What Is Handball in Soccer? Rules, Consequences & Examples

By Luís Miguel
Updated on

Handling the ball is one of soccer’s most confusing and controversial offenses. Besides being subjective at times, the laws controlling it keep changing regularly. And people new to the sport naturally have a challenging time understanding it.

I’m here to help clear your doubts, explain what a handball is in soccer and tell you all about its rules, laws, and punishments.

Handball in soccer is an offense committed by field players or the keeper outside their penalty area when they intentionally touch the ball with their hand/arm (except the shoulder area). This foul’s punished with a free kick and yellow card or a penalty kick and red card if inside the penalty area.

While it might sound simple to understand, the handball rule is one of the most controversial ones in soccer due to its different factors and distinct interpretations.

Let’s further explore soccer handball so you can better understand what it is, how it works, and what happens when a player touches the ball with their hands/arms.

What Is Handball in Soccer?

Soccer is a game played with the feet (hence the name of the sport, football) and specifically not with the hands or arms.

It has strict rules regarding handling the football, dictating that it is not allowed except in specific situations.

With that in mind, here’s the definition of soccer handball.

A handball in soccer is an illegal movement in which a field player or the goalkeeper, when outside their penalty area, deliberately touches the soccer ball with their hand or arm when it is in play.

What Is the Handball Rule in Soccer?

The handball rule in soccer says that field players (and the goalkeeper if outside their penalty area) are not allowed to intentionally handle the ball, unnaturally position their hand/arm to their body’s movement to intercept it, or score a goal (in)directly after the ball touches their hand/arm.

That is what IFAB (the governing body responsible for the rules in soccer) dictates in Law 12 under “Handling the ball”.

But let’s break down the soccer handball rule a bit further next.

What Is Considered a Handball in Soccer?

The handball rule in soccer applies to all field players or the goalkeeper when outside their penalty box.

It dictates that handing the ball is an offense if a player:

1. Intentionally moves their hand/arm towards the ball to touch, stop, or change its course.

2. Increases their body’s size by positioning the hand/arm unnaturally to its movement. (That’s an disloyal attempt at handling the ball and making it seem unintentional. Players risk being penalized for this behavior if the ball hits their hand/arm.)

3. Scores a goal immediately after the ball touches their hand/arm or directly from their hand/arm, regardless if accidental or not.

Which Part of the Hand/Arm is Handball in Soccer?

For handball offenses in soccer to be considered, the ball should have touched a player’s hand/arm up to and excluding the shoulder area.

To know which area of the arm is safe, try imaging having an armband placed right under your armpit — you can use everything above it to touch the ball.

There is more to add regarding the rules for handballs.

Handballs can occur if a player has the upper boundary of the arm in line with the bottom of the armpit.

In other words, players with their arm(s) above shoulder height or at shoulder level risk being penalized if they handle the ball or the ball hits their hand/arm.

However, not all touches of a player’s hand/arm with the ball are handball offenses.

Accidental handballs may happen if a player moves the arm away from the torso to have some support when falling or sliding.

Nevertheless, players cannot pretend to need hand/arm protection/support to intercept the soccer ball.

Their hand(s)/arm(s) have to be in a natural position to avoid being penalized for a handball offense.

The referee is the last judge on this matter.

They should evaluate all ball-handling situations and decide whether they are intentional (unnatural position of hand/arm) or unintentional.

Is a Handball a Foul in Soccer?

A handball in soccer is a foul. Handballs may be penalized with a yellow or red card to the players who have committed these sanctionable infractions and a direct or indirect free kick or a penalty awarded to the opposing team, depending on the situation.

Handling the ball in soccer violates the most fundamental law of the game, one of the key rules of the sport.

That much is evident in Law 12 of The Laws of the Game because it addresses handling the ball in greater depth than any other foul or misconduct.

What Happens With a Handball in Soccer?

Generally speaking, what happens with a handball in soccer can be broken down into two parts:

1. The Player (who committed the handball): is punished with a yellow or red card.

2. The Opposing Team: is awarded a direct or indirect free kick or a penalty if the handball infraction occurs within the penalty box.

The severity of the penalization for a handball depends on the situation and location of the pitch it occurs.

With that in mind, the following section will explain it in further detail.

What Is the Penalty for a Handball in Soccer?

In soccer, a yellow card indicates a caution (warning); a red card indicates a sending-off (permanent ban from the match). That said, what’s the card for handball?

The penalty for a handball in soccer for the guilty player is a:

Yellow Card:

  • If they use the hand/arm to touch the ball to interfere with or prevent a promising attack;
  • If they handle the soccer ball in a failed attempt to stop a goal;
  • If they use their hand/arm to try to score a goal (successfully or not).

Red Card:

  • If they handle the ball to deny the opposing side a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity wherever the handball offense occurs (goalkeepers within their penalty box excluded).
  • If they touch the ball with the hand/arm after being shown a yellow card for prior misconduct in the same soccer game.
  • If they get a second yellow card for a second handball offense.

Is a Handball in Soccer a Direct, Indirect Free Kick, or a Penalty?

In soccer, when a handball infraction happens, the referee awards the opposing team:

Penalty Kick: If the handball occurs inside the guilty player’s team penalty box.

Direct Free Kick: If the handball offense stops a promising attack in the attacking half of the field close to the penalty area of the guilty player’s team.

In other words, if the handball occurs in a place where the opposing side can score directly from the free kick.

Indirect Free Kick: If the handball offense happens in a place (like the opposing team’s defensive half of the field) where the awarded team cannot attempt a direct shot on goal.

Or if the goalkeeper handles the ball after a direct pass made with the foot from their teammates. The goalie has to use their feet. That is known as the back-pass rule.

Which Players Can Handle the Ball in Soccer and When?

Field players cannot touch the ball with their hands or arms when it is in play.

(In soccer, field or outfield players are all players except the goalkeeper. For example, defenders, midfielders, and forwards are all field players.)

Outfield players are only allowed to handle the ball in specific situations:

  • For throw-ins;
  • When the ball is out of bounds, and they go pick it up;
  • When the game stops and they position the ball down for a free kick or a penalty kick.

Soccer goalies cannot touch the ball with their hands or arms outside their penalty area. They are also not permitted to handle the ball if a teammate uses their feet to pass the ball to them.

Goalkeepers are exempt from the handball law inside their penalty box to do their job:

  • Block the goal from shots;
  • Throw the ball to their teammates after a catch.
Guy wearing an SL Benfica jersey holding soccer ball over his head

Article by:

Luís Miguel

As a true soccer enthusiast, I’m Soccermodo’s team captain. My job is to make sure the site’s content is top-notch so that you, our reader, can focus solely on improving your game and reach new heights.