What are Red and Yellow Cards in Soccer?

Dear Sports Fan,

What are red and yellow cards in soccer? How do they work?


Donovan Yellow
Soccer players, like Landon Donovan here, often react with disbelief when given a card.

— — —

Dear Paul,

Cards are soccer’s answer to fouling out in basketball. They are representative of a two stage process that allows a referee to punish misbehaving players with one of the most punitive measures in sports. If a player receives one red card or two yellow cards within the same game, that player is thrown out of the game (“sent off the pitch” or just “sent off” in soccer terms) and his team must play the remainder of the game with one fewer player than they started with. This can mean that a team plays 10 on 11 for 30, 60, or 75 minutes. That’s a long time to play down a man and soccer is already the sport that allows for the fewest substitutions (only two) during a game. It can make for some very tired players.

In World Cup competition, the penalties for receiving cards have implications beyond the game a player receives them in. Any ejection from a game due to a red card or two yellows carries with it an automatic one game suspension that must be served the next time the team plays. Suspensions based on red cards can be lengthened by soccer’s governing body, FIFA. Two yellow cards in different games can also result in a one game suspension if they come between the first game of the tournament and the quarterfinal game. After that, the yellow card counts reset so that any player “carrying” a single yellow card from earlier in the tournament doesn’t have to worry about picking up another in the semifinals and thereby missing the final match. The fact that red and yellow cards carry such enormous penalties probably accentuates soccer’s already dive-happy culture by rewarding players who can trick a referee into giving their opponent a card.

There aren’t really specific fouls that necessitate a red or yellow card, it is up to the referee’s discretion, but there are two key themes which the website football-bible.com does a nice job explaining: violence and “unfairly denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.” Violence can come in a few different forms. A player could get a card for being a little too violent intentionally or unintentionally within the course of play, like tripping a player from behind or sliding into an opponent with the studs on his boot facing dangerously up. Likewise, a player could be given a card for being violent in a non-soccer kind of way. Perhaps the most infamous example of this is Zinedine Zidane head-butting an Italian player in the 2006 World Cup Finals. As for “unfairly” denying the opponent an “obvious goal-scoring opportunity,” this could come in the form of tripping a player when he has a clear path to the goal or reaching out and deflecting the ball with your hand as it’s flying towards the goal.

Soccer is not the only sport that uses penalty cards. Wikipedia has a fascinating entry that lists a bunch of sports from volleyball to field hockey to race walking to rugby that uses yellow and red cards as markers of penalties. It also describes the use of other penalty cards like the green card (a lesser warning than a yellow card,) the blue and white cards used in bandy to denote a five or ten minute penalty (editors note: what the hell is bandy,) and the black card used in fencing and badminton for only the worst infringements that require immediate expulsion from play.

In moments of idle reflection, I like to imagine red and yellow cards worming their way out of sports and into everyday life. I dream of being able to halt a disruptive colleague in a meeting by holding up a yellow card. I think it would be great to be able to red card someone who merges badly and have him or her sent off the highway. If you could, how would you use penalty cards in real life?

I hope this has shed some light on the subject of red and yellow cards in soccer for you. Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

To celebrate and prepare for the World Cup in Brazil, Dear Sports Fan is publishing a set of posts explaining elements of soccer. We hope you enjoy posts like Why do People Like Soccer? How Does the World Cup WorkWhy Do Soccer Players Dive so Much? and What is a Penalty Kick in Soccer? The 2014 World Cup in Brazil begins on June 12 and ends on July 13.

What is a Penalty Kick in Soccer?

To celebrate and prepare for the World Cup in Brazil, Dear Sports Fan is publishing a set of posts explaining elements of soccer. We hope you enjoy posts like Why do People Like Soccer? How Does the World Cup Work? and Why Do Soccer Players Dive so Much? The 2014 World Cup in Brazil begins on June 12 and ends on July 13.

baggio kick
The weight of a country’s hopes weighs down penalty kick takers in the World Cup.

Soccer is often called the beautiful game because it consists of almost constant fluid motion by twenty two players; because of the way players seem to dance over the ball to fake each other out; because of the way the ball dips and swerves when shot with power. So why is it that so much of the scoring involved in the game happens when one player starts from a stand-still right in front of the goalie and takes an unobstructed shot?

A penalty kick is an unobstructed shot on goal taken 12 yards from the center of the goal with only the goalie present to stop the shooter. It is awarded to the attacking team when they are fouled within the big rectangular area called the penalty box or the 18-yard box. Penalty kicks are often decisive moments in a soccer game because soccer is such a low scoring game and penalty kicks so frequently result in goals. In the World Cup, penalty kick competitions called shoot-outs are used to determine the winner of a game in the knock-out round if it is tied after two fifteen minute over-time periods. In a shoot-out the two teams alternate taking penalty kicks until one team has scored more than the other. It begins with a best-out-of-five-rounds competition and then if both teams have scored the same number after five penalty kicks each, it moves to a best-out-of-one-round format which continues only as long as both teams make or both teams miss their penalty kick.

One of the great things about the World Cup is that each national team has its own distinct personality and that personality reflects the nation it represents. This holds true with how they fare taking penalty kicks and in shoot-outs. Among the traditionally strongest teams, there are some that excel at penalty kicks and some whose fans dread them because their team almost always flubs them. For example, Brazil and Argentina have won 66% of shootouts and Germany 60%. Those three teams have won 10 of the 19 World Cups ever. Then there’s a group in the middle that are neither good nor bad at shootouts: Italy, France, and Spain are all around 50%. Finally there are the two traditional powers notorious for their poor showing in shootouts: England and The Netherlands are a combined 2-12 in shootouts all-time.

As you might expect for something that is so important to so many people, there’s been a fair amount of research on what makes a good penalty kick and what makes a good penalty kick taker. Scienceofsocceronline.com tells us that penalty kicks are successful 85% of the time and that the most successful strategy for goalies is not to dive to one side of the net or the other on a hunch but to stay in the middle of the net. Too bad that this is the least common strategy for goalies… maybe because if it doesn’t work, you look like the idiot who “didn’t even try” to stop the penalty kick. The Telegraph has a great interactive graphic that lets you choose where to place the kick and shows you the success rates of each part of the goal. The New York Times ran an article before the 2010 World Cup which argued that success and failure in penalty kicks was mostly about psychology and confidence. They noted that the success of a penalty kick declines in each round of a shootout from “86.6 percent for the first shooter, 81.7 for the second, 79.3 for the third and so on.” More dramatic was their finding that “Kick takers in a shootout score at a rate of 92 percent when the score is tied and a goal ensures their side an immediate win. But when they need to score to tie the shootout, with a miss meaning defeat, the success rate drops to 60 percent.” One of their most interesting findings was about what a player who scores early on in the shoot-out can do to help his teammates:

One of Jordet’s conclusions deals not with the run-up to a kick, but what occurs afterward. A player who celebrates demonstratively after scoring, he said, increases the chance that his teammates will score later in the shootout and also increases the likelihood that the opposing player who shoots immediately after him will miss.

“I make this point every time I work with a team,” said Jordet, who was an adviser to the Dutch national team from 2005 to 2008. “Some players score and look like they’re at a funeral because they’re still nervous.”

So there you have it — it pays to celebrate, even in soccer!

Soccer traditionalists hate the shoot-out because it decides important games with something that really isn’t soccer. When tournaments were less focused on television and a game ended in a tie, the two teams would go home, rest for a couple days, and then come back and play another game to see if a victor could be determined. This just isn’t practical anymore. Viewers want to see a winner and the schedule must be kept to for an international audience of billions. The shoot-out has become an integral part of World Cups and even though I am a grouchy old traditionalist who roots for games to be decided in regulation time or in over-time, even I have to admit that shoot-outs are nerve-jangling, edge-of-your-seat, exciting television.


How Does the World Cup Work?

Dear Sports Fan,

The soccer World Cup is coming up soon in Brazil. I know it’s a big deal for sports fans — how does the World Cup work?


— — —

Dear Bobby,

The World Cup is the world’s biggest soccer tournament between National teams representing their countries. It is, like you said, a big deal. Almost a billion people worldwide watched the final match of the tournament in 2010. Like the Olympics, the World Cup only happens once every four years. The World Cup is separated into three phases, each of which has its own setup: qualification, the group stage, and the knockout stage. We’ll walk you through how each phase works.

World Cup Qualification

The month-long tournament which, this year, starts on June 12 and ends on July 13, is actually the culmination of an international competition which may have started up to three years before. This preliminary competition is called World Cup Qualification and determines (with one exception) which teams get to play in the World Cup Finals. The qualification format is bewilderingly complicated and involves both “continental zones,” a “hexagonal round,” and finally “intercontinental playoffs.” It’s honestly not worth getting too deep into it but the principles are fairly simple — it attempts to take the 200+ countries who are hoping to be one of the 32 teams to play in Brazil and select the best teams while also finding a geographic balance so representatives from all around the globe can compete. All the complicated mumbo-jumbo of qualification is an attempt to meet this internally conflicting end. Some regions (Europe and South America) are much stronger than other regions (Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the complicatedly named North and Central America and the Caribbean) so there are more qualifying spots for the stronger regions. This year Europe and South America combined have 19 of 32 teams, or more than half. Every other region is represented by teams, except for Oceania which lost out on its one spot when New Zealand lost in a playoff to Mexico. Even though the two best teams in Europe that didn’t qualify — Sweden and the Ukraine — could almost certainly beat any of the qualifying teams from Asia and most of the North American or African teams, it’s a more exciting world celebration the way it is and it does more to foster soccer as a global sport. Oh, yes, and the one exception to all this? The host country automatically qualifies.

The Group Stage

The World Cup finals begin as a round-robin tournament in eight groups of four teams each. In a round robin tournament, each team within a group plays all of the other teams, and the team or teams with the best results in those games advance to the next round. In the World Cup, that means each team plays three games in the group stage against the other three teams in their group. The way the results are tabulated, a win is worth three points, a loss, zero, and a tie is worth one point. As you can probably imagine, with only three games, there are frequently teams with the same number of points after the group games have been played. To break ties, since only the top two teams in each group move on to the next stage, the World Cup has a series of factors which they use:

  1. Goal difference in all group matches
  2. Greater number of goals scored in all group matches
  3. Greatest number of points in matches between tied teams
  4. Goal difference in matches between tied teams
  5. Greatest number of goals scored in matches between tied teams
  6. Drawing of lots by the FIFA Organizing Committee

I know, I know, that seems really complicated. It is. Sometimes I think that people who love sports mostly just love technicality. In any event, all these tie-breakers basically favor teams that play in a more risky style. Try to score goals, the rules say, even if that means you give up more goals, because that makes for more entertaining soccer, and when in doubt, we’d rather advance teams that are more entertaining to watch.

The Knockout Stage

The top two teams from each of the eight groups enter the Knockout Stage. This stage is similar to March Madness or Wimbledon in that it is single elimination. The first place team from each group plays the second place team from another group. Win, and you move on to the quarter-finals (eight teams left.) Win again, and you’re in the semi-finals (four teams left.) Win once more and you’ve made it to the World Cup Finals (two teams left) — have fun playing soccer while a billion people watch! The one wrinkle with the World Cup is that the two losing teams from the semi-finals play each other in a game to determine third place.

Over the next month, we’ll be publishing more to help prepare you for the World Cup. Tune back in!

Thanks for the question,

Cue Cards 9-11-13: Soccer

clapperboardCue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Sport: Soccer
Teams: United States & Mexico
When: Tuesday, September 10
Context: A World Cup qualifying game
Result: The United States defeated Mexico 2-0
Sports Fans will be Talking About:

  • The United States has qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil! This may seem old-hat to most people today because the U.S. has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. This string of seven straight qualifications is seventh best in the history of the World Cup and before 1990 the United States had not qualified for forty years.
  • There will probably be some people who question why other people like soccer. I just wrote another post answering that question.
  • A lot will be made of the location of the game. This is now the fourth straight time that the United States has beaten Mexico in a qualifying match played in Columbus Ohio. Each game has ended 2-0 in favor of the U.S. Read Grant Wahl’s excellent post-game piece in Sports Illustrated for more exploration of this topic.
  • Mexico isn’t out of the World Cup for the first time since 1994 yet… but it doesn’t look good. They fired their coach a few days before this game and might do it again after losing to the U.S.. World Cup qualifying is a little complicated (it somehow involves hexagons) but Mexico probably needs to win their two remaining games by as many goals as possible to have a realistic chance. Not making a World Cup in a soccer obsessed country (which basically all of them but the U.S. are) is a hard pill to swallow, so if you are hanging out with a friend who is a Mexican soccer fan today, be nice to her!

What’s Next: The next qualifying matches are on November 10 when the U.S. plays Jamaica and Mexico plays Panama.