It’s Saturday morning, and you’re on the soccer field. How many times do you hear this? I must hear it 20 times per game if I hear it once. I hate this call. I really do. Even more, I hate making this non-call. Everybody is yelling for hand ball, and in my opinion as the ref, the contact between the ball and the player’s hand was incidental or it wasn’t deliberate. But now, I’m being yelled at because I didn’t blow the whistle. Why does this one supposed infraction, more than any other, draw a response from parents and players that can border on apoplexy?
OK, please, nobody have a stroke after what I’m about to say, but . . . there is no Hand Ball in soccer. Hand Ball is a game.
It’s true that ball-hand contact and deliberately handled ball can and do both happen in soccer. The first is not an offense. The second is. There is one thing that you’re never supposed to do in soccer as a player (except the goalkeeper), and that is deliberately handle the ball. There is also something you’re not supposed to do as a referee, and that is blow the whistle every time there is ball-hand contact, just because the contact occurred.
OK, I know what you’re thinking, I’m just trying to be a wise guy and argue semantics, hand ball versus handled ball, big deal, right? Wrong. There is a big, if somewhat subtle difference, and it’s not just semantics. I’ll try to explain the difference, and why it’s important.
In any game, trying to explain the rules, one should . . . probably . . . start with the rules.
One thing you have to like about soccer, it only has 17 Laws, the description of which fit into a small pamphlet the size of a brochure you might find in your dentist’s office. It’s not like trying to learn a foreign language or decipher the US Tax Code. The Laws Of The Game (LOTG) are simple and straightforward. But even better, every referee not only has a copy of LOTG, but also a somewhat larger brochure called ‘Advice to Referees On The Laws Of The Game’, which breaks down each Law, and gives detailed situational analyses of how each Law shall be applied. It’s the ‘gestalt’ for referees.
From the Laws Of The Game Law 12, Fouls and Misconduct:
‘A direct free kick is also awarded to the opposing team if a player commits any of the following three offenses:
Holds an opponent
Spits at an opponent
Handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)’
OK, so handling the ball is an offense? No. Deliberately handling the ball is an offense.
Also from the Laws Of The Game, Law 12:
‘A player, substitute or substituted player is sent off if he commits any of the following seven offenses'
Serious foul play
Spitting at an opponent or any other person
Denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball (this does not apply to the goalkeeper within his own penalty area.)
Denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offense punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick
Using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures
Receiving a second caution in the same match
Clearly, deliberately handling the ball to deny a goal is not only an offense, but is right up there with serious foul play, violent conduct, and spitting, and is a really big deal. As a player, it gets you a red card, and a one-way ticket to a front row seat at the sideline.
So now that you know what the rules dictate, let’s look at what the referee is faced with in making calls on the field. Soccer is no hands, only feet. But every player has two arms and two hands, and has to run a lot in the game of soccer, which means their arms are always moving. It’s obviously not practical to keep your hands glued to your side while running. Try it. Next time you go out for a jog, try keeping your hands and arms tightly at your sides. Sitting in Coach class on an airplane? Yes. Running? No.
So this is where the Advice To Referees On Laws Of The Game, comes in, the ‘gestalt’ on all of this.
In Advice To Referees On Laws Of The Game, Section 12.9 states (in the Queen’s English, of course):
12.9 DELIBERATE HANDLING The offence known as “handling the ball” involves deliberate contact with the ball by a player’s hand or arm (including fingertips, or outer shoulder). “Deliberate contact” means that the player could have avoided the touch but chose not to, that the player’s arms were not in a normal playing position at the time, or that the player deliberately continued an initially accidental contact for the purpose of gaining an unfair advantage. Moving hands or arms instinctively to protect the body when suddenly faced with a fast approaching ball does not constitute deliberate contact unless there is subsequent action to direct the ball once contact is made. Likewise, placing hands or arms to protect the body at a free kick or similar restart is not likely to produce an infringement unless there is subsequent action to direct or control the ball. The fact that a player may benefit from the ball contacting the hand does not transform the otherwise accidental event into an infringement [emphasis added]. A player infringes the Law regarding handling the ball even if direct contact is avoided by holding something in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.).
Notice the word ‘deliberate’. Even in Her Majesty’s English, ‘deliberate’ has a synonym: ‘intentional’. It’s used 4 times in one paragraph. Could have avoided contact but didn’t. Hands not in a normal playing position (presumably not at the side of the body). . Continues accidental contact to gain advantage. Pretty simple, really. Also importantly, notice the bit about using hands to protect vital organ(s) from a ball about to break the sound barrier during a free kick, or perhaps most importantly, player benefiting from accidental contact does not turn that contact into a foul, sorry, an ‘infringement’. Which is where IITOOTR (If In The Opinion Of The Referee) comes in. The referee must decide, did the player handle the ball under these guidelines, and did it result in unfair advantage? And also, remember that the advantage rule applies if there is an infraction. If the ball is intentionally handled by the defense, that’s an ‘infringement’, so if the team on the attack retains possession, the referee is not required to stop the game, and may signal advantage, ‘play on’.
Oh, and one more thing. I mentioned that the goalkeeper is permitted to use his or her hands to handle the ball. True, if he or she is in the penalty area, and hasn’t received the ball directly kicked to him or her by a teammate, from a throw-in by a teammate, doesn’t handle it twice in one possession (in other words releases the ball then picks it up before any other player touches it), or doesn’t keep it in his or her hands for more than 6 seconds. See, even the goalkeeper doesn’t have carte blanche with hands.
A good rule of thumb when trying to understand if it was just ball-hand contact, or was it deliberately handled ball, is to ask yourself the following question: did the ball play the hand, or did the hand play the ball?
THE BOTTOM LINE
So now you know. You’ll enjoy the game that much more knowing that the referee, in the spirit of fair play, is not going to penalize players unfairly for simply making ball-hand contact. The soccer ball is going to touch a player’s hands or arms or shoulders. It’s inevitable in the game of soccer. It may happen and often does happen several times during a match. And it is incumbent upon the referee to keep the game going, and not blow the whistle every time it appears that the ball has simply made contact with a player’s hand, but to only penalize, in his or her opinion, when that contact is deliberate in an attempt to gain an advantage. It’s just that simple.
If you’re on the field, instead of ‘Hand Ball!’ (if for no other reason, you’re talking about a completely different game, not to mention you’re yelling at the referee), how about ‘Great Non-Call For Non-Deliberate Handling!’. Right. You’ll get busy practicing that one right away, I’m sure. Recognize that referees are taught not to stop the game every time the ball makes contact with someone’s hand, arm or shoulder just because the contact happened, and especially if it is unintentional, or . . . not deliberate.
A famous referee once said ‘If you never call handled ball, you will be right 85% of the time.’ True Dat!
Want to read more on "Hands"? Read Keith Hackett Illegal Use of Hands
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