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.