What is the Handball Soccer Rule?: Laws of the Game

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Written by Daniel Pena, Bachelors in Kinesiology and footballer: Learn More

What is a handball offense in soccer? In the beautiful game, outfield players are not allowed to use their hands or arms to control the ball, but they can use any other parts of their body such as their feet, thighs, head, and chest.

Only the goalkeepers are allowed to pick up the soccer ball with their hands, but only if they are inside their own penalty area. If an outfield player does use their hand or arm, even if accidental, or if the goalkeeper uses their hands illegally, the referee calls a foul for a handball offense.

In this blog, I will cover everything you need to know about the handball soccer rule.

Handball Soccer

What is a Handball in Soccer?

The handball soccer rules are governed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) and a handball offense is a type of foul where a player illegally touches the soccer ball with their hands. Some people may think that a “handball” during a soccer game happens only when the ball touches a player’s palms or fingers, but actually the entire arm counts as part of a “handball.”

FIFA’s official boundary of the arm starts at the bottom of the armpit and touching the ball with anything below this line counts as an illegal handball.

Handball Rules in Soccer

The handball law indicates that handball offenses occur with any of the following scenarios:

  • Outfield players use their hands on purpose or accidentally to block an obvious goal scoring opportunity such as Luis Suarez vs Ghana
  • Any player illegally hits the ball with their hands
  • Player touches the ball using their hand or arm when the ball is above shoulder level
  • Scores a goal using their hands
  • Scoring a goal after committing a handball
  • A goalkeeper handles the ball illegally, such as when they are outside their penalty area or if they pick up a ball that a teammate passed to them on purpose.

What are the Consequences of a Handball?

A handball is a punishable offense that has different consequences. If the handball happened outside of the penalty area, this foul will lead to a free kick, but if the handball happens inside the penalty area, it leads to a penalty kick instead.

Also, if the referee decides to, they can show either a yellow or red card to the offending player depending on the severity of the foul. For example, an obvious handball that blocks a clear goal scoring opportunity will lead to a red card, while a more accidental handball can lead to a yellow card instead.

Role of Referees and VAR in Determining Handball Offenses

In soccer, referees have a crucial role in deciding if a handball offense has been committed and whether it was on purpose or not. In recent times, a standard handball foul can be either intentional or unintentional.

When deciding if a handball violation is intentional or unintentional, the referee must use their judgment and decision making skills to determine what are the right consequences for the offense. If the referee feels like they have to, nowadays they can use the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system to help them make a better informed decision especially with handballs that have occurred in the build up to a goal.

Defensive Positions Deemed “Natural” by FIFA Regulations

In the world of soccer, body positioning is important when it comes to handball rules set by FIFA. One standout aspect is the concept of “natural” defensive positions.

A natural position is how players would typically stand or move without intentionally blocking the ball with their hands. Folding arms behind the back or at the sides is considered “natural” when defending near an attacker’s cross or shot.

Maintaining these postures is crucial for avoiding accidental handball offenses and it helps players avoid penalties, promotes fair play, and improves decision-making in high-pressure situations.

On the other hand, an unnatural position, such as an extended arm making their body unnaturally bigger can result in a handball call. FIFA regulations prohibit any enlargement deemed unnatural, as it gives an unfair advantage over the opposing team.

Controversies Involving Handball Offenses

Over the history of the game, there have been a lot of handball controversies. Let’s now take a look at some of the most controversial moments involving handball offences.

The Hand of God

The most famous incident of clear and obvious handball in soccer that was not given is the legendary “Hand of God” moment by Diego Maradona. During the 1986 FIFA World Cup, Diego Maradona used his hands to score a goal against England during the Quarter Finals of the biggest soccer tournament in the world. In this same match, Diego scored his other most famous goal, the goal of the century.

The infamous Thierry Henry incident:

During a 2009 World Cup qualifier between France and Ireland, Thierry Henry handled the ball not once but twice before setting up the decisive goal. Despite the apparent violation of the IFAB handball rule, where a player intentionally touches the ball with any part of their arm below shoulder level, the referee didn’t award a free kick. Talk about a missed call.

Handball Soccer

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it still a handball violation if the ball hits your leg first?

No, if the ball hits your leg first and then your hands it should not count as a handball since it is deemed accidental and it may be hard to react quick enough to get your arm out of your way, after the ball has already hit you.

Is it still a handball violation if you are protecting your face?

If you are protecting your face with a natural position, then a handball won’t be called, but if you protect your face, using a more unnatural position, the referee may call a foul.

When does a handball offense lead to a yellow or a red card?

A handball offence can lead to a yellow card or red card if it was on purpose or if it blocks an obvious goal scoring opportunity.

Is a handball a direct free kick or an indirect free kick?

A handball is usually a direct free kick, and a penalty kick if it happened inside the area, but there are instances where a handball can lead to an indirect free kick, such as when a player passes the ball back to the goalkeeper and the goalie picks up the ball.


In conclusion, the handball soccer rule is one of the most important rules for new players, youth or adult, coaches, and fans to understand. In this blog, I covered everything you need to know about one of the most basic parts of the beautiful game, the handball rules.

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