 2011):
First, a clear policy statement: The U. S. Soccer Federation cannot and does not presume to speak for other national associations when providing guidelines on how various statements in the Laws are to be interpreted and implemented. That said, the Federation does follow to the letter what the Laws say regarding matters bearing on obvious goalscoring opportunities (OGSO) and also follows the guidance provided by the IFAB and FIFA on that topic.

Just to keep it straight, here is what Law 12 says about the OGSO offenses:

Sending-off offenses
A player, substitute or substituted player is sent off if he commits any of the following seven offenses:
• denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball (this does not apply to a goalkeeper within his own penalty area)
• denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offense punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick

Second, a cautionary note regarding acronyms, which are mere conveniences and not always entirely descriptive of what is being discussed. The acronyms DOGSO-F and DOGSO-H are used primarily as shorthand when filling out the referee’s match report. DOGSO-H means just that, “denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball (this does not apply to a goalkeeper within his own penalty area).” However, DOGSO-F is somewhat more complicated, as it includes not merely denying an OGSO by a foul, but also by ANY OFFENSE PUNISHABLE BY A FREE KICK OR A PENALTY KICK. That includes misconduct.

The reason the Federation says (and has always said, from the very first introduction of the OGSO concept when the two new reasons for a send-off were created by the International Board) that the “4 Ds” do not apply to send-off offense #5 (DG-H) is because (a) USSF created the 4 Ds specifically for DG-F, (b) the requirement that all four Ds had to be present before a red card for DG-F could be given simply cannot be applied to a handling offense, and (c) the “D” represented by “Distance to ball” was completely inapplicable.

In attempting to decide if it were highly probable that a ball would have gone into the net if the handling had not interfered with the movement of the ball, the referee must juggle, weigh, and balance a number of factors, including SOME of the Ds, but not in so absolute a way as they are used in evaluating a DG-F situation. For example, one D involves the number of defenders and, for a DG-F situation, the Federation has said that this D cannot be rated as a “yes” if there is more than one defender between the foul and the goal (not counting the defender who committed the offense). In a DG-H situation, it is not so ironclad. In a DG-F situation, the D involving direction of play is only one of four factors but, in a DG-H situation, the direction, force, and speed of the ball are arguably the most important of the factors to be considered. For example, a ball played forward by several yards might lead to a decision that the D for direction of play (and distance to the ball) is present, but this would not be the case in a handling situation where, if, in the opinion of the referee, the handled ball either was already or would have stopped far short of the goal, a DG-H red card cannot be given.

We are concerned about how you arrived at your statement “that deliberate handling is not a sending off offence unless it stops a ball entering the goal, which is plainly not the case.” We would argue that it is in fact plainly the case. Handling the ball is not a direct sending-off offense unless, in the opinion of the referee, but for the handling the ball would have gone into the net. This is clearly a judgment, but it is a judgment grounded on analyzing a number of variables — which happen to include such matters as how close to the goal the handling occurred, how many defenders there were between the site of the handling and the goal, and the direction/speed/force the ball was taking at the time the handling occurred. The fact that these variables resemble three of the four “Ds” involved in DG-F (denying an OGSO by foul/misconduct) is not accidental. The judgment to be reached here does not have to be one of “certainty” but, rather, one of “high probability” based on the referee’s experience and reading of the variables.

It doesn’t get any clearer than that.


I’ve looked through LOTG and searched the archives and cannot find a definitive answer to the following:

Keeper Punting the Ball – Enforcement of the PA in the taking of the punt. There is differing Veteran Referee opinions / judgements: A) PA is enforced from where the ball meets the foot; B) PA is enforced from where the ball left the hand(s) of the keeper in starting the punt toss.

Example: the keeper tosses the ball into the air from inside the PA but strikes the ball 2-3 feet outside of the area. Legal?

USSF answer (October 12, 2010):
Let’s look at it in increments. If any part of the ball is on the line, the ball is within the penalty area. The fact that part of the ball might be outside the penalty area is irrelevant. The BALL on the line is still in the penalty area and, accordingly, it can still be handled by the goalkeeper, and that includes ANY PART of the ball. The BALL is a whole thing and either is or is not in the penalty area. If it is, it can be handled by the goalkeeper. If it is not, it cannot be handled by the ‘keeper.

If the goalkeeper releases the ball from his (or her) hands while within the penalty area, but does not kick the ball until it is outside the penalty area, no offense has occurred. That is entirely legal.

While recognizing that the offense by the goalkeeper of crossing the penalty area line completely with the ball still in hand is often debatable, and that it is usually trifling, we must also recognize that it is certainly an infringement of the Law and must always be treated as such by the referee. The referee will usually warn the goalkeeper about honoring the penalty area line but allow the first such act to go unpunished; however the referee must then clearly warn the goalkeeper to observe and honor the line and the Law. If it occurs again, the referee should call the foul and, if the offense is repeated yet again, caution the goalkeeper for persistent infringement of the Laws of the Game.

We have heard, but cannot believe, that any referee instructor in any state would tell referees to punish this offense with an indirect free kick. The correct restart is a direct free kick for the opposing team from the place where the offense occurred. That means the point just outside the penalty area where the goalkeeper still had the ball in hand.

One unfortunate thing is that in many cases assistant referees do not do their job correctly in this respect. Instead of judging the place where the ball is released from the goalkeeper’s hands, they concentrate on the place where the goalkeeper’s foot meets the ball, which could be well outside the area with no offense having occurred.

[This answer repeats materials used in answers from 2003-2009, all in the archives of this site.]


A referee brought up this question at our association meeting tonight. It started quite a debate and we would like to know the correct answer to put this to rest:
A shot on goal is made by an attacker. The goalkeeper is too short to stop the ball from entering the goal with his hands so he pulls on the back of the net thus preventing the ball from completely crossing over the goal line.
What should the referee do in this case? If he stops play, what action should he take and what is the restart?

USSF answer (May 6, 2010):
In using the net as an artificial aid (and extension of his hands), the goalkeeper has theoretically denied the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball. However, as we know from Law 12, the goalkeeper is expressly excluded from the requirement for a send-off in this case, “(this does not apply to a goalkeeper within his own penalty area).” Solution? After the caution is given for unsporting behavior, award an indirect free kick for the opposing team on the goal area line parallel to the goal line at the point nearest to where the infringement occurred.


I was watching a professional game on television and saw an interesting sequence of calls and no calls. The play started with a offensive player who was very deep attempting a pass that is intercepted by a defender using his arm.The referee comes to award the free kick and give the card for the tactical foul when he sees the AR’s flag is up for offsides.There was a player in the offside position but the ball did not get to him. The card was given and the kick for offside was given.the defense got the free kick. My question is does the hand ball committed before involvement can be established by the offside player make the hand ball which happened first the foul that should be punished?Does the player in the offside position negate the hand ball foul when it can not be determined who was to receive the pass? I know the card is valid no matter what the answer to my question is?

USSF answer (April 12, 2010):
Many of us watched the incident and, based on what happened there and the guidance given in the Interpretation of the Laws of the Game (see below) and discussed in our answer of June 9, 2009, we believe that the decision, and the restart, should be for the deliberate handling.

In the context of Law 11 — Offside, the following definitions apply:
* “nearer to his opponents’ goal line” means that any part of a player’s head, body or feet is nearer to his opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second last opponent. The arms are not included in this definition
* “interfering with play” means playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a teammate
* “interfering with an opponent” means preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or movements or making a gesture or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent
* “gaining an advantage by being in that position” means playing a ball that rebounds to him off a goalpost or the crossbar having been in an offside position or playing a ball that rebounds to him off an opponent having been in an offside position

There was no interfering with play, no interfering with an opponent, or gaining an advantage by Ronaldo. There WAS deliberate handling by Pique.

Our answer of June 9, 2009:

ATTENTION!!! All referees please note that this answer involves a change in prior guidance due to the evolving interpretation of the offside offense by the International Football Association (the people who make the Laws).

Back in “the good old days,” pre-2008, it would have been simple: Punish the offside (interfering with play) and award the indirect free kick to the defender’s team, but caution the defender for unsporting behavior for the deliberate handling of the ball. This was based on the argument that the offside offense occurred first and, since it was going to be called because the pass was clearly “going to” the attacker, the referee’s decision to accept the AR’s flag for the offside stopped play and the handling therefore occurred during a stoppage.  The caution was for unsporting behavior since it was the defender’s intention to “interfere with attacking play.”

Now, however, in the modern, post-2008 era, we are unable to do this because the offside offense has become somewhat more complicated. Under current guidance for deciding if an attacker in an offside position has interfered with play, we look to whether or not the attacker makes contact with the ball (not counting the possibility that the attacker’s actions might be considered to have interfered with an opponent).  We must remember that, despite the intentions of the teammate and despite how clearly the ball is “going to” the attacker, that attacker could still decide not to interfere with play by avoiding all contact with the ball.  That “pass to the attacker” by itself does not constitute interfering with play.  Consequently, based solely on that “pass to the attacker,” the AR should not raise the flag for an offside violation, so we are left with the handling offense — direct free kick (or penalty kick if the handling occurred in the defender’s penalty area).  The referee should still caution the defender for the tactical foul.  If the AR does mistakenly raise the flag based solely on the pass, the referee should wave it down and proceed as indicated to deal with the handling.


I have a point to make about arm extension and ball control with regard to handling the ball, and my question will be “does my argument hold any water.” I’m aware by the answers to numerous questions on the subject that the call is made based on “deliberate” or “not deliberate”. I contend that the reason that there are numerous questions on the subject is that there is such difficulty in determining what is deliberate and not. I’m aware that there is a list of items to look for in determining the call, but it seems to me that arm extension and advantageous ball possession are key elements in determining whether the action may be deliberate. Otherwise, its just too difficult to make that call consistently. I’m speaking of occasions where it is not absolutely clear that the action is non-deliberate, but there is otherwise a difficulty in determining that the “handling” meets the specificity of what is deliberate. And for the most part, we’re talking about bang-bang plays.

The rule’s words are “deliberately handle” which implies control.

The point of the game is to control the ball – which hopefully leads to more goals for your side – and as such, would be the point for any action in the match. Therefore, unless it is clear that the handling action was not deliberate, then control of the ball should be a determining factor in deciding to make a call for deliberate handling (handball). In my opinion, same difficulty can be applied to arm extension, and since arm extension can be a form of ball control, should be applied in the same manner.

p.s. a true “deliberate” handball is a potential send-off, but of course, it is typical for many handball calls to be made during a match that are technically then “deliberate”, but for which it would be foolish to warn on each, much less send off for the infraction.

Maybe we can change the terminology on the greater infraction to “intentional”, similar to basketball’s intentional foul?

USSF answer (March 31, 2010):
You are trudging a well-worn path, but it leads you in the wrong direction. First, watch out for the notion of “unnatural position,” because what is natural for a female player maintaining balance is not natural for a male player maintaining balance under the same circumstances. The mere fact that a player, regardless of age or gender, may have an arm/hand raised does not magically transform accidental contact with the ball into a foul — it is only one factor to be considered. Next, where does the notion come from that a “deliberate handball is a potential send-off”? Nonsense! No more so than any foul is a potential send-off if the conditions are right.

Our perception is that most whistled handling offenses are not deliberate handling. And many that ARE called could be considered trifling or have advantage applied to them. Unfortunately, many referees who otherwise understand doubtful/trifling and advantage seem not to want to apply either of these concepts to a handling offense.

There is perfectly good and clear guidance out there in the USSF publications “Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game”:

The offense known as “handling the ball” involves deliberate contact with the ball by a player’s hand or arm (including fingertips, upper arm, or outer shoulder). “Deliberate contact” means that the player could have avoided the touch but chose not to, that the player’s arms were not in a normal playing position at the time, or that the player deliberately continued an initially accidental contact for the purpose of gaining an unfair advantage. Moving hands or arms instinctively to protect the body when suddenly faced with a fast approaching ball does not constitute deliberate contact unless there is subsequent action to direct the ball once contact is made. Likewise, placing hands or arms to protect the body at a free kick or similar restart is not likely to produce an infringement unless there is subsequent action to direct or control the ball. The fact that a player may benefit from the ball contacting the hand does not transform the otherwise accidental event into an infringement. A player infringes the Law regarding handling the ball even if direct contact is avoided by holding something in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.).

NOTE: In most cases in the Laws of the Game, the words “touch,” “play,” and “make contact with” mean the same thing. This is not true in the case of deliberate handling, where the touch, play, or contact by the offending player must be planned and deliberate.

and in the Directive on Handling the Ball:

Handling The Ball
2009 Referee Program Directives
February 2, 2009
Keys to Identifying Handling the Ball
There are several key criteria referees should use to determine whether contact between a player’s hand/arm and the ball constitutes a foul for handling. Many of the criteria have formed the foundation of referee identification of handling offenses for years. Despite this foundation, handling criteria continue to be applied inconsistently.
Going forward, additional criteria will need to be considered by officials in determining if contact by the ball with the hand/arm is, in fact, a handling offense. For example: Did the player make himself bigger?
The following 3 criteria should be the primary factors considered by the referee:
1. Making yourself bigger
This refers to the placement of the arm(s)/hand(s) of the defending player at the time the ball is played by the opponent. Should an arm/hand be in a position that takes away space from the team with the ball and the ball contacts the arm/hand, the referee should interpret this contact as handling. Referees should interpret this action as the defender “deliberately” putting his arm/hand in a position in order to reduce the options of the opponent (like spreading your arms wide to take away the passing lane of an attacker).
• Does the defender use his hand/arm as a barrier?
• Does the defender use his hand/arm to take away space and/or the
passing lane from the opponent?
• Does the defender use his hand/arm to occupy more space by extending
his reach or extending the ability of his body to play the ball thereby benefiting from the extension(s)?
2. Is the arm or hand in an “unnatural position?” Is the arm or hand in a position that is not normal or natural for a player performing the task at hand.
3. Did the player“ benefit?” In considering all the “signs” described above, the referee should also consider the result of the player’s (usually a defender) action. Did the defender’s action (handling of the ball) deny an opportunity (for example, a pass or shot on goal) that would have otherwise been available to the opponent? Did the offending player gain an unfair tactical advantage from contact with the hand/arm which enabled him to retain possession? In other words: Did the player benefit by putting his hand/arm in an “unnatural position?” The referee needs to be able to quickly calculate the result of the player’s action to determine whether an offence has been committed.
After applying the aforementioned criteria, if the referee is still uncertain as to whether handling the ball has occurred, the referee should then incorporate the following two criteria as part of his decision making process:
4. Reaction Time The less time a defender has to react, the less likely there has been a handling offense. For example, a ball struck from a close distance, or a very fast moving ball, or a ball coming in from a direction which is outside the defender’s view gives little or no time for the defender’s reaction to be “deliberate.” The referee must take into consideration whether the defender’s reaction is purely instinctive, taken to protect sensitive areas of the body as the face. Distance is a factor in determining “reaction time.” The further the ball, the more reaction time a play may have.
5. Hand/arm to ball Referees must be ready to judge whether the player moved his arm to the ball thereby initiating the contact. Additionally, the referee should evaluate whether the player deliberately readjusted his body position to block the ball thus intentionally playing the ball with his hand/arm.

We strongly urge that you not allow the word “benefit” in item 3 of the Directive to confuse you. It clearly states in that paragraph that this benefit can only result from a deliberate action. Any “benefit” that accrues to a player who has NOT deliberately handled the ball is purely and simply a serendipitous event and must not be confused with a planned action. And also review the guidance in our first two paragraphs.