Watch Out for Those Hands and Arms!

David, a U13 – u19 fan, asks:

I have a question on a player constantly having their arms outstretched fully or halfway every time they challenge for a ball. Is there any infraction here? I personally don’t like to see that because it causes them to contact their opponent with their arms and hands at some point.

Answer

A rhetorical question for anyone other than an active soccer player …  do you do a lot of running that includes sudden changes in direction, starts, stops, etc?  Running on the soccer field is not like Irish clog dancing, where the arms are ceremoniously held straight down at the sides.  A soccer player needs the counter-balancing effect of arms held out (forward, backward, or to the side) at various angles from the body in order to maintain stability.

However, to your question.  There is nothing in the Laws of the Game which prohibit the arms from being held away from the body or even, more spectacularly, held straight above their head!  If and when the result of such behavior leads to contact with an opponent or the ball, then the referee uses this information as part (and only part) of deciding if an offense has been committed.

As a game moves up the competitive ladder, increasingly you will see an attacker and a marking defender running side-by-side, each with her arms (or elbows) held out jostling with the opponent.  Are there probably mutual violations occurring virtually every second?  Undoubtedly, yet at this level and assuming neither player is gaining an unfair advantage and the level of contact is merely irritating rather than painful, you will rarely hear a whistle (at most, a quiet verbal from the Referee to “watch the contact”).  Very likely, both players will finish their elbowing run and, later, brag to their teammates that “I really showed him I was serious!”  Why no whistle?  Because the violations (if they were) never rose to the level of needing to stop play.  Each player was “accepting” the level of contact as “par for the course.”

Contacting an opponent or the ball with a hand or arm is not, by itself, a violation of any Law or, even if it is, the referee has the authority to decide that the possible offense was doubtful or the actual offense was trifling.   In the case of making hand/arm contact with the ball, the Law is very clear that the action must be deliberate and involve directing the ball in a controlled fashion by moving the hand to the ball rather than having the ball simply move toward and contact the hand/arm.

In all these cases, the making of actual contact is only one factor to be taken into account in deciding if the contact was illegal, much less illegal enough to stop play — in logic, this is called a necessary but not sufficient condition.  There are only three offenses in Law 12 where actual contact is not specifically necessary as of 2016 — attempting to strike, kick, or trip are punished by an indirect free kick but actual contact involving any three of these actions makes the offense punishable by a direct free kick.

Please leave these decisions to the referee – he or she is the only one who knows the intent of the Law, the severity of the offense (if there is one), the pace of the game, the character of the players involved, and the general level of experience/skill of the players in the game.   The Referee is also the only one who has seen the event from the perspective that counts — the field rather than a sideline.