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The Red Card in Soccer: What Does It Mean and Why Is It Important?

The Red Card in Soccer: What Does It Mean and Why Is It Important?

A football player's disciplinary record can sometimes offer a good insight into the type of character they are on the pitch. For example, legendary English striker Gary Lineker — whose status as England's all-time top goalscorer was recently broken by Harry Kane — is famous for having never been shown a red card or a yellow card in his entire career.

Other players — the likes of Roy Keane and Vinnie Jones — certainly lived up to their status as so-called 'hard men', managing to get themselves carded on many occasions throughout their careers.

But what exactly does it mean to get a red card in soccer? In this article, that's the primary question we'll be answering. We'll explain what a red card is, look at the consequences of being given one, and take in a brief history of this aspect of the game.

We'll also dive into the difference between a yellow and a red card, and talk you through some of the major offences that can land players or officials in trouble with the referee.

What Does a Red Card Mean In Soccer?

In soccer, a number of disciplinary measures can be used by the referee when a player steps out of line. For minor instances, referees can simply take the offending player to one side and have a quiet word with them. Then, when things are ramped up a little, the yellow card can be used to represent a formal caution. However, when matters are even more serious, that's when the red card comes out.

When a player is shown a red card in soccer, they are sent off the pitch and banned from participating in that match any further. A sending off can happen in two ways: either a player is shown a straight red card as punishment for a particularly serious offence, or they are given two yellow cards in a single match, which automatically means they will be upgraded to a red card and sent off.

It doesn't matter whether it's the 2nd minute or the 90th, a red card means you're off. It's a serious punishment, and while it's not always a shocking sight when a player gets a red card, it doesn't happen all that often. According to Betting Websites research, between 2009/10 and 2012/13 a typical Premier League season saw 62.5 red cards, meaning that they occurred in just 16.44% of games.

We'll soon go into the consequences of red cards for the individual, but first it's worth outlining the immediate backlash of a sending off. No substitutes are allowed to come on to replace a sent-off player, meaning that the offender's team must play with one less player than the opposing team for the rest of the match. In other words, they'll be "down to ten", which is generally seen as being a major disadvantage that leaves teams unable to adequately mark their opponents and cover space on the pitch.

It's possible for multiple players from the same team to be sent off, too (one 2006 World Cup clash between Portugal and Netherlands was nicknamed the Battle of Nuremberg after 16 yellows and four reds meant that both teams finished with nine men). As long as a team has seven players on the pitch, the match can carry on; however, if a sixth player is sent off (unsurprisingly, this is basically unheard of in world football), the match will be forfeited by the offending team.

FIFA rules dictate that in the case of a forfeited match, the offending team will be punished with a 3-0 loss, although if the result on the pitch already favours the non-offending team by three goals or more, that result will be upheld.

What Are The Consequences Of Receiving a Red Card?

When a player is sent off it can make fulfilling the game plan a much tougher ask. Zonal marking means it's possible for a team to cover their own defensive third against a team with more players, but there's much less room for error in these situations, and often a team's attacking threat is reduced by having less players. And at the same time, going down to ten players doesn't just harm the team in the short term. 

When a player receives a red card in a football match, this disciplinary action will also result in a suspension from the following game, and often further games too. This means they will be banned from taking part in a future match or matches, occupying the area immediately surrounding the field of play, or communicating with any match officials, players or club officials during said game.

Suspensions can vary in length depending on the nature of the incident; when a player gets sent off after a second yellow card, they will usually only get a one-game suspension, but when a player is sent off with a straight red card, their suspension will be longer due to the generally increased seriousness of the event. Typically speaking, a straight red will result in a three-match ban.

It's worth also mentioning what happens when a goalkeeper gets a red card. It's bad enough for an outfield player to get their marching orders, but things are even more complicated when the player between the sticks gets sent off. Most managers respond to a goalkeeper sending off by substituting an unlucky outfield player (usually an attacker) for the reserve goalkeeper sat on the bench.

But back when the number of substitutes a team could name was limited, there wouldn't always be a reserve goalkeeper available, and so it wasn't unheard of for outfield players to slip on some gloves and try their luck in goal — check out this viral video of Harry Kane's fairly unsuccessful Europa League stint in the net for Spurs against Asteras Tripoli.

Unfortunately for fans of on-pitch drama and chaos, the fact there's now pretty much always a goalkeeper named among the substitutes means this entertaining aspect of football is a very rare sight.

Offences That Can Lead To a Red Card

A number of different on-field offences can lead to a player being sent off. To give you a better idea of how red cards tend to happen, we've headed straight for the English Football Association (FA)'s official rules. Here are the key insistences that can result in a red card:

  • Serious foul play
  • Violent conduct
  • The use of offensive, insulting or abusive language
  • Spitting at an opponent or any other person
  • Denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball (goalkeepers in their own areas being an exception to this rule)
  • Denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player's goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or penalty kick
  • Receiving a second yellow card in the same match

When a player is shown a red card, the incident that has led to this punishment will dictate how the game is restarted. If it's a foul or handball in the penalty area, the opposition will get a penalty kick. If it occurs in the centre of the field, an opposition free kick will occur in that same spot.

However, if a player is sent off without having committed any additional infringement of the Laws of the game, the match is restarted by an indirect free kick for the opposing team, which is taken at the place where the infringement occurred.  If the offence happens in the penalty area, the indirect free kick is taken from the penalty area line at the place nearest to where the infringement occurred.

Where Did the Red card come from?

The current colour-coded system we've all become accustomed to was first used in professional football in the 1970 FIFA World Cup, after prominent British referee Ken Aston campaigned for a clearer physical representation of on-field cautions and punishments.

The event that ended up sparking action from the authorities was the sending off of Italy's Giorgio Ferrini in a match refereed by Aston in the 1962 FIFA World Cup. Following a communication breakdown caused by the language barrier, Ferrini refused to leave the pitch, making it glaringly obvious that a simple symbol needed to be adopted to show players when they'd been sent off.

It wasn't until 1976 that the English League adopted the yellow and red card system, and in the first recorded use of this disciplinary action, two red cards were shown.

As violence in the stands and around stadiums increased during the late 1970s and 1980s, the FA attempted to outlaw red cards to try and quell anger in the terraces, but the move was ultimately a failure, and in 1987 the English league re-adopted red cards in order to get back in step with the rest of the footballing world. Since then, sending-offs have been part and parcel of the game.

The Role Of Officials In Soccer

Yellow and red cards play a vital role in how referees manage discipline in football matches. But the job of the referee and other match officials goes far beyond that.

They need to be in constant communication with each other, and their instructions and directions towards players must also be clear and firm throughout each match. Referees must not shy away from cautioning or sending off players when they cross the line, but at the same time, if they're too quick to show cards, they risk turning the game into an aggressive spectacle, or undermining the power that their own cautionary tool can have.

For a deeper dive into the world of the referee — and their close allies, the assistant referees, the fourth official, and now the VAR (video assistant referee) — take a look at our article on game officials in soccer. It's packed with useful information about the specific duties and responsibilities of each official appointed to preside over a football match. You can also get an introduction the Premier League Referees for the 23/24 season.