According to IFAB's recent changes to the rules:

It is usually an offence if a player:

  • touches the ball with their hand/arm when:
    • the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger
    • the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level (unless the player deliberately plays the ball which then touches their hand/arm)

Scenario One

If I interpret the rules correctly, this sequence of events usually constitute a handball offence:

  1. Player A's arm is above the shoulder, with his back facing the ball.
  2. Player B (could be from either team) plays the ball.
  3. The ball travels and touches player A's arm.

It does not matter why Player A's arm was raised above his shoulder. Perhaps, he was sitting on the floor after a tackle left him injured, and he had an arm raised towards his team bench signalling for help.

It also does not matter why Player B played the ball towards Player A's arm.

It is usually a handball since this condition is met: ball touches a player's hand/arm when it is above their shoulder. And he did not deliberately play the ball prior to it touching his arm.

Strictly speaking, As long as the ref has not stopped the game, a handball offence should usually be called in the above sequence.

Scenario Two

This is where it gets a little weird:

  1. Player A's arm is above the shoulder, with the ball at his feet.
  2. Player A plays the ball deliberately into the air (e.g. he lobs the ball up).
  3. The ball travels vertically up and it touches his arm.

This will NOT be a handball since the clause in parentheses explicitly excludes the scenario where the player deliberately played the ball prior to the ball touching his hand/arm.

Perhaps, the player did not mean to deliberate handle the ball. Maybe he was trying to lob the ball to a team mate, but poor technique or the wind carried the ball vertically towards his unusual raised arm.

I understand that in an actual game, it is highly unlikely that a player will execute this sequence of events. But why is it allowed?

I don't understand why the rules were worded this way. It seems to be allowing a very unusual special case of a player's arm/hand touching the ball, while penalising quite accidental cases.

I think it would have been fine (albeit a little rigid) if the rule makers just left out the part in parentheses. So why did they add this confusing part? What is the motivation behind this special exclusion? What are the examples?

Link to the relevant section of the Laws of the Game: http://theifab.com/laws/chapter/32/section/92/

  • 1
    Hi light - welcome to Sports SE. This is a good question. Please note that when linking to the Laws of the Game, a direct link to the IFAB website should be used - see PSA: Please stop using outdated rules for more information. I've made this change. Aug 15, 2019 at 3:22
  • Thanks for the help. I have further edited the question to reflect the actual wording from the updated link.
    – light
    Aug 15, 2019 at 10:21

2 Answers 2


As a bit of background to this wording, I'd argue that raising your arms above your shoulder probably would have been sufficiently covered under the prohibition regarding touching the ball with the hand/arm while being unnaturally bigger (covered by the previous subclause).

It is usually an offence if a player:

  • touches the ball with their hand/arm when:

    • the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger


However, IFAB have decided that it's important to explicitly make hands/arms above the shoulder usually1 a handball offence. This was probably to ensure that in the unlikely event that a referee felt that this incident, this incident or even this incident were not deliberate handlings or handling while unnaturally bigger, they would still be forced to usually1 penalise it simply based on position of the arm.

As such, the exception in parentheses regarding deliberately playing the ball first is important, as it prevents players who move their arms out of the way of the ball (including above their shoulder) to control the ball with a different part of their body from being punished if the ball accidentally deflects into their arm.

In this clip at roughly 0:50, the player moves his arm away from his chest to provide for balance and ensure the arm isn't struck by the ball. The ball unpredictably bounces into the ground and back into his outstretched arm. In this example, the arm isn't above the shoulder when it was struck, but if it had been, the exception would have applied here, preventing the referee from punishing the player for accidentally touching the ball with the arm raised above the shoulder.

While this example would have been punished under the current Laws for the handling resulting in a goalscoring opportunity, had it occured up the other end of the field, it usually1 wouldn't be punished.

1 - usually isn't really helpful wording as it's likely to lead to increased inconsistency, but this is the word IFAB have chosen for most of the guidance on what is / isn't a handball offence.

  • The explanation by IFAB states that a player is "taking a risk" by having their arm raised above the shoulder as it is an unnatural position. So if a player tried to move their hand above the shoulders "out of the way of the ball", they would have been considered to be "taking a risk". Ironically, if a player just maintained their arms by the side, even if the ball struck them, it wouldn't have been handball (unless it led to a goal or a goal scoring opportunity).
    – light
    Aug 15, 2019 at 10:32
  • Anyway, I agree that usually is a vague term. Personally, this set of rule changes made me more confused than ever. It feels like many gray areas remain unclarified, and a lot of weird exceptions are made (like the one I highlighted).
    – light
    Aug 15, 2019 at 10:37
  • If IFAB considered players who move their arms out of the way of the ball (above their shoulder) to be "taking a risk", then this exception would not be present. The arms above the shoulder is designed to punish players who stand like this for no good reason, unnecessarily increasing the change of their arm being struck by the ball. It doesn't make sense to punish players who are in this position naturally - i.e. to play the ball, and then unfortunately have the ball rebound into their arm. Aug 16, 2019 at 3:55
  • While we're commenting on the rule, I think it would have been better just to have referees enforce the old Law as written - if this had occurred, all confusion would have been gone within a season or two. Unfortunately, referees at the top level of the game thought they were smarter than the law makers and started punishing handlings that were non-deliberate, and that's why we have this sorry, confusing and inconsistent mess that we have now. IFAB chose the path of least reistance by making the lower levels of the game follow what was practice at the top. Aug 16, 2019 at 3:57

I actually got in touch with IFAB to ask them this question. This is their reply:

Thank you for your question. If a player is deliberately playing the ball then the arm may be above the shoulder as part of the body's natural movement/balance to play the ball. This is not the case when not deliberately playing the ball.

I suspect this is what they are referring to:

arm above shoulder when crossing the ball

  • 2
    The majority of cases where a player would play the ball with an arm high, which is then hit by the ball, would be if trying to head the ball, not kicking it.
    – Nij
    Aug 27, 2019 at 19:25
  • I did a quick Google image search for "heading the ball" and from what I see, most attempts to head the ball do not involve arms raised higher than shoulder. In contrast, attempts to cross or hit a long pass (Google "crossing the ball"), mostly involve arms raised to shoulder level, and sometimes above the shoulder, like the Beckham image above.
    – light
    Aug 28, 2019 at 2:37
  • I'm not saying the majority of balls played with arm high will be a head or chest, I'm saying that the majority of those attempted plays where the ball hits the high arm will not be from kicks. In fact, I would expect it nearly impossible for any player, kicking the ball from the ground, to actually hit their own arm above the shoulder at all.
    – Nij
    Aug 28, 2019 at 4:18
  • I also feel that it is nearly impossible for players kicking the ball from the ground to somehow have the ball hit their arm above the shoulder. But if we look at it objectively, majority of the situations where the arm is above the shoulder when attempting to play the ball is when a player is attempting to kick. Most attempts to play using head/chest have arms much lower.
    – light
    Aug 28, 2019 at 5:28
  • @Nij I don't quite understand what you are trying to say, or not trying to say w.r.t. the head/chest part. Your earlier comment "The majority of cases where a player would play the ball with an arm high, which is then hit by the ball, would be if trying to head the ball, not kicking it", and the latest one "I'm not saying the majority of balls played with arm high will be a head or chest" seem to contradict.
    – light
    Aug 28, 2019 at 5:30

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