What is a Handball in Soccer? (Full Explanation)

One of the key rules in soccer that sets it apart from other sports is the fact that you are not allowed to touch the ball with your hands.

Unless you are the keeper, of course!

In recent years, however, the understanding and interpretation of just what exactly is a handball has come under scrutiny following the widespread adoption of VAR – Video Assistant Referee.

This has seen a dramatic increase in the number of penalties awarded for handballs and lots of discussion and debate about the age-old law and its implementation.

So just what exactly is a handball and when is one awarded?

Let's take a look at the rules and regulations surrounding handballs in soccer before looking at some famous times that it actually happened.

What is a Handball in Soccer?

With such a contentious and at times controversial rule it is important to define just what exactly is a handball before moving on to situations where one may be awarded or not.

So, first of all, a handball is when the ball touches a player's hand or arm in a way that is illegal or not permitted according to the rules of the game.

Whether it’s an offence or not depends however on the circumstances in which the player handles the ball as not all handballs are deemed to be a foul.

As we will see, the rules can unfortunately be a bit ambiguous, and this in particular is what has infuriated managers, players, and fans alike in recent seasons.

What Body Parts Can Give Away a Handball?

A handball may be awarded if the ball touches a player's hand or arm.

But where does the arm end?!

For the 2020/2021 season the International Football Association Board has revised the laws so as to hopefully make the rules a bit clearer.

Now for determining handballs it is considered that 'the upper boundary of the arm is in line with the bottom of the armpit'.

Consequently anything above the armpit would not be considered to be handball if the ball struck it. This means that players can use their shoulder for instance to strike the ball. 

Now that we've seen what a handball is and what part of the body is considered to be a player's hand or arm, let's move on to the actual rules for handballs!

When is a Handball Awarded?

Not all handballs are given as a foul.

It depends on the situation and in what circumstance the ball strikes the player's arm.

To clarify when a handball is awarded, here are all the offences where it can happen:

  1. When a player deliberately touches the ball with their hand or arm (this can also include them moving their hand or arm towards the ball)

  1. If they score in the opponent's goal with their hand or arm (even if it was accidental)

  1. If the ball touches their hand or arm (even accidentally) and they immediately create a goal-scoring opportunity or score a goal

  1. If the ball touches their hand or arm when their hand or arm has made their body unnaturally bigger or if their hand or arm is above shoulder level

All of the above are considered to be offences, even if they are accidental, as the player is deemed to have gained an unfair advantage from the handball. 

Except for these offences, the following handballs are NOT considered to be illegal:

  1. If the ball touches the player's arm or hand directly from their own head or body

  1. If the ball touches their hand or arm directly from another player who is very close

  1. If their hand or arm is close to their body in a natural position and does not make their body unnaturally bigger

  1. If the player is falling to the ground and their hands and arms are beneath them to cushion the fall

All of these rules apply in exactly the same way to goalkeepers when they are outside of their penalty box.

In addition, they must be sanctioned (so awarded a yellow or red card) if their handball stops a promising attack or denies the opposition a goal or clear goal-scoring opportunity.

While goalkeepers can handle the ball in their own box, they are not allowed to hold it for more than six seconds.

They are also not permitted to pick it up or catch it if it is passed back to them by their own player (unless they head it back).

So now we've seen the circumstances in which a handball may or may not be awarded, let's look at the consequences and punishments handed out.


What Happens When a Handball is Called?

When the referee decides that a player has committed a handball, they blow their whistle and either award an indirect free kick or a direct free kick (here's the difference).

As with all such fouls committed in soccer, the ball is awarded to the team that did not commit the offense and they then restart play from the spot where the free kick was given.

The only exception to this rule is when the infraction is committed in the penalty box and a penalty is awarded.

As a reminder, an indirect free kick is when the ball cannot directly be kicked or shot into the goal. In contrast a direct free kick allows players a direct attempt on goal. 

In almost all circumstances involving handballs a direct free kick is awarded, the only exception being when a goalkeeper commits a handball in their own box. In this case an indirect free kick is awarded to the opposition.

Besides awarding a free kick, a referee may also want to hand out a yellow or red card to the player who committed the offense. This again depends on the circumstance in which it occurred. 

Whether intentional or not, a player will be given a red card if they deny the opposition a clear goal-scoring opportunity or goal by using their arm or hand. This also applies to goalkeepers who have rushed out of their box.

In other situations such as interfering with or stopping a promising attack with their hand or arm or handling the ball in an attempt to score a goal or prevent one they will instead be shown a yellow card. If this is their second caution then this too will lead to them being sent off. 

In other less serious situations such as accidentally handling the ball in the middle of the pitch, the referee won't give a yellow card and will simply restart play with a free kick instead. 

Before looking at some famous handballs, let's now finally take a quick look to see how handballs are dealt with in the penalty box.

This is so you can get a clearer idea on the rules and regulations in what is a crucial and game-deciding area of the pitch.

Handballs in the Penalty Box

The number of penalties awarded in recent years due to handballs has really shot up following the introduction of VAR.

This has placed both defenders and referees under increasing scrutiny with the rules on handballs also being endlessly debated by managers and fans alike.

Unfortunately even now with video assistance some handballs and penalties are still being awarded or ruled out incorrectly and this has understandably infuriated fans.

To help give you a clear idea of whether a handball has occurred or not, here are the rules for inside the penalty box:

As we saw above, not all handballs result in a foul or free kick being given. 

This means that a defending player may accidentally block the ball with their arm or hand and not give away a penalty. 

This only happens however if the referee deems that their arm was in a natural position next to their body and that they didn't have time to get it out of the way as the attacking player shot it from close range. 

While the ball has indeed struck their arm or hand, they are not judged to have committed a handball offense.

If a defending player commits any of the other infractions we looked at above however then the referee should blow for a foul and award a penalty, dealing out a yellow or red card if necessary.

Attacking players may also commit a handball in the opposition's penalty box as they strive to score a goal. While many of these are accidental, they are now always judged to be a handball if it gives them an unfair advantage and results in a goal.

In rare cases the attacking player may be given a yellow card if the handball they committed was deemed to be deliberate and a clear infringement on the rules.

Now that we have looked at what handballs are and how they are punished out on the pitch, let's take a look at some famous handballs throughout soccer history.

These will give you a better idea at how the rules and regulations surrounding handballs are implemented.

Famous Handballs in Soccer

While the most famous handball of all - Maradona's 'Hand of God' - wasn't spotted by the referee and Argentina triumphed over England on their way to World Cup glory, there are countless other times where a free kick, penalty or red card has been awarded.

Here are some famous instances when a player committed a handball:

1. Luis Suarez vs Ghana

Beamed around the world and watched by millions upon millions of people, Luis Suarez famously saved a shot off of the line with his hands while playing against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup.

While he received a red card for his blatant handball, Ghana sadly missed the resulting penalty and crashed out of the tournament against his Uruguay team.

If they had won it would have been the first time that an African team reached the semi-finals of a World Cup.

2. Moussa Sissoko vs Liverpool 

After an epic Champions League campaign with lots of dramatic last-minute comebacks and high scoring matches, the 2019 final was determined early on when Moussa Sissoko gave away a penalty after just two minutes.

With his arm above shoulder height and outstretched from his body, it was a clear and unnecessary penalty to give away and Mohamed Salah dispatched the spot kick with aplomb.

While Tottenham toiled away for an equaliser, they never did manage to score with Liverpool doubling the score late on through Belgium's Divock Origi.

3. Presnel Kimpembe vs Manchester United

Another famous example from recent years is the penalty that was awarded against PSG in the dying minutes of their Round of 16 match of the Champions League in 2019.

What looked like a wayward shot from Manchester United's Diogo Dalot was given as a penalty when VAR showed that it had struck Presnel Kimpembe's arm.

Marcus Rashford scored the resulting penalty in the 94th minute to send Man United through at the expense of PSG.

4. Thierry Henry vs Ireland

While VAR certainly has its detractors, it is highly unlikely that it would have let Thierry Henry's illegal handball against Ireland stand in 2009.

In a crucial two-legged play-off match to see who would reach the 2010 World Cup, Henry controlled the ball with his hand before kicking it across goal for William Gallas to score in extra time and send France through.

This broke Irish hearts with many fans still not having forgiven him for his subtle sleight of hand.

5. Abel Xavier vs France

Another game defining handball that again involved Henry's France was when Abel Xavier blocked the ball on the line with his hand in the Euro 2000 semi-final.

Zinedine Zidane stepped up and cooly struck the resulting penalty into the top corner, knocking Portugal out of the tournament in the process.

France would go on to win the final against Italy just a few days later.


While handballs are still often a matter of discussion and debate even following the wide-spread adoption of VAR, there are clear rules and regulations on when they should be awarded or not.

Hopefully this article has given you a clearer idea on when handballs are committed and when play is allowed to carry on following a player accidentally handling the ball.

This and the examples given should then hopefully help you to avoid giving away handballs out on the pitch!

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