Seeing red in the land of green, yellow and blue

The World Cup has kicked off and it may help to know that three South American countries are top of the league for the most number of red cards given to a national team: Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Sadly, red cards have become a matter of tactics rather than discipline. What does that say about the beautiful game?

There are puns about football in Shakespeare, but no red cards:

“Am I so round with you, as you with me,
That like a football you do spurn me thus?”, Dromio asks his mistress Adriana in The Comedy of Errors.

Fouls and misconduct in association football are acts committed by players that the referee decides are against the rules and penalizes. An offence may be a foul, misconduct or both depending on its nature and the circumstances. Fouls are punished by the award of a free-kick (direct or indirect depending on the offence) or a penalty kick to the opposing team.

Misconduct involves a serious foul or violence and results in the player either receiving a caution (a yellow card) or being sent off (a red card). With a caution, the player’s details are recorded by the referee in a small notebook. Hence, a caution is also known as a booking.

The system of cautioning and sending off has existed for decades, but language-neutral coloured cards originated with British referee Ken Aston, who got the idea sitting in his car at a red traffic light. The first use of the cards was in the 1970 FIFA World Cup, but they were not made mandatory at all levels until 1982.

A player who has been red-carded must leave the field of play immediately and take no further part in the game. Only players, substitutes and substituted players can receive a red card. If a team’s goalkeeper gets one, another player will be allowed to assume goalkeeping duties.

Law 12 of the Laws of the Game lists the categories of misconduct for which a player may be sent off. These are:

  • Serious foul play (a violent foul)
  • Violent conduct (any other act of violence) e.g. assaulting the referee.
  • Spitting at anyone or another player
  • A deliberate handling offense to deny an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by any player other than a goalkeeper in his own penalty area
  • Committing an offence that denies an opponent an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (also known as a professional foul)
  • Using offensive, insulting or abusive language or gestures
  • Receiving a second caution (yellow card) in the same game

RedIn most tournaments, a single direct red card (i.e. not one received as a result of two successive yellow ones) results in disqualification for one or more subsequent matches. The exact number of matches varies according to the offence committed and by jurisdiction. Should a team’s players receive a total of five red cards, they will be unable to field the required minimum of seven players and the match will be abandoned.

For the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the rules were changed so that any player who received two yellow cards between the beginning of the tournament and the end of the quarter-final round would serve a one-match suspension for the next game. As a result, only players that received two yellow cards or a straight red card in the semi-final game would not be able to play in the final.

It has become a game of tactics and maths to work out when to risk a serious foul and a sending off. Some players deliberately foul and this unsportsmanlike behaviour is largely condoned by the public and to some extent by FIFA. It is a forlorn hope that this World Cup will not be seeing red.


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