Friday, 19 Jul 2024

Handball Rules in Football: Explained and Analyzed

handball rules soccer fifa

It is no secret that the handball rule in football has caused frustration and confusion among players, coaches, and fans alike. The rules surrounding handball have undergone numerous changes in recent years, leading to inconsistent application and varying interpretations. In this article, we will take a comprehensive look at the current handball rules in football, including the latest changes made by FIFA and UEFA.

Football Handball Rules and FIFA Guidelines

The International Football Association Board (IFAB) is the governing body responsible for setting and overseeing the Laws of the Game, which serve as the universal set of rules for football leagues worldwide. IFAB has made efforts to define a handball offense, but there have always been uncertainties and gray areas surrounding the rule.

The latest updates to the handball rule were implemented for the 2022/23 season, with no additional changes made for the 2023/24 season. According to IFAB, the forbidden part of the arm has been redefined. Previously, players were allowed to use the top of their arm, known as the “sleeve rule,” giving them some leeway with their shoulder. However, the current rule states that any contact with the upper portion of a player’s arm will be considered a handball offense, leaving only blatant handballs to be penalized.

The rule explicitly states, “the upper boundary of the arm is in line with the bottom of the armpit,” and provides diagrams in the Laws of the Game to illustrate this concept. It then goes on to detail different handball offenses, including deliberately touching the ball with the hand or arm, touching the ball in a way that makes the player’s body unnaturally bigger, and scoring a goal directly from the hand or arm.

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Does Intent Matter in Handball Rules?

In the interpretation of the handball rule, intent does not matter in specific instances where a player makes their body unnaturally bigger while handling the ball. The rule allows referees to judge intent and penalize a player for intentionally handling the ball. However, when it comes to a player making their body bigger or scoring a goal, intent does not factor into the decision.

The rule explicitly states that players assume the risk of their hand or arm being hit by the ball when they position their hand or arm unnaturally. Whether intentional or accidental, any unnatural touch with the hand or arm should be penalized. However, there is one major exception to this rule. If a player’s body position is a consequence of their body movement for a specific situation, such as when a defensive player slides to make a block, a handball offense will not be penalized.

Is It a Handball If the Ball Deflects?

In the current reading of the rule, a handball offense is penalized regardless of whether the ball deflects off another player’s body. However, different leagues have varying interpretations of the rule. For instance, the Premier League guidelines state that a deflection is only considered if it makes a clear difference to the ball striking the player’s hand or arm in an unnatural position. If the ball deflects off a player and then onto their own arm or hand, it should not automatically be given as a penalty.

These discrepancies have led to extensive debates. UEFA even recommended that no handball offense should be called if the ball is previously deflected from a player’s own body. However, this recommendation was not implemented.

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Handball Rules: Attacker vs. Defender

The handball law differentiates between penalizing attacking players and defending players. Attacking players are subject to a simple rule: if the ball strikes their arm during a goal-scoring move, regardless of arm position or intent, the goal is disallowed. IFAB determined that goals resulting directly from a situation where the ball strikes the hand or arm of an attacking player go against the spirit of the game.

Defending players, on the other hand, are subject to the previously discussed laws. The handball law holds defenders to different standards, requiring them to meet a higher threshold for a handball offense.

Will the Handball Rule Be Changed?

It is highly likely that the handball rule in football will be revised in the near future. The controversial decisions and problems arising from the current rule have prompted discussions within IFAB. CBS rules analyst Christina Unkel believes that new guidance will be issued by IFAB early in 2024.

Unkel suggests that the rule’s current interpretation, which has become increasingly objective due to the use of video assistant referees (VAR), has created unintended consequences. She anticipates a shift towards a more subjective rule that may be harder to apply consistently but allows for a better understanding of each decision’s uniqueness.


Q: How are handball rules different for UEFA?

A: UEFA has issued its own guidelines for interpreting handball offenses. The 2023/24 guidelines aim to relax the strict whistling of handball offenses related to deflections and reduce the punishment for yellow and red cards.

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Q: Are there different handball rules for Premier League?

A: Yes, the Premier League has its own guidelines for officials to manage handball offenses. These guidelines provide strict criteria for penalizing defensive players for handball offenses.

Q: Does intent matter in judging handball offenses?

A: Intent does not matter for most handball offenses. The focus is on whether a player’s body position is natural or unnatural, rather than on their intention to handle the ball.


The handball rule in football has long been a subject of debate and confusion. The current rules, as implemented by IFAB, have faced criticism due to their inconsistent application and varying interpretations. However, there is a growing recognition that the rules need updating to provide clearer guidelines for officials and reduce controversy. Changes are expected in the near future to address the challenges surrounding handball offenses and ensure fairer decisions on the field.

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