Handball rules in football explained, including latest changes by FIFA, UEFA to hand ball in soccer

It is generally accepted that the use of arms or hands is not allowed when playing football.

Still, the rule of handball in football has been frustrating and difficult for players, coaches, fans and even officials to understand what constitutes an infringement and what contact is allowed.

In recent years, particularly since the introduction of Video Review (VAR), the rules have come under criticism due to differing interpretations and gray areas, resulting in inconsistent application across leagues, competitions and even from game to game within the same competition.

The Sporting News offers you a complete overview what the Rule currently says in its written form, what it means and how it is interpreted in different leagues and how openly individuals are hoping for this to change in the near future.

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Soccer Handball Rules and FIFA Guidelines

The International Football Association Board (IFAB) is the body tasked with setting, overseeing, amending and publishing the Laws of the Game that all football leagues around the world use as a universal set of rules.

The IFAB has done its best to define a handball offense, but uncertainty and gray areas have existed for years.

The IFAB defines which part of the arm breaks the rules to be used, which has changed. Back in 2019, the IFAB allowed contact with the top of the arm, colloquially known as the “sleeve rule,” giving players some leeway when using their shoulder.

This means that a ball touches the upper part of a player’s arm not be considered handball and only blatant handball fouls will be penalized.

The rule is: “The top of the arm is in line with the bottom of the armpit.” There are also diagrams in the game rules that support this concept.

Then, as a rule, all possible handball violations are described in detail. It reads as follows:

It is an offense if a player:

  • intentionally touches the ball with the hand/arm, e.g. moves the hand/arm in the direction of the ball

  • Touches the ball with his hand/arm if his body has become unnaturally larger as a result. A player is deemed to have unnaturally enlarged their body if the position of their hand/arms is not a consequence of, or cannot be justified by, the player’s body movement in that particular situation. If the hand or arm is in such a position, the player runs the risk of having his or her hand or arm hit by the ball and penalized

Does intention play a role in handball rules?

The way the rule is written Intent doesn’t matter.

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While the first bullet point in the Laws of the Game cited above gives referees some leeway in assessing intent and penalizes a player for handling the ball intentionally (“deliberately”), the second and third bullet points concern a player moving his body enlarged and not allowing accidental handballs when scoring a goal.

In fact, the rule as it is written is specifically mentions that intent doesn’t matter “when a player has unnaturally enlarged his body”, noting that players take risks with certain movements, even if they are not made with the intention of touching the ball. The rule is: “By holding your hand/arm in such a position.”[n unnatural] In this position, the player runs the risk of having his hand/arm hit by the ball and being penalized.”

In addition, the rule adds the wording “even if accidental” in the last paragraph to make it clear that any unnatural touch with the hand/arm, whether intentional or not, should be penalized.

So in summary: Intent is irrelevant when assessing handball offencesand should not be taken into account in an official’s decision regarding a handball offence.

However, there is one big exception. The Rule makes a specific exception for committed handball incidents so long as a player’s posture “is a consequence of, or can be justified by, the player’s body movement in that particular situation”. Then a handball is not called.

This exception primarily comes into play when a defensive player slides to execute a block. In general, it is considered impossible to perform a gliding motion without using an arm on the ground for support. Therefore, using an arm to assist in sliding is a ‘justified’ action for that particular body movement and therefore a ball hitting a supporting arm would not be considered an ‘unnatural’ position even if extended from the body.

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Is it a handball if the ball bounces off a player’s body?

In the current reading of the rule, the following applies: Yes, a handball will be penalized regardless of the distraction from the body of another player or the same player. However, some leagues interpret the rule differently and some are more strict about it than others.

As per the new Premier League guidelines published ahead of the 2020/21 season i.eReflections are not taken into account in determining whether a handball offense has been committed.

This part of the rule of handball has been criticized as being unnecessarily strict and may be subject to review by individual leagues or the IFAB in the coming years, subject to change.

Is there a ball to hand rule?

As the law is currently written, There is no ball-to-hand rule.

This often goes hand in hand with intention, as the notion that “ball at hand” is inevitable for a defensive player leads to a lack of intention to handle the ball.

By law, a defensive player runs the risk of an unnatural position of his arm, so ball-to-hand does not apply. A defensive player’s risk assessment predisposes him to potentially getting the ball kicked in his arm without time to react and therefore it would be a punishable offense regardless of his ability or inability to react in time.

How different the UEFA handball rules are

The IFAB Laws of the Game cannot possibly cover every single situation and scenario that might play out during a game.

The laws, like all codified rules, will always leave some room for interpretation. As such, each league, competition and governing body has its own set of guidelines for interpreting the rules based on how that body desires their product.

The European governing body UEFA has done just that and has already published the guidelines for the 2023/24 season. The most important thing is that the European umbrella organization wants this Relaxation of the whistle for handball offenses with regard to distractionsas well as Eased penalty for showing yellow and red cards.

The 2023/24 guidelines state that “a handball offense against a player should not be penalized if the ball has previously deflected from his own body and particularly if the ball is not going towards goal.”

UEFA also states that “non-spooky handball should automatically result in a warning after every shot on target, as per current guidelines.” As currently written, UEFA guidelines generally encourage officials to take a Incur penalty of automatically issuing yellow cards. This would be relaxed under the new 2023/24 guidelines.

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Finally, the new UEFA guidelines also state that they will apply to the IFAB to amend the rule of an automatic red card for preventing a goal-scoring opportunity through handling of the ball, specifically to take into account intent in that decision. Therefore, under the UEFA proposal, the laws would be changed so that a red card would only be shown when a deliberate handball is used to prevent a goal, while a yellow card would be shown in situations where the intention is not clear.

These recommendations come after UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin told the Men In Blazers podcast that “no one in the world understands when handball exists or doesn’t exist.”

“We had the best coaches in the world in the room,” said Ceferin, referring to a UEFA Football Committee meeting. “We showed them a situation where a ball hits a player’s hand and we said penalty or no penalty, half said penalty, half said no penalty.”

“These are coaches of the best teams in the world. I think the referee should decide on the field, otherwise we don’t need a referee anymore. We can just have a machine that says handball or no handball and I don’t do that. “I do not like it. I do not like it. We have to do it and we’re going to start working on it, to tell the refs that they have to decide whether it’s a natural move or not, and so on.”

How different the Premier League handball rules are

Like UEFA, the English Premier League has issued its officials with guidelines on how to deal with handball offences.

These guidelines, released in 2020, are quite strict and leave very little room for error for defensive players when committing handball offences.

Under Premier League guidelines, a player will be penalized for handball if:

  • The hand/arm is well away from the body and outside of the “body line”.
  • The player clearly leans into the trajectory of the ball.
  • The ball travels a certain distance.
  • The ball touches a hand/arm that is well above the shoulder.
  • The player falls and the hand/arm is stretched sideways or vertically away from the body.
  • A deflection obviously makes no difference if the ball touches a hand/arm that is clearly extended away from the body and/or over the shoulder.
  • Immediately after touching the ball with his arm, even accidentally, the player scores a goal or creates a scoring opportunity.


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