Yellow card suspensions and how they hurt the World Cup

The FIFA laws for the World Cup say that when a player accumulates two yellow cards (in a single or in separate games) or a red card, that player will be suspended for his team’s next match. Dutch forward Robin van Persie was subject to this rule when he picked up a yellow card in each of the Netherlands’ first two games in Group B, leading to his ineligibility in his team’s match against Chile.

Another example, that has yet to see the rule’s effect, concerns Mexico’s José Vásquez, who was booked for the second time against Croatia and will miss El Tri’s round of 16 game against van Persie and the Netherlands.

This rule is flawed, and my reasoning is based on one basic premise: no referee is the same.

Some refs give yellow cards for diving, some give them for arguing. Some mark down players for wasting time. Some refuse to show yellow cards in the early moments of the game, not wanting to face the constant potential of sending a player off.

Officiating football, as with every sport, is accompanied by a level of subjectivity that cannot be removed as long as humans are blowing the whistles. With goal-line technology, the game has allowed fewer calls to be impacted by human error. And I think there are more ways to improve the rulings in the game, such as adding more referees (American football is played on a similarly sized field, requires seven referees, and still uses instant replay for added certainty).

But as it is, no referee is 100% accurate, and every referee uses their discretion differently.

In the case of van Persie, this rule causing his suspension was not so harsh, as the Dutch team had already qualified for the next round prior to its battle with Chile. Vásquez’s exclusion, however, is much more meaningful, as Mexico will be without the midfielder as it enters the single elimination stage of the tournament.

Every referee works within the context of the game he/she is working; if a physical team is playing – one that commits a lot of fouls, a disproportionate amount of which are on the fringe of meriting a yellow card – the referee will likely have to raise their standards for what a bookable offense is so that ten players aren’t sent off before halftime. In the opposite sense, if a contest is being played without a ton of physicality, then the referee will likely adjust their interpretation of what deserves a yellow card to a lower standard so that the game maintains its safeness.

It’s one thing if a player makes a brutal tackle deserving of a red card; yet FIFA is essentially equating that tackle’s harshness to that of two separate offenses that each only merit a yellow card. And I know what you’re saying – Alex, two yellows amount to a red anyways! That’s true, my reader! But that’s within one game; if you accept my previously mentioned thought that different games have different standards for yellow cards, then it is unfair to say that two yellows from separate games are the same as two yellows from one game, and transitively speaking it is unfair to equate the two yellow cards from separate games with a red card.

A good example for why the rule is unfair is Mario Balotelli. The Italian striker was shown yellow against Costa Rica for arguing a call with a referee, who at that point in the match had heard enough complaints from players. Then, in Tuesday’s game against Uruguay, Balotelli was given another yellow for flying into a reckless challenge. Italy ended up losing and won’t play among the final 16, but had it advanced it would have been without its best attacking threat. Arguing with a ref is certainly a bookable offense, but many officials choose not to react to players protesting a call. My point is this: if Balotelli had already been given a yellow card in the game against Costa Rica, that ref would have surely not given the striker another yellow, an automatic ejection, just for arguing a call.

Italy striker Mario Balotelli

Mario Balotelli

That’s mostly due to the fact that refs give players second yellow cards in a single game with more hesitance than the refs do with the first card. That’s probably not fair or logical, but that’s the way it is. But given that, we can then say that it is definitely harder to earn two yellow cards in a single game than it is to earn them in separate games.

Yet Vázquez – and I’m sure he’s just the first of a few to be suspended from the round of 16 due to yellow cards – is being punished with the same harshness as someone would after being sent off in a single game.

Now you’re probably saying, “I get it, Alex, you’re making some splendid points and I don’t know why I ever saw this issue the other way, but why did you dedicate an entire post to this topic?”

Excellent question! As much as it may seem otherwise, I am not so much infatuated with the equality of yellow pieces of paper as I am bummed about the consequences of this rule; it keeps players like Vázquez from participating in what would be the biggest game of their lives, and it prevents teams from playing at their full strength. Imagine that Italy had not lost to Uruguay, and once it got to the round of 16 it would have been Balotelli-less. The interest of that game would be significantly reduced.

Whether or not you think I’m making too big of a deal out of this, remember the old saying: no yellow card is created equal.

  • racknstack

    I thought they had to accumulate two yellow cards in a match. That rule’s just horsehockey.

  • Dennis

    Faking injury is the WORST. I think there should be an instant replay of all yellow cards booked. If the victim was faking, he is instantly booked a RED card.

  • I’m Smarter Than You

    This article is stupid. It’s all over the place with its logic.

  • Soccer Fan

    Two yellow cards in the same game has a higher penalty than two yellow cards in separate games, so the main point you are trying to make is moot.You are correct that it is harder to get two yellow cards in one match than in two or three, however the penalty is much more severe. (Unless in the very rare case where the second yellow in the same match is after the final whistle blows. The main difference being that in the separate game option All three games are played with a full compliment of eleven players as when the player misses his game he can be replaced (generally by a lesser player). If both yellow cards are received in the same game the team has to finish the game a player short. This is almost always worse than the next game.

  • Marck Bailey

    You may want to state in your opening sentence: “The FIFA laws for the World Cup say that when a player accumulates two yellow cards (in a single or in *TWO CONSECUTIVE* games) …”

    Because getting yellow cards in two separate games (with another game in between) will not earn you a red. Or am I misunderstanding the rule?

    • Darwin

      It doesn’t matter if they are consecutive…if you get a yellow in game 1 of group stage and game 3 of group stage, you will be suspended for Round of 16 game. At some point in the knockout stages, the count resets….but still, a big deal if a team is without their best player for the first single elimination game.

      • Marck Bailey

        Got it — Thanks for the clarification.

  • Mark Guz

    Yeah Marchisio barely touched the guy and got an instant red card yet when Suarez bites a player they don’t give even a yellow card or a free kick. Seems legit. Surely the ref wasn’t bribed by Uruguay. There’s no way. (Note the obvious sarcasm)