Most fouls on a soccer field are fouls only by degree. Actions during the run of play are, in large measure, harmless in themselves. They become fouls only if done in an unfair manner.
A few acts, however, are deemed fouls whenever they take place?regardless of how or why they occur. One kind of act is the foul of deliberately handling the ball?commonly known as a ?handball.?
Deliberately handling the ball
Among all fouls arising during the course of the game, handballs?or deliberately handling the ball, in the terminology of the Laws?may well cause the most disagreements, misunderstandings, and trouble for the referee.
Handling is the only foul not committed against an opposing player. It is, instead, committed against the opposing team. But it is also the only penal foul requiring a deliberate intent by the player committing the foul. The foul is not, after all, ?letting the ball touch the hand? but rather ?deliberately handling the ball.? Consequently, it is often said that if the ball plays the hand it is not a foul, but if the hand plays the ball, then it is.
This rule of thumb is, however, much more easily said than put into practice. In addition, it also conflicts with the far more conventional rule, which is loudly proclaimed by players, coaches, and spectators around the world: If it hits the hand of an opposing player, it is a handball. But given the fact that most players are blessed with at least two arms?which must be placed somewhere during the course of a match, if only to be available for throw-ins?it would be unfair to penalize players for accidental touches which are neither intended nor avoidable. A few moments of thought should be enough for us to understand the basic concepts:
Above all else, handling fouls require deliberate contact between the ball and a player?s hand or arm. This means that the player either chose not to avoid touching the ball or placed his arms in an unnatural playing position to make it likely that he would touch the ball. And there are many aspects of hand-to-ball contact for the referee to consider when deciding whether a handball is deliberate. An uneven playing surfaces can cause the ball to deflect at odd angles, making it hard for players to know how it will bounce. Players who are unchallenged in the open field have no incentive to handle the ball, since it will be easily detected?which often suggests an unintentional handling, especially on the fields where the playing surface itself not quite putting-green smooth. On the other hand, because players intending to commit a foul often try to hide their actions from the officials, many intentional handballs will occur just out of sight of the referee, a factor which makes cooperation between the officials all-the-more essential.
But rather than trying to devise an intricate formula, we can best understand the principles by cases of what handling is not:
What Handling is NOT:
A player who moves the arms instinctively to protect a sensitive area of the body from the sudden approach of the ball does not commit a foul.
A ball that deflects off a player?s hand or arm from a shot or pass taken a few feet away is not a foul?unless the player has deliberately placed the arm in an unnatural position, hoping to block the pass. (However, placing the arms or hands over a sensitive area of the body?particularly while standing in the wall at a free kick?is not, by any stretch of the imagination, unnatural).
A player who is looking the other way when the ball strikes his arm has not committed a foul.
A ball that has innocently struck the arm of a player does not magically turn become a foul merely by falling in a place that happens to benefit that player.
On the other hand....the player who using his arm after an initial, innocent touch to keep control over the ball is committing a handling foul.
And the referee will probably start wondering just how innocent a hand-ball contact is if the ball is constantly dropping in a convenient place for the same player in the same game.
Jeffrey Caminsky, a veteran public prosecutor in Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. Both his science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the first volume in the Guardians of Peace (tm) science fiction adventure series, and The Referee?s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating, are published by New Alexandria Press, http://www.newalexandriapress.com.