What are red and yellow cards in football?

What are red and yellow cards in football?

In almost any game of organised football, the referee will be seen holding up cards that are either bright red or yellow in colour, but what do these cards actually mean?

Yellow and red cards are used by the referee to punish players who break the rules of the game and to control the game. Yellow and red cards also assist with providing suspensions to players who continually receive yellow and red cards during games. 

A yellow card acts as a warning and is also known as a caution. 

A player may continue to play in the match after receiving a first yellow card, but a second yellow will see them removed from the pitch, leaving their team with one less player.

To send a player off the pitch, the referee must brandish a red card. A red is shown immediately after a player receives their second yellow card, or, for more serious offences, directly to a player who hasn’t already received a yellow. 

Once sent off, a player may not return to the pitch for the rest of the match.

How are red and yellow cards given out?

There are many offences that may warrant a yellow or red card, varying from unsporting behaviour to reckless play endangering the safety of others, or even the use of offensive language.

Who can receive a yellow and red card? 

It is not just the 22 players on the pitch that can receive yellow and red cards. The referee is in charge of the behaviour of the players and staff who are on the sidelines. That means substitutes, coaches and managers can also receive a card. 

If a coach aims abusive language at a referee or an official, they may receive a red card and be sent away from the dugout at the side of the pitch.

Red cards aren’t incredibly common. Around 80% of games across Europe’s top 5 football leagues (England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France) end without the referee sending anyone off. 

Yellow cards, meanwhile, are given out on a much more frequent basis. At the professional level you can expect to see three to four yellow cards per match, on average, although this figure varies across different leagues around the world.

When were cards introduced?

Yellow and red cards weren’t used in football until the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico after the idea was put forward by English referee Ken Aston, who was part of the FIFA Referees Committee.

Before 1970, referees still had the power to issue warnings to players and send them off, but there was a lack of clarity surrounding these decisions. The issue was made worse at World Cups when language barriers could make it impossible for referees to communicate their decisions to players.

Inspired by the British traffic light system, Aston came up with red and yellow cards as internationally recognisable symbols that make refereeing decisions perfectly clear to spectators and players alike.

After the new system’s trial was deemed successful by FIFA in 1970, it was adopted in leagues across the world during the following decade.

Why might players want to receive a yellow card?

Earning a yellow card in a match is used to caution players, but has no immediate repercussions. Professional footballers often use this fact to gain an advantage during a match by committing what is known as a tactical foul. 

As long as they don’t pick up a second yellow card later in the game, players are sometimes happy to receive their first caution in order to halt an opposition attack. Players may decide to ‘take a yellow’ if there isn’t much time left in a close game or to stop a potential goal opportunity for the opposing team. Since the introduction of VAR players are increasingly careful of the use of this approach as they run the risk of receiving a red card for a bad timed tackle or for an offence which they may have personally deemed a yellow card. 

Tactical fouls often come in the form of tripping up an opposing player who has the ball or pulling at their shirt to stop them progressing. The resulting free kick buys time for the defending team to get back into position.

Accumulating too many yellow cards

In order to punish players who regularly commit tactical fouls, as well as those who often receive yellow cards for any other reason, thresholds are in place which trigger player suspensions.

These thresholds vary depending on the league or competition. Tournaments like the World Cup, African Nations Cup and the Euros have different rules regarding yellow and red cad suspensions to national league competitions. 

Due to the relatively few matches that are played at a World Cup – a maximum of 7 per team – players are suspended for one match after they receive a yellow card in two separate games. However, the count for all players is wiped clean when only four teams remain.

When it comes to contests that are played over a whole season, the rules are different. In the English Premier League, players will receive a one match suspension if they accumulate a total of 5 yellow cards in the first half of the season (before their 20th match).

Additionally, if they pick up 10 cautions in their first 32 games, the ban is increased to 2 matches. Bans in English football are limited to the competition in which they are earned. Players cannot serve their ban in, for example, an FA cup fixture if the offence was committed in the Premier league, as these are two separate competitions. This is often a source of frustration for clubs that are involved in several competitions during the season.

But these thresholds are not universally identical. Each league across the world enforces its own variation of the rules regarding the accumulation of yellow cards, with some being stricter than others. A number of European leagues are looking at adopting a stricter stance with the aim of reducing the number of tactical fouls being committed.

Can players be fined for receiving a card?

The United States’ Major League Soccer (MLS) takes an unorthodox approach in modern professional football by issuing players with a fine when they reach a certain number of cautions. Realistically, though, having to pay $250 for a fifth yellow card is not going to put off many professionals who already earn thousands a week.

In other leagues where players are not fined by the league for picking up cards, clubs may operate an internal punishment system for players who act out of line on the pitch. Punishments vary from club to club. Whilst some clubs will have an internal fine system for players that receive yellow and red cards.

Monetary sanctions are also very common in amateur football alongside time based bans. Many countries charge low-league players and even children for each card they receive. The UK’s Football Association (FA) issues fines of up to £55 for serious misconduct during amateur matches, on top of a ban.

Less severe offences, such as the receipt of a yellow card, can still come with a fine of £10 or more, which can see certain amateur players pay a hefty sum over the course of a season.


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