Most people know that a soccer player shouldn’t touch the ball with their hands during a soccer game. But if a player unintentionally touches the ball with their hand, will they be punished for a handball offense? Is it handball in soccer if the player didn’t deliberately touch the ball?
In most circumstances, a handball does have to be intentional, or deliberate, for it to be considered an offense. However, if a goal, or goal-scoring opportunity, is created immediately after an unintentional handball, this is also considered to be a handball offense in soccer.
The rules of soccer regarding a handball are laid out in detail in the official “Laws of the Game”. I want to give you an overview of them here and explain when a handball is considered to be intentional and why an unintentional handball is sometimes an offense and sometimes not.
Intentional Handball Vs Unintentional Handball
During a soccer game, there are three possible outcomes when a player touches the ball with their hand or arm.
- The referee decides that the player has committed an intentional handball offense
- The referee decides that the player has committed an unintentional handball offense
- The referee decides that the player has committed an unintentional handball – but it is not considered to be an offense
Let’s look at each of these individually.
An Intentional Handball
Law 12 in the rules of soccer states that:
“It is an offense if a player deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, including moving the hand/arm towards the ball”IFAB Laws of the Game
A soccer player commits a handball if the ball makes contact with their hand or arm during a game and the referee judges that they made a deliberate move towards the ball to ensure the connection was made.
There are times where it may be undeniable that the player has made a deliberate move towards the ball and other times where the player’s movement may be more subtle.
However, it is the role of the referee to judge the intention of the player and make the appropriate decision.
The rules of soccer also state that:
“It is an offense if a player touches the ball with their hand/arm when the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger”IFAB Laws of the Game
You will sometimes see a player trying to block another player by making themself look “unnaturally bigger” by spreading their arms out to the side.
Although they may not intend to touch the ball with their hand or arm while doing this, their opponent may kick the ball towards them at this moment, and the ball could come into contact with their hand or arm.
As you can see from the rules, this would also be a handball offense as the player has deliberately made themself “unnaturally bigger.”
An Unintentional Handball – an Offense
There are also times during a soccer game where unintentional contact between a player’s arm/hand and the ball is handball.
As we’ve just shown, any time a player deliberately handles the ball, it is a handball offense. There are also two occasions when unintentional contact between the player’s hand/arm and ball is considered to be a handball. These are:
- If a player scores in the opponents’ goal directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental
- If a player, after the ball has touched their or a team-mate’s hand/arm, even if accidental, immediately scores in the opponents’ goal or creates a goal-scoring opportunity
These two statements are taken directly from Law 12 of the Laws of the Game of soccer.
You can see that in both instances, the rules say, that if a goal is scored or a goal-scoring opportunity is created directly after a player has handled the ball, then a handball offense has been committed. This would be the case even if the contact between the player and the ball were unintentional!
The reason handball is an offense in soccer is that the team of the player who handled the ball is illegally gaining an advantage.
In both the above instances, the team has gained an advantage because one of their players has handled the ball. It doesn’t matter if this action was intentional or not.
An Unintentional Handball – No Offense
Despite the fact there are times when unintentional contact between the ball and a player is handball, there are several scenarios where accidental contact is not handball.
The Laws of the Game list four situations where it is not an offense if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm. These are:
- When the ball makes contact with the player’s hand/arm directly from the player’s head or body (including the foot)
- When the ball makes contact with the player’s hand/arm directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another close player
- When the ball makes contact with the player’s hand/arm if the hand/arm is close to the body and does not make the body unnaturally bigger
- When the ball makes contact with the player’s hand/arm when a player falls, and the hand/arm is between the body and the ground to support the body, but not extended laterally or vertically away from the body
To put this another way – a player won’t have committed a handball offense if:
- they are too close to the ball to be able to move their arm away before it makes contact
- They have kept their arms close to their body to avoid handling the ball
- They are attempting to prevent a fall when the ball touches their hand/arm
As long as the player is not clearly trying to handle the ball and the ball doesn’t immediately move into a goal-scoring situation, then an unintentional handball will not be considered an offense.
Also, you should be aware that an unintentional handball in the penalty area will not result in a penalty. If the ball strikes the player’s hand or arm and the referee judges that the player has not deliberately attempted to handle the ball, then play will continue.
The Goalie Is an Exception to the Handball Rule
Now, after everything I have just said, there is one player who operates under different rules than the other players when it comes to handball. That is the goalkeeper.
Outside their penalty area, a goalkeeper is subject to the same rules as every other player on their team. But when the goalie is within their penalty area, then they can intentionally or unintentionally handle the ball without committing a handball offense.
Just be aware that there are a few circumstances where the goalie cannot handle the ball even within their penalty area. You can find out about these in this article I wrote explaining the eight rules for soccer goalies.
As you will have seen throughout this article, handball doesn’t have to be intentional. Although the majority of handball offenses are from deliberate actions, there are a few situations where an unintentional act is considered to be a handball.
I’ve written a more in-depth guide to the rules of handball, including what the consequences are when a player commits a handball offense. You can find that article by clicking here.
To find out more about the rules of soccer, check out my Simple and Easy to understand Guide to the Rules of Soccer by clicking here.
The source for all the rules of soccer that we’ve talked about in this article can be found here in the International Football Association Board’s (IFAB) Laws of the Game.