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Fan Guide to Refereeing Part 2: Handling, Offside, and Advantage

Here are some guidelines for why refs do what they do (whether we agree with them or not).

John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

For those that missed Part 1 (covering VAR and yellow/red cards), you can find it here. A reminder of my caveats: first, I am not a ref, I’ve taken no refereeing classes, and all statements below are my understanding of the rules after many years of reading ref forums. If I get something wrong, feel free to point it out. Second, I fully understand that there are a number of fans (me included) who know very well the ref got it right and will still boo at times, both in an attempt to influence the ref for the rest of the game and just as an outlet for frustration. This column is not meant to stop that, just to explain so you know when you’re booing because the ref got it wrong and when you’re booing because you’re annoyed the ref got it right.


The key rule in soccer is that you can’t use your hands (goalkeepers aside), right? Well, that doesn’t mean that every time the ball touches a hand it’s a foul. The ref will take into account if the ball moved to the hand or if the hand moved to the ball and how close the ball was when it was kicked (or headed).

The real key to the rule is that it has to be a deliberate act of handling. Deliberate in this case means either moving the hand towards the ball or having the hand in a position that’s not “natural” for the play being made.

If a defender has his arms at his sides and the ball hits his hand, that’s not a foul. If the defender has his arm outstretched for balance and the attacker directly in front of him kicks the ball into his arm that’s (probably) not a foul as there was no time to react.

BUT if the defender dives on the ground with his arms overhead trying to block a shot and the shot hits his hands or arms, that’s a foul. He didn’t deliberately play the ball with his arm, but he did deliberately put his arms in an unnatural position. This is why you’ll see some defenders clasp their arms behind their back when defending in the box, to show the ref that their arms are out of the play so any incidental contact won’t be called.


Offside seems really straightforward but it becomes easy to get confused during play. A player is offside if, when his teammate played the ball, there are not at least two defenders between him and the goal line (being even counts as between).

There are three exceptions where this doesn’t apply.

  1. If the player receiving the ball is in his own half of the field when the ball is played, he can’t be offside.
  2. The second, if the player receiving the ball is behind the ball when it’s played he can’t be offside.
  3. The third, there’s no offside on a goal kick or throw-in.

Where things tend to get tricky is when the goalkeeper comes out. The general rule of thumb is that a player has to be even with the last defender, because 99% of the time the goalkeeper is behind the defender, which makes two defenders. If the keeper isn’t in his normal position, it becomes the second defender the attacker has to be even with.

Another place where people get tripped up is that offside only applies when the ball is played by a teammate. If a defender deliberately plays a ball, the attackers can’t be offside. (It must be a deliberate play though, a random deflection off a defender doesn’t count.)

The last piece of the puzzle is passive offside. A player is only called for offside if they are actively involved in the play. Actively involved is defined as interfering with an opponent, interfering with the play, or gaining an advantage from being offside. This is why, when a player is clearly offside on a long ball, the ref won’t signal for offside until the player actually plays the ball.

It’s also how a player can be offside near the goal but if he doesn’t play the ball or block the goalkeeper from playing the ball offside, it isn’t called if a goal is scored. That same player would be called for offside, though, if the shot rebounded off the goalpost and the offside player knocks it in as he gained an advantage from his position.


The last area I want to cover is the idea of advantage. If you ever see a clear foul that isn’t called but you see the ref following the play with his arm up in the air (until recently the signal was both arms in the air), that’s the ref acknowledging the foul but deciding that the fouled team has a better advantage in keeping the play going than stopping play for a free kick.

Quite often I look at that judgement and wonder what the ref is thinking (or vice versa, wondering why he didn’t call advantage when it was clearly the better call) but it’s a legitimate call. The ref can call advantage on any foul, though you will almost never see it on something that would be a penalty or a red card as it’s hard to justify that any continuing play is better than a PK or a send off. On a yellow card foul, the ref may call advantage, but he can then come back and issue the yellow at the next stoppage of play (but not after that stoppage). So advantage isn’t a get out of jail free call for the player who committed the foul.