Handball in 5 lessons : the rules of the game


29 December 2016

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Until the beginning of the 2017 World Championship, we offer you to revise your handball lessons. This second lesson is dedicated to the rules of the game.

At a World Championship or for an amateur game, handball takes place in the same area : a 40 meter-long, 20 meter-wide field, divided in two parts, with a 3 meter-wide goal on each end, surrounded by a quarter circle with a radius of six meters, which is called the zone. Two teams of seven players are facing in this area, each one on one side of the court, with the aim of scoring into the opponent’s goal. Substitutions are allowed and unlimited. From these starting points, several laws rule the proceedings of a handball game.

Travelling and double dribble

The ball’s progress on the field has to follow some rules. The player are not allowed to do more than three steps with the ball in hand, and when he is still, he can’t keep the ball more than three seconds, enlightens Edouard Mikolajczyk, who is the rules of the game’s referent at the Central Refereeing Committee of FFHandball. To progress with the ball, the player can dribble, which is bouncing the ball on the floor.” If the player stops dribbling, and then resumes it, a double dribble is called against him and the ball goes to the opposite team.

Passive play

Handball’s aim is to score goals, so the team which is possessing the ball must show some signs of their attacking will, otherwise the ball is given back to the opponent. The player with the ball in hand must show that he is attacking his opponent, which means he’s trying to outflank him, clarifies Edouard Mikolajczyk. If he doesn’t do that, he’s coming into passive play. The referee rises his hand as a warning sign, and then, the attacking team only get maximum six passes to score. This last rule was instaured in 2016 by IHF. Before that, the decision was made by the referee.

The penalty scale

Opposition between offense and defense creates some unavoidable body contacts. The attacking player comes into contact by trying to outflank or to shoot, and the defending player tries not to be outflanked, summarizes Edouard Mikolajczyk. In order to do so, some things are allowed, and some other are not. The defender can pull off or hit the ball when his opponent is holding it in his hands, he can stand in his way with his hands, arms and legs, but only head-on. He can get in front of his opponent, and even hold him if it’s not dangerous.” If the defender follow these rules, but with too much intensity, a foul can be called, which gives a free-throw for the attacking team. An offensive foul can also be called on the attacking team, when a player brutally strikes the defense.


This fouls are usually just punished with a free-throw, but the referee can warn the players with the yellow card, if the defender is not exactly facing the attacking player and grab him by the arm, if he grabs him by the jersey, or if he pushes the opposing player with his body.” A warning can also be issued for a series of fouls, or for unsporting behaviour in and off the court (inopportune demonstrations, insults, dangerous moves).

Two-minute suspension

From the second yellow card, the referee can give the concerned player a two-minute suspension. In theory, the penalty scale is gradual, each player can be warned three times, but in practice, the referee can directly decide a two-minute suspension if he judges the foul is worth it“, adds Edouard Mikolajczyk.

Among the fouls which are liable to a direct two-minute suspension, you have high-intensity or fast-moving irregularities, but also strongly holding the opponent over a significant period of time and then throw him to the floor, which is happening quite frequently.” If one player gets three two-minute suspensions during the same game, he is shown the red card and gets ejected.


A red card can also be directly given by the referee in some cases, when the head, the neck or the shooting arm is hit, as the fouled player is hanging in the air. “When the foul is particularly brutal, dangerous, intentional or perfidious, the referee can go a step further and show the blue card, which means ejection and opening of a disciplinary action after the game“, explains Edouard Mikolajczyk.

But it must be kept in mind that this theorical penalty scale has to be adapted to each game’s reality. The referee must alter his reading of the game and his sanctions according to the balance of power, which is not the same for a World Championship final and for a third division game, underlines Edouard Mikolajczyk. The foul won’t be very different, but the way to do it will be. Among the decision-making criteria, you have the position of the player who commits the irregularity, in relation to his opponent. Was he coming head-on, from the side or from behind ? Was the fouled player standing, or hanging in the air ? Which body part was hit ? Referees have to consider all these elements, and also the intensity of the foul and its impact on continuity of play.

Seven-meter throws

In some situations, a penalty shot can be given to the attacking team. “A penalty shot is called when a player in a clear goal situation is fouled, clarifies Edouard Mikolajczyk. Typically, when the attacking player is heading towards goal, and the defender behind him grabs him, a penalty shot is called. It is also forbidden to put your foot in the zone. For a defender, it can be punished with a penalty shot. When an attacking player encroaches upon the zone, a foul is called against him and the ball is given back to the opponent.

New rules

In addition to the new passive play rule and to the blue card (see elsewhere), three other new rules were instaured by IHF in 2016.

One of them only applies during the last 30 seconds of the game. When the ball is not in play, all cynical acts (like pushing the ball out of the field or grab an opponent to delay the throw-off) are punished with a penalty shot and a red card. When the ball is in play, if a foul which is liable to ejection is committed, the referee automatically gives a penalty shot, wherever the spot of the foul on the field.

Another new rule is targetting the more or less feigned injuries. From the moment the referee authorizes the trainers to enter the field, the injured player has to leave the court, and then wait three team attacks to get back in play. In practice, referees first invite the player on the floor to get back on his feet, which he does most often, explains Edouard Mikolajczyk. Since this new rule appeared, the players spend less time lying on the floor after a contact.

Finally, the last rule is an extension of the one that allowed the shorthanded team to play without a goalkeeper during power play. It is now allowed to do that at any time during the game, following two options : with the strip, then the player wearing the strip will be allowed to play as a goalkeeper if needed ; and without the strip, then no field player is allowed to enter the zone, and the team have to make a substitution to let the goalkeeper come back in play.