Today, red cards are an integral part of the game. They act as a great deterrent on the football pitch for those moments when tempers do flare, as they have done since they were first formally introduced at the 1970 FIFA World Cup.
But since that very first tournament, to what extent has the rate of red cards changed, and does a sin bin style ‘orange card’ need to be introduced to reduce the number we see? Here, we attempt to answer these questions and more to try and gain a greater understanding of how common red cards are in the international game.
The rate of red cards awarded very much depends upon the league, nation and time period you are looking at. Countless factors can impact their frequency, from the temperament of the players involved to the leniency of the officials on the pitch at the time. However, we can get a rough sense of their regularity by collating red card data from Europe’s top five club leagues.
For starters, in the Premier League, a study conducted by economics graduate Adam Greenburg showed how red card numbers fluctuated over the course of four different seasons. Compiling data between 2009 and 2013, he showed that the number of reds in each individual season ranged between 52 (09/10) and 68 (12/13). This averages out to 62.5, or 16.44% of the 380 Premier League games played each season.
More recent data reveals a similar trend. Indeed, aside from the 2014/15 season (which had 78 reds), no league campaign has produced more than 68 since 2012/13. Even with the introduction of VAR, the frequency of red cards has continued to trend downwards, with the 2017/18 campaign yielding just 42 in total – the lowest tally in EPL history.
Avg Number Of Red Cards Per Season Before And After The Introduction Of Var
CompetitionAvg. prior to VARAvg. after VARChange (%)Serie A96.0094.33-1.74%La Liga79.5083.50+5.03%Bundesliga56.0047.00-16.07%Premier League42.3345.00+6.30%Ligue 192.5085.00-8.11%All Leagues (Av)69.2273.27+5.85%
Other leagues vary massively, although the number of red cards we see across the board is decreasing. La Liga, for example, went from 155 dismissals in 2009/10 to almost half that by 2017/18.
Interestingly, the sharpest decline in the EPL happened from season 15/16 to season 16/17. Red cards decreased by 16.34% after the implementation of the “double jeopardy” rule where players no longer receive a red card for a foul in the box that accidentally denies a goalscoring opportunity while making a legitimate play for the ball.
Introduction Of Cards At The FIFA World Cup
As was mentioned in the introduction, cards, as we know them today, were first introduced at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Before this tournament, the referee did have the power to dismiss players and ‘caution’ them for infringements. However, when it came to international tournaments, the man in the middle would often struggle to communicate their instructions to a player due to the language barrier.
During the 1962 World Cup, an English ref called Ken Aston officiated the tournament’s opening game between Switzerland and the host nation, Chile. He did such a sterling job that FIFA asked him also to officiate a match between Chile and Italy, which was tipped by many to be a fiery affair. Those predictions turned out to be true, with armed police needing to aid Aston in his refereeing of the game on three separate occasions, leading to him saying years later: “I wasn’t reffing a football match, I was acting as an umpire in military manoeuvres” [Via The Standard].
From then on, Aston spent much of his time trying to work out how cautions and sendings off could be more clearly communicated on the football pitch. More mix-ups at the 1966 World Cup fast-tracked the need for a solution of some kind. It would come an unlucky moment of inspiration. While driving down a Kensington street in London, Aston noticed how effective traffic lights were at giving clear instructions to drivers. From this, he would formulate the idea of cards in football, taking inspiration from those lights. As he describes: “yellow, take it easy…red, stop, you’re off.”
After approaching FIFA with his revolutionary new idea, football’s global governing body decided to trial it at the 1970 World Cup. Regarded as a successful codification of rules that stretched back almost 100 years, cards would then slowly be introduced across all European leagues over the course of the next decade.
The Impact Of Red Cards At The World Cup
Some of the most memorable and era-defining red cards in football history have been awarded at the FIFA World Cup Finals. The best example of this was the straight red that Zinedine Zidane received in the 2006 final in Berlin, which would turn out to be the Frenchman’s final act on a football pitch. It just so happens that the 2006 World Cup was the tournament which produced a record number of red cards, as 27 were dished out in total (surpassing 22 from France 1998).
Also, in Germany, English referee Graham Poll memorably gave out three yellow cards to Croatia’s Josep Simunic in his side’s 2-2 draw with Australia. Suffice it to say, no international tournament has ever been as defined by red and yellow cards as the 2006 World Cup was. That summer, there was a red card every 2.37 matches. That’s a scarcely believable statistic, as it means that, on average, there was a red just over every other game. The so-called ‘Battle of Nuremberg certainly helped this record high number of red cards’.
Indeed, if you search that term on Wikipedia, what pops up is not an account of a World War Two battle, but instead is an analysis of the Round of 16 match between Holland and Portugal in 2006. In this one fixture, a new World Cup record of four red cards were handed out, with a further 16 yellow cards being awarded to players from both nations.
If we assume, 2006 is entirely anomalous when it comes to cards, what actually is an accurate reflection of red card frequency when it comes to just the World Cup?
Its actually hard to say, given that there is a huge disparity from tournament to tournament when it comes to the number of reds that are handed out to players.
In the 21st century alone, we’ve seen a vast gulf between the World Cup with the most (2006) and Russia 2018 – where just four were awarded. In 2002 and 2010, there were 17 reds, which averages out to one every 3.76 games. In Brazil 2014, meanwhile, there were just ten red cards from 64 games.
For the most part, sendings-off tend to occur in the group stages, as an early ‘rush of blood to the head’ gets the better of some players eager to make their mark on the global stage. Sometimes, however, the final itself can be disrupted by a red card or two. We’ve already touched upon the most famous example (Zidane in 2006), but this isn’t the only time it happened in a World Cup Final.
In the first-ever final to feature a red card, two were actually awarded to players on the same team. Argentine duo Pedro Monzon and Gustavo Dezotti were dismissed in 1990, as their side lost 1-0 to West Germany in Rome. The next dismissal in a final came eight years later, as France beat Brazil 3-0 in spite of defender Marcel Desailly seeing red in the second half. After Zidane’s infamous headbutt in 2006, there was also a red card in the famously ill-tempered 2010 final between Holland and Spain – where Dutchman John Heitinga was sent off in the closing minutes of extra time.
Accounting for every World Cup Finals since 1970 (the first year cards were used at the World Cup), the overall average of red cards per tournament is 11.5. In the 64-game era of the international competition, that means we see a card every six games, which highlights how rare they have been in the grand scheme of things. With this number in mind, the edition that is closest to the overall World Cup average is Brazil 2014, where ten red cards were produced.
Red Cards awarded at each World Cup Finals since 1970
Mexico 1970 – 0West Germany 1974 – 5Argentina 1978 – 3Spain 1982 – 5Mexico 1986 – 8Italy 1990 – 16USA 1994 15France 1998 – 22Korea/Japan 2002 – 17Germany 2006 – 27 (Record)South Africa 2010 – 17Brazil 2014 – 10Russia 2018 – 4World Cup yearHost nationNo. of games overallNo. of red cardsGames per red card1970Mexico320–1974W. Germany3256.41978Argentina38312.61982Spain52510.41986Mexico5286.51990Italy52163.251994USA52153.461998France64222.902002Korea/Japan64173.762006Germany64272.372010South Africa64173.762014Brazil64106.42018Russia64416
Impact Of VAR
While VAR indisputably had an impact on the number of penalties that were awarded at the 2018 World Cup, the jury is still very much out on whether it affected card numbers. Ostensibly, if it had an impact of any kind, it was to actually reduce the number of reds we saw.
One possible explanation for the fact that we saw just four red cards at Russia 2018 is that players knew they could no longer get away with behaviour that would lead to a sending-off if they were caught. In tournaments gone by, the officials might have missed an incident or not had an excellent view to see just how bad a tackle/headbutt was. Now though, thanks to VAR, video referees can refer incidents to their colleagues after they happen, ensuring nothing potentially illegal goes missed or unpunished.
There may be merit to this argument, but red card data from Euro 2020 does seem to contradict that theory. At last year’s Euros, there were six red cards, the most at a European Championships since 2004. Even more remarkably, of these, all but one were straight reds rather than two yellows. Compare this to the three previous Euros before the introduction of VAR, and we can clearly spot a sizable increase. After all, there were just three reds in 2012 and 2008.
Summary – What Does The Future Hold?
Football is a profoundly different game compared to what it was at the time of the first-ever World Cup in 1930. From the introduction of cards to FIFA’s early adoption of VAR, the rules of the game have consistently been tweaked to adapt to an ever-changing landscape. Naturally, it is very difficult to predict how things will change moving forwards.
What we do know is that 48 teams will be playing in the World Cup Finals from 2026 onwards and that VAR isn’t going away any time soon. It’s entirely possible that the newly added teams will lead to more red cards, as the greater disparity in quality leads to mismatches in the group stage. Conversely, we could see similar numbers to Russia 2018, as the omnipresence of VAR means that players can no longer get away with rash tackles or unsporting behaviour.
VAR, it seems, just like red cards, is very much a part of football’s long-term future.