Skip to Content
The Pitch is Ours is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Read more

Can You Use Your Elbows in Soccer?

Can You Use Your Elbows in Soccer?

Have you ever been hit with an elbow accidentally or otherwise when participating in sports? How did it make you feel? Just imagine if unlimited use of elbows were allowed in soccer just as tackling is allowed in rugby and American football.

A lot of soccer players have been cautioned because of the use of elbows while playing. Even the masters of the dark arts like Gennaro Gattuso and Sergio Ramos could not apply this tactic and go scot-free.

In the modern game, they are ultra high definition cameras with different angles and replay technology that captures every single incident. Maybe this has compelled more players to play with a tad more caution.

When all is said and done, soccer is a contact sport. Now, let us look at the use of elbows in soccer and the different incidents where it is applied even subconsciously.

Brutal Elbows in Football ● HD ●

Can you use your elbows in soccer?

The general rule of thumb is the use of elbows is not allowed. However, there are times when the use of elbows occurs during play. The trouble comes in when looking to strike a balance so that its usage is not deemed as dangerous play.

1. Contesting headers 

In every game, soccer players jump, especially when heading the ball. It is common for two players to contest the same ball in the air.

2 soccer players are 'fighting' for the ball in the air

In order to win that contest, sometimes elbows are used to elevate the jump. An ideal scenario is when both players come out of the jump unharmed.

The problem comes in if one of the players is significantly better than the other in aerial duels and ends up hitting the other player on the face or head with the trailing elbow.

In cases where both players are tangled up as a result of using the elbow while jumping together, the referee will deem it as a 50/50 or fair challenge. None of the players will be given a yellow card for this.

soccer players are in a match

2. During man-marking

As a former central defender, I vividly remember that my elbows at times locked together with my opponents especially during man-marking.

Our elbows would touch and it became a bit of a push and pull situation as a tactic to put off the opponent. This tactic could allow my teammates to clear the ball or send the message that I am in command of my zone on the defensive end.

3. For goalkeepers

A goalkeeper is flying to stop the ball

Goalkeepers can make saves with any part of the body including hands. Manchester United’s goalkeeper David De Gea is notorious for his athleticism and making saves with different body parts.

Imagine a situation where a goalkeeper dives to one side and the ball is deflected slightly. Sometimes the ball ricochets off the body and to the elbow. That is a legal save.

David De Gea's Top 10 Premier League Saves | Dave Saves | Manchester United

What about the rules?

The rules of the game are clear and outlined by the world soccer governing body Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

According to FIFA, a direct free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a player commits an offense. For example, if a player “jumps at an opponent and strikes or attempts to strike an opponent.”

2 female soccer players use their elbows to gain an advantage in the ball situation

So what this means is that it is down to the referees’ discretion to interpret events as they have happened. In both cases, elbows may have been involved and a player may even be booked or sent off.

A good example is Marouane Fellaini. His towering frame landed him in hot soup because he would at times elbow much shorter opponents when trying to shield the ball. A classic case is his elbowing incident with Pablo Zabaleta in a past highly charged match.

Marouane Fellaini Elbow Pablo Zabaleta

If the ball hits the elbow, then it is deemed to be a handball offense. When it is outside the box, then a free kick is awarded. The referee will have to interpret if the handball was deliberate for him or her to award a penalty. The hand should ideally be in a natural position.

We have seen penalties given if the elbow was outstretched with the intention of stopping the motion of the ball.

There are exceptions to the handball rule to which a player will not be penalized. One is if the ball hits a player’s arm/elbow directly from his or her own head or body.

Secondly, is if the player is on their side of the body and the ball hits the arm/elbow with the player showing no intention to make their body bigger.

Generally, it is recommended to avoid the use of elbows during the game as it could attract disciplinary sanctions.

Can you use any part of your arm in soccer?

The short answer to that is no. Outfield players cannot just use any part of their arms when on the field. Ideally, players are allowed to use their feet which is the primary body part.

Other body parts allowed are the head, chest and even shoulder. The upper arm is purported to be safe as well although there is some risk of conceding a penalty when it goes down to a referee’s view.

2 players are facing each other

The arms can be useful to the player when used correctly to avoid any kind of action from the referee.


The arms are great for shielding the ball from an opponent. This helps a soccer player maintain ball possession and balance in case he or she is being hassled from behind.

Paul Pogba is one of the most skillful midfielders in the world. He utilizes various techniques including the arms to enhance ball retention even from multiple players.

How to Shield the Ball in Soccer! | Tips

Exception is a goalie!

Goalkeepers are permitted to use any part of the arm so long they are inside the 18-yard box. They will not be penalized. If they use arms outside the box, a free kick is given with the possibility of caution or sending off.

If the handball is accidental then a free kick is given. If there is no clear goal scoring opportunity and the goalkeeper handles the ball, then a yellow card is issued and a free kick.

However, a goalkeeper will be sent off if he or she handles the ball outside the box intentionally and this action prevents a clear goal scoring opportunity.

Goalkeepers Saving Ball OUTSIDE of the Penalty Box - Red Cards

There is a loophole to the rules for outfield players. Always ensure that your arms are close to the body as opposed to lifted or stretched when defending.

Even if the ball strikes you and the arm was close to the body, it will show that it was unintentional. Therefore, the referee is not obligated to stop play for a penalty or a free kick.

Player safety is always prioritized but the rule book won’t protect you if you try to use your arms to protect your face against the ball.

Cristiano Ronaldo paid the price for trying to do so during the Manchester derby in 2008. He mistimed his jump for a header and used his arms to parry the ball which was going to hit his face. Referee Howard Webb issued a second yellow card and he was off.

Cristiano Ronaldo Vs Manchester City ● Manchester United ● 2008-2009 ● 1080i HD


There are guidelines in the rule book to determine what part of the arm can be used during which play and for which type of player. The use of elbows in soccer generally borders on a dangerous play which can attract a referee’s attention.

Only goalkeepers can use elbows and any part of the body when playing inside their designated zone. When a ball hits your elbow when your hand is high or stretched out, then a referee can blow the whistle for a free kick or even worse, a penalty.

If a soccer player must do desperate last-minute defending, he or she must ensure their hands are tucked behind their back. This move will not attract any referee call as the hands will be seen as being in their natural position.