As a soccer referee, you can always expect to hear someone - a player, a coach, a parent - yell "hand ball" every game, even when there's no contact! And when there is contact with the ball, the chorus is even louder, but as a referee, you have to determine if the contact was deliberate. Hint: It usually isn't.
From the USSF Advice to Referees:
12.9 DELIBERATE HANDLING The offense known as "handling the ball" involves deliberate contact with the ball by a player's hand or arm (including fingertips, upper arm, 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. A player infringes the Law regarding handling the ball even if direct contact is avoided by holding something in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.).
Some points to stress. Contact with the upper shoulder is OK. Whether the player gained an advantage from purely accidental contact is irrelevant. Understanding when an arm is in a normal playing position is important. Recognizing instinctive responses from deliberate choices is critical.
Myth #1: There is a persistent myth that female players may “protect the chest” by raising their arms and deliberately taking chest traps on their forearms. There is a clear difference between an instinctive movement of the arms when the ball is fired from close range, and choosing to use the forearms to make a trap. The former is legal, and the latter is not, regardless of age. If there was time to make a decision, then there was time to avoid contact with the arms.
Myth #2: There is a myth that anytime the arm is away from the body it is denying space to the opponent, so contact with the ball is considered deliberate. While this is frequently true, especially for arms raised above the head, there are instances when a players arms are outstretched in a normal position and contact may be purely accidental. For instance, a player running rapidly will have his arms swaying forward and back. A player jumping up to head a ball will have arms away from the body for balance. A player falling to the ground will instinctively use his arms to break the fall. In such cases, the referee needs to consider other factors, such as whether the player could see the ball coming and could reasonably be expected to avoid contact.
Mastering the laws of the game takes significant time and effort both on the field, in discussion, and on the written page. Many questions can be answered by a close reading of the recently updated 2013 USSF Advice to Referees.
Until you actually experience a situation on the field, you may not fully appreciate how the Laws address it or how experienced referees handle it. Confusion often results from well established myths, bad habits of misinformed referees, and differences between the rules for US Soccer, High School Soccer, and College Soccer. Even local leagues adapt the rules to their particular needs. Excellent referees are learning and reviewing all the time.
Starting in 2013, USSF has raised the minimum ages for referees certifying for the first time. Grade 9 referees (recreation) must now be age 14 on the first day of class. Grade 8 referees (travel) must now be 16 on the first day of class. For more information on USSF certitication in NJ visit www.njrefs.com. Teenagers interested in officiating just for the local HVSA recreation games, should be at least 14 in the current calendar year and obtain a USSF Grade 9 referee license. For more information, contact our referee coordinator at