Christopher Dobens
Apr 20, 2017 · 15 min read

This is a revised version of an article first published in Total Footblog back in January 2012, and then updated and published in Total Futeblog in May 2014. I have since shut down both of those online soccer magazines. But given that they continued to receive such high amounts of traffic — especially this article, in particular — I decided to post an updated version here on Medium.

Whether you call the game soccer, football, futebol, fútbol, fußball, voetbal, or calcio, the rules are the same. Well, technically they are not rules but rather the “Laws of the Game” published by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, better known as FIFA, the sport’s international governing body.

One of the unique aspects of soccer, though, is that it’s such a simple game that few people ever bother to read FIFA’s Laws of the Game. And, in most cases, you don’t really need to unless you are a ref. Or a coach. Or a player. Or a TV commentator. Or a journalist. Or a fan.

The Rule Everyone Thinks They Understand
While experts and novices alike agree that the game’s most confusing “rule” is when a player is — and isn’t — offside, the ugly truth is that the greatest confusion surrounds the one rule that everyone thinks they understand: handling the ball, or the hand ball rule. Incidentally, I opt to call it the “hand ball” rule instead of “handball” simply to avoid confusion with the sport of handball.

FIFA’s 140-page Laws of the Game addresses the “hand ball rule” on Page 36, where it is listed as the 10th and final offense meriting a direct kick (just after spitting on an opponent). And though it references the rule elsewhere, FIFA dedicates only four words (not including a caveat about goalkeepers) to describe what warrants a hand ball violation: “handles the ball deliberately.”

Simple and straightforward, right? One would think so. But all too often a quarter of that rule — namely one of its four words — is either forgotten or ignored, even by people who really should know better.

The key word here is “deliberately,” because that’s where people tend to get confused. Again, even the experts make this mistake. For example, during Fox Soccer’s coverage of the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the network’s commentators repeatedly and bizarrely claimed that CONCACAF, the governing body of soccer in North America and one of the six such regional confederations that comprise FIFA, had somehow modified the rule by adding the term “deliberate.” At times, the Fox crew went as far as to describe it as a “rule change,” when in reality the officials at CONCACAF did nothing more than clarify the existing rule, reminding referees, coaches, players, fans, and the media (including the Fox commentators) that — as the rule has always stated — for there to be a hand ball infraction, the contact had to be deliberate.

According to FIFA’s Laws of the Game, there is absolutely nothing illegal about the ball coming into contact with a player’s arm or hand. It’s only when the player deliberately creates that contact (or uses unintentional contact in a deliberate manner) in an attempt to control or manipulate the movement of the ball.

The notion that you can’t touch the ball with your hands is true. That act of touching implies intent, which makes it a deliberate act and therefore an offense. The confusion lies in the fact that people assume this also means that the ball can’t touch your hands — or arms. That is not an offense. You will not find anything in the Laws of the Game about the ball hitting a player’s hand or arm.

It’s A Rookie Mistake
Indeed, this is an easy mistake for those unfamiliar with the game. The one thing they think they know about soccer is that you can’t touch the ball with your hands. So I’m not surprised that, while watching youth soccer games here in New York City, I often encounter such confusion among parents who are discovering the game through their children.

During one such match, a player tried to kick the ball up the touchline (that’s the sideline) and booted it — at point-blank range — into the dangling arm of an opponent who was simply standing there. If the kid had time to react, to get out of the way, he surely would have. But he had no choice, and he certainly had no choice about where the ball hit his body.

One of the fathers turned to me, in a full-on rage, livid that the ref failed to call a hand ball. I knew that he was seeking my sympathy and support. And despite the fact that this was a youth game, and that his team had earned a throw-in to retain possession, I simply couldn’t overlook the man’s ignorance of the game’s most basic rule. Yes, folks, I decided to make it a learning moment.

I looked calmly into the man’s eyes and told him that there is nothing in the rules that says the ball cannot touch a player’s hand or arm. And that is absolutely true. But, as you can imagine, he failed to embrace the truth, and opted instead to launch into a tirade of obscenities about how I knew nothing about the game that he had likely discovered himself only a few months earlier.

It’s A Veteran Mistake
Again, I understand this sort of reaction from people new to the game. But I’m far less tolerant when people who know the game — referees, coaches, players, fans, and the media — fail to understand the rule. This is particularly true for referees, as it is their job to know the rules inside and out. And while I understand the extreme difficulty in determining whether or not contact was deliberate, especially given the deliberately deceptive behavior of many of today’s players, they still should be aware that “deliberate” is the key qualifier in determining an infraction — not the simple act of physical contact.

But the most frustrating failures come from the media, especially television commentators. Not just because it’s part of their job to know and understand the rules as well, but also because they ultimately shape the understanding of the game — and its rules — for so many others.

ESPN’s Taylor Twellman, a former professional player, has historically been one of the most egregious offenders. At times, I felt as if there was a correlation between his failure to understand the rule and the confidence with which he voiced his misinterpretations from the broadcast booth. And, as noted earlier, Fox’s otherwise savvy 2013 Gold Cup crew displayed a clear and consistent inability to grasp the rule throughout their coverage of that tournament — despite having a professional ref on-call to clarify on-field rulings. As soccer fan, it was remarkably embarrassing. In fairness, though, Twellman and many of his contemporaries seem to have improved their understanding and interpretation of the rule in recent years, but you’ll still occasionally encounter someone clamoring for a call when none should be given.

As for coaches, players, and fans, I try to give them a little more latitude. After all, they tend to have a very skewed view of the game, assuming the absolute guilt of their opponents and the unquestionable innocence of their team. For many of them, any such contact by an opponent is automatically deemed deliberate. So it’s not always a question of ignorance but rather bias that shapes their interpretation — or misinterpretation — of the hand ball rule.

A Classic Case Study
During the first leg of the 2012–13 UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16, there was an incident in a match between the Spanish club FC Barcelona and the Italian club AC Milan. It was an important game for both teams, though Barcelona — considered by many to be the best in the world at that time — was expected to win it easily.

In the 56th minute, with the score still 0–0, Milan midfielder Riccardo Montolivo took a shot that sailed towards a Barcelona player, Jordi Alba, who raised and extended his arms away from his body to effectively block the passage of the ball. Doing so, as opposed to simply lifting his arms to his chest to minimize the impact of the ball against his body (which in and of itself is a contentious issue that I’ll address later), demonstrated what can clearly be viewed as a deliberate effort to manipulate the path of the ball. Therefore, the official should have blown the whistle and awarded Milan a penalty for the violation of the hand ball rule.

But it happened so fast that it must have been difficult for the ref and his assistants to determine if there was intent. In fact, watching it on TV, I assumed that it was unintentional until I saw the slow-motion replay from a few different angles. Even then, one could argue that Alba was merely protecting himself while trying to turn away from the shot, and that turning motion is what brought his arms out into the path of the ball. I’ve included a video clip of the incident below, so you can see for yourself.

The funny thing is, that’s not even what caused the controversy. No one complained about the ball striking Alba’s arms. It’s what happened after the ball bounced off the Barca player’s arms that raised a ruckus. Yes, I said ruckus.

The ball, still travelling at a high velocity, ricocheted off Alba’s arm into the arm of another player who happened to be standing beside him. That player, Milan’s Christian Zapata, was also turning away from the shot, presumably to avoid being hit by it. In doing so, he also raised his arms above his head, in an effort to keep them from contacting the ball should he get struck by it (since, as this article illustrates, so many people mistake such contact as a violation of the rules).

Zapata had no way of seeing the path that the ball was travelling, or anticipating the ricochet off of the Barca player next to him. And even if he had, he would not have had time to react, whether to move his arm out of the way, or to move his arm in a deliberate attempt to handle the ball. The ball flew off Alba’s arms and slammed into one of Zapata’s arms just a few feet away. It then bounced down to the feet of one of his Milan teammates, Kevin-Prince Boateng, who hammered it past Barca’s goalkeeper to score a goal.

That made it 1–0 in favor of the Italian underdogs. Milan went on to net a second goal in the 81st minute, beautifully set-up by Stephan El Shaarawy and scored by Sulley Muntari, to win the game 2–0 and upset the Spanish favorites.

Naturally, Barca fans were furious, wrongly claiming that the first goal shouldn’t have been allowed (not surprisingly, they had little to say about the second one) because it was — in their clearly flawed opinion — an “obvious hand ball.” And plenty of commentators from Fox Soccer, including some of the former pros in the studio, agreed that it was a “clear hand ball.” But, bizarrely, they were all talking about Zapata’s contact, not Alba’s.

Although there was clear contact between the ball and Christian Zapata’s arm, this was not a violation of the rules. Zapata’s contact was by no means deliberate. It was simply an unavoidable deflection into his arm. And according the Laws of the Game, there is nothing wrong with that. The goal stood, and rightfully so.

Yet, to this day, you can still find Barca fans arguing about the call — despite the fact that their team went on to beat Milan 4–0 in the second leg to advance (though ultimately losing 7–0 on aggregate in the semifinals to Bayern Munich, who eventually hoisted the trophy). It is unclear, though, whether their argument stems from ignorance (not understanding why Zapata’s contact was not a violation) or bias (ignoring the fact that Alba’s contact was a violation) — or both.

Why “Deliberate” Matters
What if the rules didn’t specify that the contact had to be a “deliberate handling of the ball? What would the game be like if “deliberate didn’t matter?

If you remove the need for a player to deliberately attempt to control or manipulate the path of the ball from the rule, then the game would quickly become unwatchable. Instead of trying to put the ball into the goal, players would simply focus on trying to kick it into their opponents’ arms, earning themselves a free kick, or a penalty kick, and perhaps even getting an opponent sent off.

Don’t believe me? Look at how many times players take a dive in hopes of getting a free kick, penalty kick, and perhaps an opponent sent off. Imagine if they could do that simply by flicking the ball up into another player’s arm, or blasting it at a handful of defenders from close range in hopes of making contact with one of their arms.

Why would players bother trying to beat a defense when they could so easily earn a free kick? Or, if they can get close enough to their opponent’s penalty area, earn a penalty kick, which they would then have about a 77-percent chance of converting into a goal? The game would become an ugly spectacle, and the only people who would benefit would be double-arm amputees, because every team in the world would want to sign them as central defenders out of sheer necessity.

The Legitimate Need For Clarification
As I mentioned earlier, it’s often difficult for a ref to determine, in real time, whether or not the contact was a deliberate attempt to control the ball or unintentional — incidental — contact between the ball and the player’s arm or hand. Commentators and spectators have the advantage of instant replay, with slow-motion and different angles, to help make the right decision (yet, as noted, so many still insist on making the wrong one). Refs, running around a field while trying to watch 22 players and a fast-moving ball, do not have such an advantage.

One of the most challenging situations for referees is when a free kick is awarded and the defending team lines up in a wall. If I am in a wall, defending against a free kick, and I’m covering my “Sepp Blatters” with my hands, my intent should be quite clear to the official: I prefer to avoid the potential pain caused by badly bruised genitals. Therefore, a ball that’s kicked into the wall and strikes my hand or arm should not be deemed a “deliberate” handling of the ball. It is not an offense, according to the rules of the game. It’s what we call “unintentional.” Besides, if the ball didn’t hit my hand or arm, it would have surely hit my body instead, resulting in the same effect — blocking the shot — only I’d be icing a different part of my body after the game.

However, if I extend my arm out to the side or up above my head, in an “unnatural” position, it should be clear that my attempt is to handle — to intentionally manipulate the path of — the ball, to deliberately block the shot. In this case, the resulting “ball to arm” contact would be a violation (based on intent) and the official should deem it as such. After all, this is what prevents players in the wall from standing with their arms raised, as it would be — despite their arms being stationary — a deliberate attempt to manipulate the path of the ball.

This can get even more complicated when a player raises his arm to protect his face in such situations. Those balls can travel as fast as 70–100 mph (yet another reason it’s difficult for refs), and you definitely don’t want to take one to the head — let alone your face. And, as I explained earlier, whether the ball hits a player’s face or his arm in front of his face, it’s not going past him either way.

But it’s tough for a ref to determine what is a natural and reasonable attempt to protect a player’s face and head as opposed to the player lifting or extending his elbow — with his forearm remaining over his face — in an attempt to increase his silhouette and possibly block the shot. So FIFA should offer some guidance — for both players and refs — as to exactly what is acceptable in a wall and what risks a violation.

Personally, I think a player should be allowed to shield his face and head. The risks of injury — from career-ending concussions to a lifetime looking like Louis van Gaal — are far too great. And if the free kick taker really has talent, then they will be able to bend the ball over or around the wall instead of trying to thread it between two players’ heads.

Natural Positions
Another challenge refs face is determining when a player’s arm is in a natural position during the run of play. Anyone who has played the game, or even watched it, knows that arms tend to move around as players go through the various actions on the field — running, turning, jumping, kicking, heading, etc.

When a player takes a shot, for example, his arms are typically extended from the body, often with one slightly raised. And, to maintain balance while ensuring maximum thrust, these positions change — the arms move — during the process of kicking the ball and following through.

If the ball is deflected back at that player, striking him in the arm or hand, no offense should be awarded. His arm is extended, and it may even be moving, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is trying to manipulate the path of the ball. The player’s arms are in a “natural position” for the action he is undertaking. And I think the game could use some clarification on this front as well.

This also applies to defenders, who often have their arms out for balance when running or turning. Just because a shot or cross strikes them in the arm doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a hand ball. Often times players won’t have time to move their arm out of the way when an opponent strikes a shot, so that shouldn’t be deemed a foul because it’s also a case of the ball hitting the arm — not the other way around. And when a player clearly tries to move his arm out of the path of the ball yet is still struck by it, referees should not deem that an offense either.

Another Case Study
In fact, such an incident occurred in the 2013 Gold Cup final between the United States and Panama. American Landon Donovan was crossing the ball from the right flank and the Panamanian defender swung his arms back behind himself, knowing the ball was coming at him and not wanting to risk any ball-to-arm contact that might be deemed a violation. What he didn’t know (and had no way of knowing) was that Donovan bent the cross behind him — and right into one of his arms.

Donovan and a few his teammates quickly appealed for a hand ball. This is understandable, given the competitive nature of the game. But the Fox Soccer commentators, who had the benefit of watching the contact in slow-motion and from various angles, also mistakenly suggested it was a violation of the hand ball rule. If anything, they — with the assistance of their referee pundit — should have used this as an example to help viewers better understand the rule, as opposed to claiming it was ambiguous.

The ref, however, got it right. He saw no violation. He recognized that the contact was not deliberate and let the game play on.

Hand-To-Ball or Ball-To-Hand?
Sometimes a player’s intentions are obvious. Some of the most infamous hand ball violations include Diego Maradona’s hand ball goal against England in the 1986 World Cup, Thierry Henry’s hand ball to set up France’s World Cup qualifier goal against Ireland in 2009, and Uruguayan (and arguably the game’s greatest-ever cheater) Luis Suarez’s shameless hand ball to prevent a Ghana goal in the 2010 World Cup.

In many cases, however, determining a player’s intent can be tricky. For me, I often find a player’s eyes reveal their intent. If they are looking away or their eyes are closed, it’s kind of hard to deliberately redirect the ball. But if the player is looking straight at the ball, and moving his arm towards the path it’s taking, then there’s a good chance that his intent is to deliberately manipulate the path of the ball. Of course, this is a lot easier to gauge with instant replay than it is for officials to determine in a split-second on the field of play.

Perhaps the easiest way to think of it, and one that’s grown popular with some commentators since I originally wrote this piece, is by simplifying things into hand-to-ball contact (a violation) and ball-to-hand contact (not a violation). And the difference often lies in whether the player has moved his arm or hand towards the path of the ball. Again, that’s a lot easier to determine with video replay than it is on the field, surrounded by other players and on the run, as refs must do. And, as I mentioned earlier, there are times when a player’s arm will naturally — and often unavoidably — be moving towards the path of the ball without any intent to handle it.

In most cases, though, movement of the arm or hand towards the path of the ball — or where they think the ball is going — indicates a deliberate intent to handle it. And that’s a hand ball. Otherwise, the ball making contact with a player’s hand or arm is not a violation of the Laws of the Game.

Christopher Dobens

Written by

Semi-pro writer, amateur photographer, soccer fanatic, scuba diver, and Director of Communications for an environmental justice nonprofit in NYC.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade