What Are Red and Yellow Cards in Football?

Red and yellow cards are familiar sights in football, and they are used by referees as a way to communicate that a player (or team official) has been disciplined. Yellow cards will be shown to players to indicate a caution, while a red card signifies that a player has been expelled from the game. The usage of red and yellow cards dates back to the 1970s and has undergone several changes over the years, with the introduction of new rules and regulations. In this article, we will explore the history of red and yellow cards, the criteria used to issue them, and the consequences of receiving them.

How Red and Yellow Cards Are Issued?

Both red and yellow cards can be issued from any moment after the referee enters the field of play, until the moment they leave the pitch at the end of the game. Cards can be issued to any player, substitute, or team official during this window.

What Is a Yellow Card?

A yellow card is used to communicate that a cautionable offence has been committed. It is a warning from the referee that allows the player to remain on the pitch, however, if a player receives a second yellow card, they will be sent off and will need to leave the pitch. If two cautionable offences are committed in very close proximity to each other, two separate cautions should still be issued at once.

A Player on the Pitch Can Be Issued a Yellow Card for the Following Offenses:

  • Delaying the restart of play
    • by appearing to take a throw-in but suddenly leaving it to a team-mate to take.
    • by delaying leaving the field of play when being substituted.
    • by excessively delaying a restart.
    • by kicking or carrying the ball away, or provoking a confrontation by deliberately touching the ball after the referee has stopped play.
    • by taking a free kick from the wrong position to force a retake.
  • Dissent by word or action.
  • Entering, re-entering or deliberately leaving the pitch of play without the referee's permission.
  • Failing to respect the required distance when play is restarted with a dropped ball, corner kick, free kick or throw-in.
  • Persistent offences. This will be determined by the referee, and there is no official definition of 'persistent'.
  • Unsporting behaviour:
    • Committing a direct free-kick offence in a reckless manner.
    • Attempting to deceive the referee, e.g. by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled (simulation).
    • Changing places with the goalkeeper during play or without the referee's permission.
    • Handling the ball to interfere with or stop a promising attack.
    • Committing any other offence which interferes with or stops a promising attack, except where the referee awards a penalty kick for an offence that was an attempt to play the ball.
    • Denying an opponent an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by an offence which was an attempt to play the ball and the referee awards a penalty kick.
    • Handling the ball in an attempt to score a goal (whether or not the attempt is successful) or in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent a goal.
    • Making unauthorized marks on the field of play.
    • Playing the ball when leaving the field of play after being given permission to leave.
    • Showing a lack of respect for the game.
    • Initiating a deliberate trick for the ball to be passed (including from a free kick or goal kick) to the goalkeeper with the head, chest, knee etc. to circumvent the Law, whether or not the goalkeeper touches the ball with the hands; the goalkeeper is cautioned if responsible for initiating the deliberate trick.
    • Verbally distracting an opponent during play or at a restart.
  • Entering the referee review area (RRA).
  • 'Excessively' using the 'review' (TV screen) signal.
  • 'Excessively' celebrating a goal
    • By climbing onto a perimeter fence and/or approaching the spectators in a manner which causes safety and/or security issues.
    • By acting in a provocative, derisory or inflammatory way.
    • By covering the head or face with a mask or other similar item.
    • By removing the shirt or covering the head with the shirt.

Consequences of Receiving Yellow Cards

Receiving a yellow card may result in a financial fine from the overseeing association. Accumulating multiple yellow cards through a season will result in suspensions. The rules and the lengths of the suspensions will vary between competitions. The suspensions will only apply in the competitions in which they occurred.

Suspensions for accumulating yellow cards in Premier League
Number of yellow cardsCut off pointSuspension length
519 Premier League Games1 Game
1032 Premier League Games2 Games
15Last day of the season3 Games
20Last day of the seasonDetermined by a Regulatory Commission

What Is a Red Card?

A red card is used to communicate that a sending-off offence has been committed. Any player, substitute, or team official that has been sent off must leave the field of play (including the technical area) immediately. Any player that receives two yellow cards in a single game will then receive a red card, and be dismissed from the game.

A Red Card Can Be Issued for the Following Offenses:

  • Denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by a handball offence (except a goalkeeper within their penalty area).
  • Denying a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent whose overall movement is towards the offender's goal by an offence punishable by a free kick.
  • Serious foul play. This can be defined as a tackle that uses excessive force or a challenge that endangers the safety of an opponent.
  • Biting or spitting at someone.
  • Violent conduct. This can be defined as an attempt to use excessive force against an opponent, a teammate, team official, match official or spectator, when NOT challenging for the ball.
  • Using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or action(s).
  • Receiving a second caution in the same match.
  • Entering the video operation room (VOR).

It is important to note that the seriousness of an offence is often subjective and will come down to the discretion of the referee on the day.

Consequences of Receiving a Red Card

Receiving a red card will result in immediate expulsion from the game. The player (or team official) must leave the field of play and is not permitted to return for the remainder of the game. In addition, receiving a red card may also result in a financial fine from the overseeing association. Depending on the offence, there may also be additional sanctions, which will vary between competitions. The table below shows the suspensions that are awarded by the English Football Association for various red card offences. Any suspensions will only apply to the competition in which they occurred. If a player receives more than one red card during a season, an additional one-game suspension will be applied on top of the default suspension for every red card incurred.

Suspensions for various red card offences defined by the English FA
OffenseSuspension length
Serious Foul Play3 Games
Violent Conduct3 Games
Spitting6 Games
Denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity1 Game
Using offensive, insulting or abusive language2 Games
Receives a second yellow card in the same match1 Game

What Happens if a Player Given a Red Card Refuses to Leave the Pitch?

The referee cannot force a player to leave the pitch after a red card. In this rare scenario, the referee will inform the player that they must leave the pitch, and if they still refuse, the referee will speak to the team's captain and staff to inform them of their responsibility to help convince the player to leave the pitch.

If the player still refuses to leave, then the referee has the power to abandon the game. The individual competition rules will determine the outcome of the game in this scenario, but it is most likely to result in a loss for the team that received the red card.

History of Red and Yellow Cards

The use of red and yellow cards was first introduced in the 1970 World Cup, mainly due to an incident that occurred in the previous World Cup in 1966. During the quarter-final between England and Argentina, the referee awarded cautions to Jack and Bobby Charlton of England, and also sent off Antonio Rattin of Argentina. However, the referee had not made these decisions very clear, and after the game, England manager Alf Ramsey had to question a FIFA representative for clarification. As a result of this, Ken Aston, who was a member of the referees' committee, invented the concept of red and yellow cards in order to make disciplinary actions clear to everyone playing and watching the game. He based the concept on the colours of traffic lights.

Red and Yellow Card Statistics

Most red cards of all time
PlayerTotal red cards
Gerardo Bedoya46
Sergio Ramos28
Cyril Rool27
Alexis Ruano Delgado22
Paolo Montero, Rafael Marquez21
Most yellow cards of all time
PlayerTotal yellow cards
Sergio Ramos269
Gerardo Torrado228
Dani Alves220
Raul Garcia199
Arturo Vidal197

Premier League

Premier League disciplinary stats since 1992. All stats correct at moment of writing (2023).

Most Yellow Cards in a Season

101 - Leeds United

Most Red Cards in a Season

9 - Sunderland, Queens Park Rangers

Most Yellow Cards in One Match

12 - Chelsea v Leeds (1998), Wolves v Newcastle (2010), Tottenham v Chelsea (2016)

Most Yellow Cards for a Single Team in One Game

9 - Tottenham v Chelsea (2016)

Top 5 Premier league clubs with most yellow cards
ClubTotal yellow cards
Chelsea1,808
Everton1,819
Arsenal1,769
Tottenham Hotspur1,736
Manchester United1,728
Top 5 Premier league clubs with most red cards
ClubTotal red cards
Everton104
Arsenal103
Newcastle United91
Chelsea84
West Ham United80
Top 5 Premier league players with most yellow cards
PlayerTotal yellow cards
Gareth Barry123
Wayne Rooney102
Lee Bowyer99
Kevin Davies99
Paul Scholes97
Premier league players with most red cards
PlayerTotal red cards
Richard Dunne8
Duncan Ferguson8
Patrick Vieira8
Lee Cattermole7
Vinnie Jones7
Roy Keane7
Alan Smith7

MLS

Top 5 MLS players with most yellow cards
PlayerTotal yellow cards
Kyle Beckerman137
Diego Char√°110
Pablo Mastroeni89
Osvaldo Alonso84
Roger Espinoza78
Top 5 MLS players with most red cards
PlayerTotal red cards
Roger Espinoza13
Jamison Olave11
Clint Mathis10
Pablo Mastroeni9
Kyle Beckerman, Tyrone Marshall8

FAQs

What happens if you get a red card in football?

Receiving a red card in football means that you have committed a serious offence or two cautionable offences. You will be expelled from the game immediately, and will not be permitted to return to the game.

How long does a red card last in football?

A red card in football will last until the end of the game in which the offence was committed. Depending on the severity of the offence, and the competition rules, there may also be a suspension for a number of subsequent games.

How many games do you miss for a red card?

Suspensions from red cards will vary depending on the severity of the offence and the competition rules, but a ban of between 1-3 games is normal.

How many yellow cards before red?

Receiving a second yellow card in a single game will result in a red card, and the player will be dismissed from the game.

Do you miss the next game with a yellow card?

Suspensions from yellow cards in football will vary depending on the competition rules. Any suspensions are usually applied after accumulating a certain number of yellow cards and are cleared after a certain time period.

What happens when a player is given a yellow card?

Receiving a yellow card is a warning from the referee. The player will be allowed to stay on the pitch but must be careful not to commit a second offence which would result in a second yellow card. After two yellow cards, a red card will be awarded and the player will be dismissed from the game.