FIFA, formally known as Fédération Internationale de Football Association, is soccer’s world governing body and as such, it is responsible for issuing the rules of the game. The match referee’s job is to interpret the rules and apply them in the match context. The handball rule is in place to prevent players from gaining an unfair advantage by using their hands or arms. The handball rule is contentious due to the wide range of consequences that occur from an offence.
If a player deliberately touches the ball with their hand or otherwise obstructs the movement of the ball with the arm, it is considered to be a deliberate handball and a direct free kick is awarded to the other team. Depending on context and the position of the player committing the offence, the referee may issue a caution. In cases where a player deliberately handles the ball in order to avoid injury, such as shielding the face from the ball, the referee may use discretion to determine whether an offence took place.
The referee typically does not award a foul if the handball is accidental. If the ball hits the hand or arm, it is considered accidental. However, in cases where the ball hits the hand or arm and the arms are in an unnatural position, such as over the head or stretched outwards, the referee may still award a foul.
If a player deliberately handles the ball in order to prevent a goal or goalscoring opportunity, this is considered a professional foul and the player can be sent off the field. In the 2010 FIFA World Cup quarter-final between Uruguay and Ghana, Uruguay striker Luis Suárez handled the ball to prevent it crossing the line for a goal. Suárez was correctly sent off and Ghana were awarded a penalty. Ghana missed the resultant penalty, which if scored, would have won the game. Former English Premier League referee Graham Poll suggests that the handball rules be changed and that goals should be given instead of penalty kicks in cases where a player stops the ball going into the net with his hand.
The goalkeeper is only entitled to handle the ball inside the penalty area. If the goalkeeper handles outside of this area, a free kick is awarded to the other team. If the goalkeeper prevents a goalscoring opportunity by handling the ball outside the area, the referee may issue a red card and the goalie will be sent off the field.
If a player deliberately handles the ball inside his or her own penalty area, a penalty kick will be awarded to the other team.
Playing the Advantage
A referee may decide to play the advantage in cases where a handball occurs but the advantage naturally falls to the team to whom the foul would be awarded. For example, if the flight of the ball continues in its intended direction after a handball and an attacking player receives the pass, the referee will allow play to continue so that the attack can continue.