Fouls and misconduct (association football)

A Venn diagram showing the relationship between fouls and misconduct in association football, with examples. The offside offence is an example of a technical rule infraction that is neither a foul nor a misconduct. Note that the referee is given considerable discretion as to the rules' implementation, including deciding which offences are cautionable "unsportsmanlike" conduct.

Fouls and misconduct in football/soccer are acts committed by players which are deemed by the referee to be unfair and are subsequently penalized. An offence may be a foul, misconduct or both depending on the nature of the offence and the circumstances in which it occurs. Fouls and misconduct are addressed in Law 12 of the Laws of the Game.

A foul is an unfair act by a player, deemed by the referee to contravene the game's laws, that interferes with the active play of the game. Fouls are punished by the award of a free kick (direct or indirect depending on the offence) or penalty kick to the opposing team. A list of specific offences that can be fouls are detailed in Law 12 of the Laws of the Game (other infractions, such as technical infractions at restarts, are not deemed to be fouls), these mostly concern unnecessarily aggressive physical play and the offence of handling the ball. Additionally, a foul can only be committed by a player (not a substitute) and on the field of play while the ball is in play.[1]:117 Where applicable, fouls are limited to acts committed against an opponent (for example, a player striking the referee or a teammate is not a foul, but is misconduct).

Misconduct is any conduct by a player that is deemed by the referee to warrant a disciplinary sanction (caution or dismissal). Misconduct may include acts which are, additionally, fouls. Misconduct may occur at any time, including when the ball is out of play, during half-time and before and after the game, and both players and substitutes may be sanctioned for misconduct. This is unlike a foul, which is committed by a player, on the field of play, and only against an opponent when the ball is in play.

Misconduct will result in the player either receiving a caution (indicated by a yellow card) or being dismissed ("sent off") from the field (indicated by a red card).[1]:38 A dismissed player cannot be replaced; their team is required to play the remainder of the game with one fewer player. When a player is cautioned, the player's details are traditionally recorded by the referee in a small notebook; hence, a caution is also known as a "booking". A second caution results in the player being dismissed. The referee has considerable discretion in applying the Laws; in particular, the offence of "unsporting behaviour" may be used to deal with most events that violate the spirit of the game, even if they are not listed as specific offences.[1]:123

The system of cautioning and dismissal has existed for many decades, but the idea of language-neutral coloured cards originated with English referee Ken Aston, who got the idea while sitting in his car at a traffic light.[2] The first major use of the cards was in the 1970 FIFA World Cup, but they were not made mandatory at all levels until 1992.[3] Association football was the first major sport to use penalty cards; the practice has since been adopted by many other sports.

Categories of foul

Direct free kick offences

A direct free kick is awarded when a player commits any of the following in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force:

Or commits any the following offences:

In determining whether or not a player deliberately handled the ball, the referee has several considerations:

If a player commits a direct free kick offence within his own penalty area, a penalty kick is awarded irrespective of the position of the ball, provided the ball is in play.

Indirect free kick offences

Fouls punishable by an indirect free kick are:

Some technical breaches of the rules, such as the offside offence, result in play being restarted with an indirect free kick, though these are not considered fouls.

Other offences

Not all infractions of the Laws are fouls. Non-foul infractions may be dealt with as technical infractions (e.g. as breaching the rules governing the restarts of play) or misconduct (these are punishable by a caution or sending-off). Note that persistent infringement of the Laws is an offence for which the player may be cautioned.[1]:38


See also: Penalty card

The referee may consider serious and/or persistent offences to be misconduct worthy of an official caution or dismissal from the game. Association football was the first sport to use coloured cards to indicate these actions.[4]

Yellow card (caution)

A player is cautioned and shown a yellow card

A yellow card is shown by the referee to indicate that a player has been officially cautioned.[1]:38 The player's details are then recorded by the referee in a small notebook; hence a caution is also known as a "booking". A player who has been cautioned may continue playing in the game; however, a player who receives a second caution in a match is sent off (shown the yellow card again, and then a red card). Law 12 of the Laws of the Game (which are set by the International Football Association Board and used by FIFA) lists the types of offences and misconduct that may result in a caution. It also states that "only a player, substitute or substituted player" can be cautioned. A player is cautioned and shown a yellow card if he/she commits any of the following offences:

  1. Unsporting behaviour
  2. Dissent by word or action
  3. Persistent infringement of the Laws of the Game
  4. Delaying the restart of play
  5. Failure to respect the required distance when play is restarted with a corner kick, throw-in or free kick
  6. Entering or re-entering the field of play without the referee's permission
  7. Deliberately leaving the field of play without the referee's permission

What constitutes cautionable unsporting behaviour is generally at the referee's discretion, though the Interpretation and Guidelines which accompany the Laws list a number of examples.[1]:123 These include simulation intended to deceive the referee, or attempting to score by handling the ball. Fouls which are committed recklessly or fouls which are committed with the intention of breaking up a promising attack are also considered unsporting behaviour and punishable with a yellow card. Fouls which are committed with excessive force, however, or which deny an obvious goalscoring opportunity for the player fouled (i.e. a professional foul), are punishable by a red card.

The Laws state that goals may be celebrated, but that such celebrations should not be "excessive". Removing one's shirt or climbing onto a perimeter fence are listed in the rules as caution-worthy excesses.[1]

In most tournaments, the accumulation of a certain number of yellow cards over several matches results in disqualification of the offending player for a certain number of subsequent matches, the exact number of cards and matches varying by jurisdiction. In the UEFA Champions League, for instance, accumulating two yellow cards in a stage of the tournament will lead to a one-game suspension. In such situations players have often been suspected (and occasionally even admitted) to deliberately incur a second booking in a tournament when the following game is of little importance, deliberately resetting their yellow card tally to zero for subsequent games (known as "cleaning cards"). However, while technically within the laws of the game, this is considered unsportsmanlike conduct, and UEFA has launched an investigation resulting in fines or suspensions.[5][6]

The idea introducing a sin-bin for yellow card offences has been mooted by, amongst others, UEFA president Michel Platini.[7]

Red card (dismissal)

A player is shown a red card to indicate his dismissal from the game

A red card is shown by a referee to signify that a player must be sent off.[1]:38 A player who has been sent off is required to leave the field of play immediately, must take no further part in the game and cannot be replaced by a substitute, forcing his team to play a man fewer. Only players, substitutes and substituted players may receive a red card. If a team's goalkeeper receives a red card another player is required to assume goalkeeping duties (teams usually substitute another goalkeeper for an outfield player if this option is available).

Law 12 of the Laws of the Game lists the categories of misconduct for which a player may be sent off. These are:

  1. Serious foul play
  2. Violent conduct
  3. Spitting at an opponent or any other person
  4. Denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goalscoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball (this does not apply to a goalkeeper within his own penalty area)
  5. Denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick
  6. Using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures
  7. Receiving a second caution in the same match[1]:39

Serious foul play is a foul committed using excessive force (i.e., "the in danger of injuring his opponent").[1]:117 Violent conduct is distinct from serious foul play in that it may be committed by any player, substitute, or substituted player against any person, e.g., teammates, match officials, or spectators.[1]:127

In most tournaments, a single direct red card (i.e. not one received as a result of two successive yellow ones) results in disqualification of the offending player for one or more subsequent matches, the exact number of matches varying by the offence committed and by jurisdiction. Should a team's on-field players receive a total of five red cards, it will be unable to field the required minimum of seven players and the opposing team will automatically win by forfeit.

History and origin

The idea of using language-neutral coloured cards to communicate a referee's intentions originated with British football referee Ken Aston.[4] Aston had been appointed to the FIFA Referees' Committee and was responsible for all referees at the 1966 FIFA World Cup. In the quarter finals, England met Argentina at Wembley Stadium. After the match, newspaper reports stated that referee Rudolf Kreitlein had cautioned both Bobby and Jack Charlton, as well as sending off Argentinian Antonio Rattin. The referee had not made his decision clear during the game, and England manager Alf Ramsey approached FIFA for post-match clarification. This incident started Aston thinking about ways to make a referee's decisions clearer to both players and spectators. Aston realised that a colour-coding scheme based on the same principle as used on traffic lights (yellow - caution, red - stop) would traverse language barriers and clarify whether a player had been cautioned or expelled.[4] As a result, yellow cards to indicate a caution and red cards to indicate an expulsion were used for the first time in the 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico (though no players ended up being sent off in that tournament). The use of penalty cards has since been adopted and expanded by several sporting codes, with each sport adapting the idea to its specific set of rules or laws.

Referee's discretion

The referee has a very large degree of discretion as to the interpretation of the 17 Laws including determining which acts constitute cautionable offences under the very broad categories. For this reason, refereeing decisions are sometimes controversial. Some Laws may specify circumstances under which a caution should or must be given, and numerous directives to referees also provide additional guidance. The encouragement for referees to use their judgment and common sense is known colloquially as "Law 18".[8]


Referee Mark Geiger signals for advantage

According to the principle of advantage, play should be allowed to continue when the team against which an offence has been committed will benefit from ongoing play. The referee indicates this by calling "play on!" or "advantage!" and extending one arm (until June 2016 it were both arms) in front of his body.[8]

FIFA's guidance on the interpretation of the Laws for referees outlines the considerations a referee must make when deciding whether to play advantage; these include the severity of the offence and the potential for attacking opportunity. Referees are instructed to make such decisions "within a few seconds" of the offence.[1]:72

In rare situations, advantage can also be applied if the foul was also a misconduct. Play is allowed to continue, but at the next stoppage in play the caution or dismissal must be issued and the appropriate card displayed.[9]


If the ball is out of play when an infraction of the Laws of the Game occurs, play is restarted according to the reason the ball became out of play before the infraction. (Any infraction of the Laws of the Game that occurs while the ball is out of play can be misconduct, but is not a foul.)

If the misconduct occurs when the ball is in play, play need not be stopped to administer a caution or a dismissal, as these may be done at the next stoppage of play (this is usually the case when the opposing team would gain an advantage in having play continue). When this is the case, play is restarted according to the reason for the ball becoming out of play, e.g. a throw-in if play stopped due to the ball crossing a touchline.

If play is stopped to administer a caution or dismissal:

Team officials

Team officials such as managers and coaches are not subject to the cautionable and sending-off offences listed above, as these apply only to players, substitutes, and substituted players. However, according to Law 5 the referee "takes action against team officials who fail to conduct themselves in a responsible manner and may, at his discretion, expel them from the field of play and its immediate surroundings."[1]:24 No card would be displayed when taking such action.

The league sanction for a sent-off coach or manager is normally a ban from being in the dugout or in the changing room for a certain number of matches thereafter. The particular football association determines the length of the ban and/or other appropriate action(s).

Post-match penalties

Many football leagues and federations have off-field penalties for players who accumulate a certain number of cautions in a season, tournament or phase of a tournament. Typically, these take the form of a suspension from playing in their team's next game(s) after that number of cautions has been reached. Such off-field penalties are determined by league rules, and not by the Laws of the Game.

Similarly, a direct red card usually also results in additional sanctions, most commonly in the form of suspensions from playing for a number of future games, although financial fines may also be imposed. The exact punishments are determined by tournament or competition rules, and not by the Laws of the Game. FIFA in particular has been adamant that a red card in any football competition must result in the guilty player being suspended for at least the next game, with the only grounds of appeal being mistaken identity.[10]

At the 2006 FIFA World Cup, any player receiving two yellow cards during the three group stage matches, or two yellow cards in the knockout stage matches had to serve a one-match suspension for the next game. A single yellow card did not carry over from the group stage to the knockout stages. Should the player pick up his second yellow during the team's final group match, he would miss the Round of 16 if his team qualified for it. However, suspensions due to yellow cards do not carry beyond the World Cup finals.

For the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the rules were changed so that any player who received two yellow cards between the beginning of the tournament and the end of the quarterfinal round (instead of the end of the group stage matches) would serve a one-match suspension for the next game. As a result, only players that received two yellow cards or a straight red card in the semifinal game would not be able to play in the final.

In the UEFA Champions League, for instance, accumulating two yellow cards in a stage of the tournament will lead to a one-game suspension. Incidents have been recorded where players intentionally collected a second yellow card so as to "strategically" reset their tally of yellow cards to zero for the knockout round, but this is considered unsportsmanlike.[11]

In some league/group competitions, a team's fair play record, as measured by the total number of yellow and red cards acquired by a team, may be used as a potential tie-breaking method to determine final table position.[12]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 International Football Association Board. Laws of the Game (PDF) (2014/2015 ed.). Zurich: FIFA. Retrieved 20 November 2014.
  2. Ken Aston – the inventor of yellow and red cards, 15 January 2002
  3. "Minutes of the Annual General Meeting" (PDF). Soccer South Bay Referee Association. International Football Association Board. 30 May 1992. Retrieved 7 January 2015.
  4. 1 2 3 "Ken Aston - the inventor of yellow and red cards". Retrieved February 20, 2013.
  5. "BBC Sport - Football - Uefa reduces Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho's ban".
  6. "BBC Sport - Football - Uefa investigation into red cards surprises Real Madrid".
  7. "Sin-bins and other laws changes in football to be discussed". BBC. 13 January 2013. Retrieved 27 June 2014.
  8. 1 2 United States Soccer Federation Inc.,; Michael Lewis (2000). Soccer for dummies. Foster City, CA: IDG Books Worldwide. ISBN 1118053575. Retrieved 5 June 2014.
  9. "Advantage : Ask A Soccer Referee".
  10. "Fifa change red card rules". Guardian. 24 September 2002. Retrieved 4 October 2014.
  11. See Uefa reduces Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho's ban, BBC Sport website, 6 December 2010, also Uefa investigation into red cards surprises Real Madrid, ibid., 26 November 2010
  12. For example in the qualifying stages of UEFA Euro 2016: "Regulations of the UEFA European Football Championship 2014–16" (PDF).

External links

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