What is handball? Nobody knows any more

Last month there was a video question in my online refereeing exam concerning a possible penalty for a handball offense. The clip came from a Bundesliga game between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04. In the game's 10th minute, Dortmund's Julian Brandt takes a long free kick around 40 yards from the Schalke goal, and his teammate Erling Haaland meets it with a volley-cum-cross from the left side of the penalty area. From very close range the ball hits the outstretched arm of Schalke's Jonjoe Kenny  before going out of play behind the goal line.

Referee Deniz Aytekin, currently one of the world's best, signals for the corner kick. He is perhaps bearing in mind the first line of Law 12 that deals with Handling the Ball. This 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." Kenny clearly did neither. It's the most sensible part of the rule on handball, because it's easily understood. Haaland makes a half-hearted appeal for a penalty, and the video-assistant referee (VAR) indicates to Aytekin that they're going to take another look. Very quickly, though, the VAR agrees with Aytekin that it's no penalty, and the game continues with a corner.

German soccer bi-weekly kicker rated Aytekin's performance that day with a '2' (with one being the highest, and six the lowest). The referee, wrote the magazine, "radiated self-confidence and respect so that after the penalty incident with Kenny - correctly not given - there were no protests."

I agreed and gave my answer as follows -- no penalty, play on. My refereeing overlords, though, disagreed with me (the impudence!), and also with Aytekin, the VAR and kicker too. They said the correct answer was: penalty. They were kind enough to explain why. Brace yourselves:

"After the cross from the direct free-kick, the ball is played back in by the Dortmund player Haaland, parallel to the goal line. As the cross is coming over, the Schalke player Kenny orients himself toward Haaland. In doing so, he has already stretched his right arm out before Haaland's cross. With this outstretched arm he defends the ball which, just prior to that, kind of touches his knee and respectively his body. This deflection from his own body changes nothing with relation to Kenny's unnatural arm position, including an enlargement of his defensive surface, which should consequently result in a penalty.”

I'll certainly bear all that in mind next time a similar situation occurs in one of my games. Or maybe I will do what I've always done when the ball hits a player's arm at point-blank range. I yell, "No intent! Play on!"

Putting aside the issue of how such questions help to improve my education and performance as a referee earning $25 per game, the explanation does at least shine a light on how needlessly complex the handball law has become. Here's another excerpt from Law 12:

It is an offense if a player:

touches the ball with their hand/arm when:

- [pay attention, Jonjoe Kenny!] the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger.

- the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level (unless the player deliberately plays the ball which then touches their hand/arm).

The above offenses apply even if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close.

Got all that? These clauses have all been added in recent years, and have only served to make the referee's job much more difficult. The sentence about players making their bodies "unnaturally bigger" has been the worst add of all.

When situations such as the Kenny handball are sent to the VAR, you hear the TV commentators debating the "unnatural" issue, but they sound as clueless as the rest of us. And yet again, the VAR is passing judgment in a situation needing multiple replays, which contradicts their remit of intervening only when a "clear and obvious error" has been made.

For the coming season the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which has otherwise done some good work in modifying the rules in recent years, has added more murk to the handball conundrum: "For the purposes of determining handball offenses, the upper boundary of the arm is in line with the bottom of the armpit." Basically, this means when the ball makes contact with the top of the shoulder, above the 'T-shirt' line, it's no longer deemed to be handball. Except, what happens if the ball makes contact with the upper arm exactly on the T-shirt line, half above and half below? Is that handball? Expect a wordy sub-clause of enlightenment some time next spring.

It's been clear for years that there's no easy answer to defining handball. Previously, the problem was interpreting 'intent.' That seems a breeze now, though, compared with also interpreting the 'naturalness' or not of the defender's body stance, and if the arm was above shoulder height when it touched the ball (but not if the ball was "deliberately" played first).

In my experience, one consequence for the amateur ref has been that every single time the ball touches a player's hand or arm, there is now a loud and demanding chorus from opposition players, coaches and spectators of "Handball!"

My only remaining guideline is that if I'm in any doubt, I wave play on, grateful that there's no VAR in the amateur game. I'm also comforted by the thought that no one else any longer has a clue whether I've made the right call or not.

16 comments about "What is handball? Nobody knows any more".
  1. Randy Vogt, July 3, 2020 at 5:59 a.m.

    The current rule on handling is an absolute mess as it's complicated and also favors the defense.

  2. Beau Dure, July 3, 2020 at 8:40 a.m.

    Do you also get the idiot parents yelling "HANDBALL!!" when they see a ball slam into a terrified young defender who has pulled her arms as tight to her body in self-defense as humanly possible?

  3. R2 Dad, July 3, 2020 at 12:56 p.m.

    Yeah this is going to be interesting when we pick up the whistle. I don't think anything changes for kids up to U12--most of those are balls hitting arms in a crowd of kids from point blank range. What about balls at the tshirt line inside the box like Dortmund's Guerriero's goal that was dissallowed vs Dusseldorf? I don't have the eyesight nor stones to pull that out of the net.

  4. Santiago 1314 replied, July 4, 2020 at 4:15 p.m.

    "Un-Naturally" Bigger, Like Steriods.??? Jajaja ... I advocate "Intentional is DIRECT KICK; "Un-Intentional" is IN-Direct Kick... Takes the Guessing game out of the "Mechanics" Of The Call... Just have to look at Video to Determine the Intent Of The Player.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, July 5, 2020 at 3:14 p.m.

    Santiago, going back to the spirit of the law, the offense is handling, meaning the offense is a deliberate act. So "unintentional" contact with the ball has never been considered handling. The controversy has always been over how to word and enforce the law, not the spirit of the law. 

  6. Santiago 1314 replied, July 6, 2020 at 7:44 a.m.

    Ah, "The Spirit Of The Law" ... A Definition Wide Open to Interpretation based upon your Cultural Norms... A "Hand Ball" in Mexico is a lot different than a Handball in Germany... I would call them ALL, then sort it out: Direct Kick or InDirect Kick... Would lead to more Goals and More excitement... And Soccer could use Both.!!!

  7. Mike Lynch, July 5, 2020 at 10:57 a.m.

    Go back to ball to hand/arm or hand/arm to ball, then it's simple and clear. The only subjectivity is in the case of ball to hand - did the player have time to get hand/arm out of the way? 

  8. Wooden Ships replied, July 5, 2020 at 11:51 a.m.


  9. beautiful game, July 5, 2020 at 11:31 a.m.

    KISS is something that the FIFA tinkerer's of LOTG can't accept. 

  10. Clive Toye, July 5, 2020 at 12:29 p.m.

    The problem is not bigger bodies...its larger brains in the heads of the game's leaders....larger, emptier, thicker, dimmer, dumber.   Another Varce.  

  11. frank schoon, July 6, 2020 at 10:06 a.m.

    The more we fool around with the rules, introducing VAR ,along with contemporary interpretations of off-sides, hand- ball ,the more we realize that going back to the old-fashioned rules were just fine, even with the warts. New rules or interpretations finalizes nothing for it continues like  a train switches to another track creating other problems related to the initial action taking to solve.

    Give me the days when we were still arguing about that goal whether the ball crossed the goal line or not in the WC'66 game England- Germany. We need an element of doubt, a subjectiveness  that  noone can control. The problem is that today we try to control this subjective element which can't be done and we're just making the game worse for it...

  12. Doug Broadie replied, July 6, 2020 at 12:20 p.m.

    Couldn't agree more.

  13. Doug Broadie, July 6, 2020 at 12:19 p.m.

    The current "hand ball" law is flawed beyond recognition, especially involing penalty area decisions.  If the ball hits a hand, it is easier to spot with VAR.  BUT, far more serious fouls of kicking, pushing, hitting and other incidents are NOT reviewed by VAR in the penalty box.  Hmmmm.
    I have two suggestions.  1) Let's go back to the original intent of the law to "not INTENTIONALLY handle the ball which is the best solution or 2) make handball decisions an indirect kick.  Number 2 would push the offense out of the game as much as obstruction has been pushed out of the game.  As Phil Shane states correctly, he remembers an obstruction call being made in 1998.

  14. R2 Dad replied, July 6, 2020 at 1:39 p.m.

    Obstruction is occassionally called, though I perceive this to be primariliy of value in the professional game where attackers can park in front of the keeper to obstruct or impede the keeper's view of the ball. But it's still of value to keep players honest. Another seldom-called foul, Persistent Infringement, I would be in favor of whistling more frequently. I've used it rarely, but I think it's needed more than ever at the professional level where teams will systematically hack a skilled opponent. Hazard when he was in the EPL would probably have agreed.

  15. uffe gustafsson, July 6, 2020 at 6:27 p.m.

    The word deliberately is the key word and think most of us in youth soccer can see that.
    but also the word clumsy in my book is important 
    if you try to chest down a ball and miss read the ball and your arm take the ball it's a hand ball.
    i personally only call hand ball when I see it deliberate not a rocket ball at your arm.
    remember most parents only know that ball hit an arm and they think it's hand ball very few parents understand any of the rules and that goes for coaches as well. Any good coach should get the referee test as well to really understand the rule book.

  16. Kent James, July 7, 2020 at 3:43 p.m.

    Players should not be penalized for having arms, they should only be penalized if they use those arms to handle the ball.  The hand moving to the ball deliberately (as in, with purpose or intent, if you will) is key.  The exception is if the hand is in a natural position.  So if I'm running along the goal line pumping my arms for speed and a shot hits my hand, which blocks it from the goal, no penalty, even though my hand was moving and hit the ball  (as long as I didn't change the way I was moving my arms), because it's like the ball hit my knee as it was moving.  Obviously if I alter the way I'm using my arms to run in order to block the ball, that would be a penalty.

    The exception the other way (the balls striking the hand not being a penalty) is if I put my hands in an unnatural position (running at the player with the ball with my hands stretched over my head to increase my height from under 6' to closer to 8',e.g.), and the ball strikes my hands, I'm still guilty of handling because the purpose of my putting my hands over my head was to have them block the ball.  But the benefit of the doubt should go to a no call (so a player having their arms out for balance on a slide tackle should not be called, e.g.).  

    The rule should enforce the spirit of the game; if you're trying to cheat, you should get punished.  If random things happen, you should not. 

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