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EducationPlay of the Week

Play of the Week 29: Handball

By PRO Training & Development Manager Paul Rejer

Law 12 clearly states that a direct free kick should be awarded to the opposing team if 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).

I have said on many occasions that the handball offense is so very simple, yet it is so universally misunderstood. Determining a deliberate act of handball often causes the most problems, and provides referees with one of their most difficult challenges.

It is important to stress that not every deliberate handball is punishable by a yellow or red card, and a direct free kick or penalty kick may be sufficient punishment.

A caution should only be issued if the offense interferes with, or stops a promising attack, or prevents an opponent gaining possession of the ball.

The difficulty for referees in a match situation is trying to determine whether a handball act is deliberate. In deciding this, referees should take into account the following five criterion:

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

2. The movement of the hand or arm towards the ball, or away from the ball to prevent a handball offence occurring. If a player is attempting to avoid contact with a ball which strikes his hand or arm, the ball will often ‘fall’ towards the ground. If the act is deliberate, the ball will travel at pace off the offender as his hand/arm is rigid – he is expecting to make contact with the ball.

3. Consideration of the hand or arm in the unnatural position and distinguishing whether a player is merely protecting himself, or is unable to move his arms out of the way as the ball was struck from close range. However, when a ball goes to the side or above a player, where the hand or arm moves towards the ball, that is not a natural position or a defensive reaction. In these situations it is likely to be more a deliberate act of handball.

4. Whether the player uses his hands or arms to make himself bigger to prevent the ball from going past him, either towards goal or the penalty area. This action is a deliberate attempt to handle the ball, giving the defending player an unfair advantage.

5. The consequences of the handball offense.

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

We are examining two handball calls this week, and considering the criteria to conclude whether the referees in question arrived at the correct decision.


The first one is from the game between Houston Dynamo and Portland Timbers, when Dynamo’s Collen Warner takes a shot towards goal and Timbers’ defender Liam Ridgewell dives down and handles the ball. Referee Juan Guzman has to consider:

The proximity – It can be argued that Ridgewell is far enough away (roughly six yards) to avoid any contact.

The movement of the hand towards the ball – There is certainly movement of the hand towards the ball by the defender. The ball travels some distance away from Ridgewell after it hits him.

Consideration of the hand or arm in the unnatural position – His arm is also in an unnatural position, away from his body.

Whether the player uses his hands or arms to make himself bigger – That’s exactly what he is doing as his arm is outstretched.

The consequences of the handball offense – The ball was heading towards goal. However, with so many covering defenders, there is no consideration of denial of a goal or obvious goal scoring opportunity.

Guzman, who is such an excellent reader of the game, is in the optimum position to make and sell this decision. There is no protest from Ridgewell or indeed his coach, Caleb Porter, only resignation.

The second play is from the game between Montreal Impact and New England Revolution, involving another shot on goal, this time by Impact’s Harry Shipp.


Referee Allen Chapman, who has a reasonable position – although his view could be partially obscured – immediately points to the spot when the ball strikes the arm of the Revs’ London Woodberry. Let’s again examine the criteria:

The proximity – With Woodberry only one yard from Shipp, he does not have time to move his arm out of the way.

The movement of the hand towards the ball – There appears to be no movement towards the ball, if anything the defender is trying to move away from the ball. The ball strikes Woodberry and drops to the ground, losing pace after impact with the arm.

Consideration of the hand or arm in the unnatural position – His arm is close to his body; totally natural.

Whether the player uses his hands or arms to make himself bigger – As above, his arm is tight to his body, so he is not making himself bigger.

The consequences of the handball offense – No real consequences due to the close proximity of the two players; couldn’t tell where the ball was heading.

Referees have to make an instant decision when making calls of this nature.

They have to process the many criteria through their minds in a split second and Chapman has two decisions to make here, not just deliberate handball but whether the handball offense took place within the penalty area.

As the contact occurred on the line, which is regarded as part of the penalty area, he makes the correct call that it was inside. However, from his angle, he misjudges the actions of the defender and goes with the appeal of Shipp, who naturally will appeal when he sees the ball make contact with the arm.

In summary, it is of vital importance that referees know all of the criteria when judging handball offenses and I make no apology in repeating them three times in this Play of the Week.

Then, as a referee, you have to consider them extremely quickly through your thought process when called upon to make such important decisions.

Read more: Click here to see other Play of the Week’s from PRO’s Paul Rejer

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