Handball in Soccer: Direct or Indirect Free Kick?

Handball is one of the most controversial and confusing rules in soccer. In this comprehensive guide, I will explain when a handball results in a direct or indirect free kick, and the nuances of handball situations. Understanding the handball rule is crucial for players, coaches and fans alike.

Understanding the Handball Rule in Soccer

According to the Laws of the Game, a handball offence occurs if a player deliberately touches the ball with their hand or arm, including moving the hand or arm towards the ball. It is also an offence if a player touches the ball with their hand/arm when it has made their body unnaturally bigger, or if they score directly from a handball, even if accidental.

However, it is not always a handball if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm. For example, it is usually not a handball if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm directly from their own head, body, foot or the head, body or foot of another nearby player. The goalkeeper is also allowed to handle the ball in their own penalty area.

In my experience, many players, especially at the youth and amateur levels, do not fully grasp the nuances of the handball rule. I have seen countless arguments and confusion on the pitch stemming from handball incidents. By educating ourselves on the intricacies of the rule, we can avoid needless stoppages in play and heated debates.

As a long-time soccer coach, I always emphasize to my players the importance of avoiding handball situations whenever possible. I drill them on proper arm positioning when challenging for headers or blocking shots. While some handball calls are unavoidable, minimizing the risk of an infraction is key to maintaining a solid defensive shape and not giving away needless free kicks in dangerous areas. – Coach Zbigniew Wojciechowski

Consequences of Handball Offences

The restart of play after a handball offence depends on where it occurred and if it was deliberate or not. Generally, a direct free kick (or penalty kick if in the defensive team’s penalty area) is awarded if a player deliberately handles the ball, scores directly from a handball, or touches the ball with their hand/arm when it has made their body unnaturally bigger.

An indirect free kick is awarded if a goalkeeper handles the ball inside their penalty area when not permitted to do so. This includes picking up a deliberate back pass or throw-in from a teammate. An indirect free kick is also given if the referee determines a handball was accidental and did not directly lead to a goal or goal-scoring opportunity.

It’s crucial to note that a handball offence, especially a deliberate one, can also result in a yellow or red card depending on the severity and context of the incident. Denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity with a handball, for instance, warrants a red card and sending off.

Handball OffenceRestart of Play
Deliberate handballDirect free kick / Penalty kick
Accidental handball leading to a goalDirect free kick
Accidental handball in general playIndirect free kick
Goalkeeper handling back pass/throw-inIndirect free kick

Intentional vs Unintentional Handball

One of the most challenging aspects of the handball rule for referees is determining whether a handball was deliberate or accidental. This distinction is critical, as it impacts the restart of play and any potential disciplinary action.

Deliberate handball is when a player intentionally touches the ball with their hand or arm to control or manipulate its movement. This includes reaching out to block a shot or cross, scooping up or carrying the ball, or blatantly swatting at the ball. Deliberate handballs are punished with a direct free kick or penalty kick, and possibly a yellow or red card.

Unintentional or accidental handball, often colloquially referred to as “ball to hand,” is when the ball unexpectedly strikes a player’s hand or arm without intent. This frequently happens when the ball deflects off another player or surface at close range, giving the player no time to react or avoid contact. Accidental handballs are generally not penalized unless they directly result in a goal.

In my years of refereeing, I’ve learned that discerning deliberate from accidental handball comes down to reading the context and body language of the player. Did they have time to move their hand out of the way? Was their arm in an unnatural position? Did they make a movement towards the ball? Answering these questions, while also managing the match and making a split-second decision, is the true challenge of enforcing the handball law. – Referee Genevieve Lalonde

Handball by Attacking Team in Penalty Area

A unique set of circumstances arises when an attacking team commits a handball offence inside the opposing team’s penalty area. While this may seem counterintuitive, as the penalty area is typically associated with fouls by the defensive team, attackers are equally bound by the Laws of the Game in this part of the pitch.

If an attacking player handles the ball in the opponent’s penalty area, play is restarted with an indirect free kick to the defending team from the spot of the infraction. This applies even if the handball was accidental or unintentional. The key factor is that the handball occurred in the attacking team’s offensive penalty area.

A related scenario is when the goalkeeper handles a deliberate back pass or throw-in from a teammate inside their own penalty area. While permitted to handle the ball in most situations in their penalty area, a goalkeeper cannot use their hands when receiving a deliberate pass or throw-in from a teammate. This offence also results in an indirect free kick to the opposing team from the spot of the infraction.

Changes to the Handball Law Over Time

The handball law has undergone several revisions in recent years as the sport’s governing bodies attempt to clarify the rule and reduce inconsistency in its application. A major change came in 2019 when the International Football Association Board (IFAB) redefined handball to include any goal scored directly from a handball, even if accidental, and any accidental handball by an attacking player immediately before a goal.

Another significant update in 2021 aimed to reduce the subjectivity around the “unnatural position” of a player’s hand/arm. The new wording specified that the arm position must be judged in relation to the player’s movement in that specific situation, and that having the hand/arm above shoulder height is not necessarily an “unnatural position.”

As someone who has followed and analyzed the evolution of soccer’s Laws of the Game for decades, I believe the handball rule remains one of the most complex and debated aspects of the sport. The recent amendments to the handball law are a step in the right direction, providing more clarity and objectivity for match officials. However, due to the dynamic and unpredictable nature of the game, the handball rule will likely always retain some level of subjectivity and controversy. – Soccer Historian Dr. Liam O’Flaherty

Restarting Play After a Handball Offence

The method of restarting play after a handball offence is dictated by the category of the infraction. For a deliberate handball or one that leads directly to a goal, a direct free kick is awarded to the opposing team from the spot of the offence. If this deliberate handball occurs inside the offending team’s own penalty area, a penalty kick is given instead.

For an accidental handball that does not result in a goal, or for a goalkeeper handling a back pass or throw-in from a teammate in their own penalty area, play is restarted with an indirect free kick. This means the ball must touch another player before entering the goal in order for a goal to be awarded.

It’s important for players to understand the correct restart procedures and not argue with the referee’s decision. Dissent or delaying the restart can lead to a yellow card. Players should also be aware of the potential for a quick restart by the opposing team, especially on free kicks, and be prepared to defend accordingly.

Over my years of playing and coaching soccer, I have found that the best approach to the handball rule is to play with your hands behind your back or at your sides whenever possible, especially in your own penalty area. By minimizing the risk of a handball offence, you can avoid giving away unnecessary free kicks or penalties that could cost your team the match. Of course, some handball incidents are simply unavoidable in the flow of the game, but being proactive in your positioning and body shape can go a long way in reducing the frequency of these infractions. – Former Professional Player and Coach Akira Nakamura

In conclusion, the handball rule in soccer is a complex and often contentious aspect of the game. Understanding the nuances of deliberate versus accidental handball, the consequences of an infraction in different areas of the pitch, and the proper restarts of play is essential for players, coaches, and fans. By staying informed about the Laws of the Game and any updates to the handball rule, we can all contribute to a fairer and more enjoyable soccer experience. Remember, when in doubt, keep your hands to yourself and let your feet do the talking on the pitch!

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