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IFAB Releases 2021/22 Handball Law Changes

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Hope these ones last a full season before they’re revised.

General view of the IFAB logo.
General view of the IFAB logo.
Photo by Jamie Gardner/PA Images via Getty Images

In a presentation today, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) released, among other things, the changes to the handball rule that will go into effect for the 2021/22 season.

In general, the additional language and alterations would seem to further limit what constitutes a handball, which follows the pattern of last season’s changes, but to make these decisions more dependent on the officials’ understanding of a given situation.

Accidental handballs that lead to the immediate creation of goals are no longer to be considered an offense; instead, accidental handballs in the buildup are only an offense if a goal is scored immediately after this contact or a goal is scored with the accidental handball. (Last season, it was also an offense if a chance was created immediately after such accidental contact.)

Deliberate handballs in the buildup will remain an offense, however, so that Roberto Firmino handball in the buildup that everyone often brings up would remain an offense under these new rules.

The major additions to the rule language clarify what it is meant by making the body “unnaturally bigger.” The new language is as follows:

A player is considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger when the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation. By having their hand/arm in such a position, the player takes a risk of their hand/arm being hit by the ball and being penalised.

This language asks the officials to make their own subjective judgement around what arm positionings appear “valid” or explainable based on their view of the players’ actions — an ask which will likely lead to a lot of VAR handball debates next season (even if this is largely what officials were already being asked to do).

The law no longer specifies that particular positionings are inherently unnatural (i.e. the removed language of “the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level,” which codified specific movements as unnatural by default) or that particular movements are always not an offense (i.e. the removed language specifying that it should not be an offense if “when a player falls and the hand/arm is between the body and the ground to support the body, but not extended laterally or vertically away from the body”). As such, there will likely be more gray areas in handballs that occur in these movements/positionings next season, as more discretion has been given to referees.

Also removed is language describing deflections or contact to the arm when the ball is played from quite nearby, language that was itself a relatively recent addition to the law seeking to account for the fact that it’s often impossible to move one’s arm away from a ball in such close proximity.

The assumption that players cannot always get their arms out of the way is, of course, covered in spirit in the broader move to have the officials judge the “validity” of a player’s arm positioning in every single case, but as it’s not written explicitly it may be that we see more deflection handballs than we have in the past two seasons (though obviously it’s hard to judge before we’ve seen the law in practice).

As always, though, expect handball law changes to be pivotal in the season’s VAR debates, and expect fans and pundits alike to not quite understand the law’s language.

Want more detail? The language of the law changes for the 2021/22 season, including the handball law, can be found here.

TLDR? Here’s a neat explanation of the handball law changes from IFAB:

Not every contact between the hand/arm and the ball is a handball offence.

Referees must judge the ‘validity’ of the hand/arm’s position in relation to what the player is doing in that particular situation.

Accidental handball by a team-mate before a goal is scored and accidental handball creating a goal-scoring opportunity have been removed as offences.

The new laws go into effect on 1 July.