Major League Soccer
US Soccer


Play of the Week 11: Handball

May 17, 2017


Image: Referee Allen Chapman pictured during Toronto FC v Minnesota United

By PRO Training & Development Manager Paul Rejer 

The Law 12 clearly states that a direct free kick should be awarded to the opposing team if, whilst the ball is in play, a player handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area).  

A penalty kick is awarded if a defending team player deliberately handles the ball inside his own penalty area (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area).

Handball is one of the simplest of all the Laws of the Game, yet the difficulty for referees in a match situation is determining whether a handball is a deliberate act.  This is where the complexity is involved in making the judgement!

The handball offence is so very simple, yet it is universally, and frustratingly for referees, misunderstood by players, managers, sports commentators, journalists and spectators alike. 

Determining what a deliberate act of handball is often causes the most problems and provides the referee with one of their hardest challenges. It is also important to stress that not every penalised deliberate handball is punishable by a yellow or red card. A direct free kick or penalty kick may be sufficient punishment.

In deciding whether a handball is deliberate or not, referees consider the following four criteria:

1. The proximity of the offending player to the ball when the ball is struck. The closer the player is to the ball when it is played, the less time he has to react, and move his arm / hand  either out of the way or even towards the ball.  A ball struck from close range on to the arm or hand of an opposing player is less likely to be considered a deliberate act when compared to a ball struck from distance where the defending player has more opportunity to move his hand / arm out of the way of the ball.

2. The movement of the hand or arm towards the ball or away from the ball to prevent a handball offence occurring.

3. Whether the defending player’s hands or arms are in the expected position at the time the ball is played, and whether the player is merely protecting himself or is unable to move his arm / hand out of the way when the ball is struck.

4. Whether the player uses his arms or hands to make himself bigger in order to prevent the ball from going past him. This is a deliberate act which may give the offending player an unfair advantage.   

'Ball to hand' is the well-known phrase used by referees to describe an accidental (or non-deliberate) 'handball'. It is usually obvious to referees when a player purposely moves his hand or arm towards the ball with the intention of gaining an unfair advantage over his opponents. Deliberately handling the ball implies full consciousness of the nature of one's actions and its consequences.

Even amongst refereeing circles there is usually a lot of debate and disagreement when discussing whether or not a handball is deliberate. At last week’s PRO referee camp, we discussed a number of handball decisions that occurred recently and only one had 100 per cent agreement. With that in mind, I would like to show two handball penalty decisions that occurred during MLS Week 11; one given, one not given and, on this occasion, I would like you to decide on the correct decision.

The first call is from the game between Toronto FC and Minnesota United. 

United’s Francisco Calvo heads the ball towards goal before making contact with the arm of Toronto defender Raheem Edwards. Referee Allen Chapman has no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Is he correct? 

Your view: The voting for this call came out at 53.3% in favor of handball, with 46.7% saying not handball.

The second call is from Montreal Impact versus Columbus Crew. 

When Crew’s Justin Meram attempts to cross the ball into the penalty area, the ball makes contact with the arm of Impact defender Laurent Ciman. Referee Silviu Petrescu waves away the appeals and awards a corner kick. Is he correct? 

Your view: The voting for this call came out in favor of handball 64.9%, and 35.1% saying not handball.

Paul Rejer's response:

Our prize winner who came up with the best explanation is Mr. Raymond Brookes from Sydney, Australia.

He said: “In my opinion the first call, from Toronto v Minnesota, Edwards’ arm moves away from his body towards the ball and this must be a deliberate play. In the second play from, Impact v Crew, Ciman’s arm is in a natural position and the ball hits it, and force of the ball causes his arm to move backwards. Therefore, this is not deliberate handball.”

As far as we are concerned at PRO, we totally agree with Mr. Brookes and believe he has explained it perfectly. Thank you, Mr. Brookes, your prize is on its way, and thank you also to all of you who sent in your explanations and for your interest in Play of the Week.

The close voting proves though that handball is very contentious and difficult decisions for referees to make. You could make a case for whatever the decision the referee made and he could be supported either way, and would not be overturned by VAR when that starts. 

Play of the Week: Click here to read more educational material from Paul Rejer


associated partners
Major League Soccer US Soccer Canadian Soccer Association North American Soccer League United Soccer Leagues National Women's Soccer League TAG Heuer Polar