A yellow card is essentially a warning that lets a player know that he or she is potentially one foul away from being ejected from the game.
While it’s possible to witness a game without a yellow card, it is quite rare. The average number of yellow cards in a soccer match is just over 4. However, yellow cards haven’t always been part of the game.
Some of the main topics we look at include:
- Why there are yellow cards
- What warrants a yellow card
- Yellow card rules
- How the colored card system originated
- Interesting yellow card facts
This article looks at the history of the card system, how it evolved, and how soccer without yellow cards couldn’t work. Can you guess who’s the most yellow-carded player of all time? Read on to find out!
Soccer Without Yellow Cards
Soccer without yellow cards could quite easily descend into chaos. Without yellow cards, referees would have no way to officially caution players, making certain decisions more difficult to justify.
Yellow cards are one of the most important ways a referee can punish players for committing fouls or breaking the rules. Yellow cards represent an official caution from the referee, which is logged in their game-day notebook as a “booking”.
For example, if a player is “booked” for persistent fouling, everyone is aware that they cannot continue to do so or they run the risk of being red-carded (which we’ll talk about later).
In the absence of yellow cards, referees would be forced to send players off without a fair or official warning.
Although players can continue to participate in the game as normal after being booked, they are at a higher risk of being sent off. What’s more, an accumulation of yellow cards throughout the season can lead to a player being suspended and fined.
In the MLS if a player accumulates 5 yellow over the course of the season, they get a 1 match ban and a fine.
Yellow Cards In Soccer
Players have been cautioned and ejected from games for acts of misconduct since 1881.
Warnings and ejections have always been at the discretion of the referee. However, cards weren’t used to signify cautions or sending off offenses until the FIFA World Cup in 1970 (Mexico).
Before cards, players would receive verbal cautions from referees, meaning fans, coaches, and players out of earshot may not be aware of the situation. As you can imagine, this would impact tactics significantly.
Cards were introduced to create a clearer framework for in-game punishments.
Yellow and red cards could overcome language barriers and allow spectators, coaches, and players to follow the game better.
While the rules for yellow and red cards change from season to season, they remain the primary discipline tools at a referee’s disposal.
Yellow Card Rules
The official laws of the game list a number of offenses that are punishable by yellow cards. However, as with most rules in the game, yellow cards are awarded at the discretion of the referee.
In some cases, where there has been a clear and obvious error by the referee, for a penalty or violent conduct, the video assistant referee (VAR) may intervene in the game, leading to a yellow card. However, VAR cannot award a card directly.
According to Law 12 of the official FA Laws of the Game, the referee can punish a player or team representative who commits a cautionable (yellow card) or sending-off (red card) offense.
The main reasons for awarding a yellow card are:
- Committing a reckless or overly aggressive foul.
- Handling the ball to prevent an attack.
- Committing a foul that prevents a promising attack.
- Committing an accidental foul that prevents a goal-scoring opportunity.
- Delaying the play from restarting (e.g. standing in front of a player waiting to take a free kick).
- Intentional time wasting.
- Verbal dissent or gestures of dissent (usually to a referee or official).
- Persistent fouling (decision made at the discretion of the referee. There is no specific number of fouls that is regarded as “persistent”).
- Unsportsmanlike conduct (e.g. verbally abusing an opponent or official).
- Removing your jersey during a goal celebration.
- Exiting the field, climbing over the perimeter, or approaching spectators.
- Simulation or attempting to deceive the referee (e.g. flopping and feigning injury).
How Many Yellow Cards Equal a Red Card?
A crucial aspect of the yellow card rule is that a player who receives a second yellow card in a single game is sent off. First, the referee will show them their second yellow card, then they will follow up with the red card.
It’s important to note that there is a distinction between receiving two yellow cards and a straight red card.
A straight red card is given when a player commits a “sending off offense.” A sending-off offense is a serious foul or severe breach of the rules, such as intentionally fouling a player to prevent a goalscoring opportunity or an aggressive two-footed tackle.
With straight red cards, players are typically sent off without any prior warning.
Once a player has been red-carded, they must leave the game and they cannot be substituted.
This means their team will have to continue the game with a missing player. If 5 players for a single team receive red cards during a game, they must forfeit the tie.
Who Can Receive a Yellow Card?
Players, substitutes, unsubstituted players, coaches, and team officials can all receive yellow cards.
Yellow cards to non-players often result in a franchise being fined and the team representative receiving some form of disciplinary action, such as a touchline ban.
Origin of Red and Yellow Cards In Soccer
Referees have been cautioning and sending off players for over 100 years. However, it wasn’t until 1966 that the idea of color-coding cards was incepted.
English referee, Ken Aston, came up with the concept as a reaction to a post-match inquiry from the England coach of the 1966 World Cup team, Alf Ramsey, as to whether or not certain players had received cautions or sending offs.
Aston determined that referees’ decisions must be made clearer for the sake of coaches, players, and fans.
This would also help when games were being contested between different nations or teams made up of international players as cards are language-neutral.
The colors were based on the color-coding of traffic lights. Yellow was to represent caution, while red was to represent expulsion.
Yellow and red cards were debuted in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. The first player to ever receive a yellow card was Evgeny Lovchev (Russia) while playing for the USSR in the tournament’s opening game versus Mexico.
Interestingly, no players received red cards throughout the entire tournament.
In a recent interview with FIFA, Lovchev shared a humorous side of the story behind the first-ever yellow card:
“I was running behind him and had to stop him getting any further. I stepped across the back of the Mexican player and just barely clipped his heel. I’ll remember that referee, Kurt Tschenscher from West Germany, for the rest of my life: that was virtually the only yellow card I ever got in my entire career!”Evgeny Lovchev, May 2020
Other sports have since incorporated penalty cards into their rulesets. Australian rules football, field hockey, Gaelic games, handball, rugby, and certain martial arts organizations use penalty cards.
Interesting Yellow Card Facts
Now that you’ve learned about yellow cards, their purpose, and their origin, let’s take a look at some interesting facts involving yellow cards.
Most Career Yellow Cards Ever
Despite being one of the world’s best players, Sergio Ramos has the most yellow cards in the history of association football, with a total of 259 for club and country.
Unsurprisingly, he also holds the record for the most red cards of all time, with 26.
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Most Yellow Cards In The MLS
In the MLS, Kyle Beckerman has been booked a record 137 times throughout his career with Real Salt Lake, Colorado Rapids, and a brief stint at Miami Fusion.
Most Yellow Cards In a Single Game
While there may have been lower-tier games where more yellow cards were administered, the most yellows awarded in a FIFA sanctioned tournament is 16.
The game between Portugal and the Netherlands in the 2006 World Cup was nicknamed “The Battle of Nuremberg” due to the animosity and aggressiveness shown throughout. In addition to the 16 yellows, there were also 4 red cards.
Fastest Yellow Card
Although yellow card times weren’t being officially recorded in the ’90s, it is widely believed that Vinnie Jones holds the record for the fastest yellow card ever, while playing for Sheffield United against Manchester City in 1990. The initial foul took place after 3 seconds.
Players Without Yellow Cards
Few players have avoided getting at least a single yellow card throughout their career.
However, there are some exceptions, most notably Gary Lineker, who managed to play over 600 games for club and country without getting a booking.