In the sport of association football, fouls and misconduct are acts committed by players which are deemed by the referee to be unfair and are subsequently penalised. 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 (possibly a 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. An infringement is classified as a foul when the infringement meets ALL of conditions of: 1) It is committed by a player (not a substitute), 2) on the field of play, 3) while the ball is in play and 4) 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. Unlike 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.
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).:38 A dismissed player cannot be replaced; their team is required to play the remainder of the game with one fewer player. 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.:123
The system of cautioning and dismissal has existed in the Laws since 1881. Association football was the first major sport to introduce penalty cards to indicate the referee's decisions; a practice since adopted by many other sports. 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.
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:
- Kicks or attempts to kick an opponent
- Trips or attempts to trip an opponent
- Jumps at an opponent
- Charges an opponent
- Strikes or attempts to strike an opponent
- Pushes an opponent
- Tackles an opponent
Or commits any the following offences:
- Holds an opponent
- Impeding the progress of an opponent with contact
- Spits at an opponent (considered Violent Conduct as the spit is considered an extension of the body)
- Handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within their own penalty area).:36
In determining whether or not a player deliberately handled the ball, the referee has several considerations:
- Movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)
- Distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)
- Position of the hand ('natural' position versus 'unnatural' position) does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement
- Touching the ball with an object held in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.) counts as an infringement (considered an extension of the hand)
- Hitting the ball with a thrown object (boot, shinguard, etc.) counts as an infringement (also considered an extension of the hand):119
If a player commits a direct free kick offence within their 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
Infringements punishable by an indirect free kick are:
- When a goalkeeper, inside their own penalty area:
- controls the ball with their hands for more than six seconds before releasing it from possession
- touches the ball again with their hands after releasing it from possession and before it has touched another player
- touches the ball with their hands after it has been deliberately kicked to them by a teammate, or thrown to them from a throw-in (the back-pass rule)
- When any player in the opinion of the referee:
- plays in a dangerous manner
- impedes the progress of an opponent when the ball is not within playing distance of either player
- prevents the goalkeeper from releasing the ball from their hands
- commits any other offence, not previously mentioned in Law 12, for which play is stopped to caution or send off a player:37
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 and will never be punished by a caution or dismissal.
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.:38
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.
Yellow card (caution)
A yellow card is shown by the referee to indicate that a player has been officially cautioned.: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 lists the types of offences and misconduct that may result in a caution. Players are cautioned and shown a yellow card if they commit the following offences:
- Unsporting behaviour (foul play, simulation, and denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by an offence which was an attempt to play the ball and the referee awards a penalty kick are included)
- Dissent by word or action
- Persistent infringement of the Laws of the Game
- Delaying the restart of play
- Failure to respect the required distance when play is restarted with a corner kick, throw-in or free kick
- Entering or re-entering the field of play without the referee's permission
- Deliberately leaving the field of play without the referee's permission
There are also two offences which apply in matches using the Video Assistant Referee system:
- Entering the referee review area
- Excessively using the ‘review’ (TV screen) signal
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.: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 are deliberately committed to 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.
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 of (and occasionally even admitted to) deliberately incurring a second booking in a tournament when the following game is of little importance, thus resetting their yellow card tally to zero for subsequent games (known as "cleaning cards"). However, while technically within the rules of competition, this is considered unsportsmanlike and UEFA have on occasion threatened additional fines and or suspensions to the players and managers involved.
In 2017 IFAB approved temporary dismissals (sin-bins) for cautionable offences similar to that seen in other sports; however, this is only permitted for youth, veterans, disability and grassroots football. Competitions' use of this system—rather than 'normal' yellow cards—is optional, and there are variations in how it can be implemented. For 90-minute games, the length of the temporary dismissal is 10 minutes.
Red card (dismissal)
A red card is shown by a referee to signify that a player must be sent off.: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 their team to play with one player fewer. If a team's goalkeeper receives a red card another player is required to assume goalkeeping duties, so teams usually substitute another goalkeeper for an outfield player if they still have substitutes available.
Law 12 of the Laws of the Game lists the categories of misconduct for which a player may be sent off. These are:
- Serious foul play
- Violent conduct
- Spitting at an opponent or any other person
- Denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity with a handball (this does not apply to a goalkeeper within his/her own penalty area)
- Denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity with a deliberate foul (with no attempt to play the ball)
- Using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures
- Receiving a second caution in the same match
Serious foul play is a foul committed using excessive force (i.e., "the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.").: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.: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 a one or more subsequent matches, with the exact number of matches varying by the offence committed and by jurisdiction.
Should a team's on-field players receive a total of 5 red cards, it will be unable to field the required minimum of 7 players, resulting in the game being abandoned.
Starting in August 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, IFAB and the Football Association stated that any player who deliberately coughs at others will receive a straight red card. Less severe incidents are classified as "unsporting behaviour" and will result in a yellow card.
History and origin
The practice of cautioning and excluding players who make serious breaches of the rules has been part of the Laws of the Game since 1881. However, the practice of using language-neutral coloured cards to indicate these actions did not follow for almost 90 years.
The idea originated with British football referee Ken Aston. 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 Argentine Antonio Rattín. 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. 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 were 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.
Fouls are fairly common occurrences in games. For example the 2012–13 football season saw fouls-per-game rates in the major European leagues ranging from 23 in the 2012-13 Premier League to 32 in the Bundesliga.
Yellow cards are less common, though a typical game will feature a few — at the 2014 FIFA World Cup there were, on average, about three cautions per game. Dismissals are much rarer; that same tournament saw an average of 0.2 red cards per match.
The referee has a very large degree of discretion as to the enforcement 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 common sense is known colloquially as "Law 18".
According to the principle of advantage, play should be allowed to continue when an offence occurs and the non-offending team will benefit from ongoing play. If the anticipated advantage does not ensue within a few seconds, the referee penalises the offence. The referee indicates that advantage is being played by extending either one arm or both arms in front of the body (until June 2016, it could only be both arms). Some sets of recommendations for referees advise calling "play on!" or "advantage!" when the signal is given but such recommendations are not contained in the Laws of the Game document.
The IFAB's Practical Guidelines for Match Officials outlines the considerations a referee must make when deciding whether to play advantage; these include the severity and position of the offence, the potential for an immediate promising attack and the atmosphere of the match. :194
Advantage can also be applied even if the referee decides to caution the player for an offence. Play is allowed to continue, but at the next stoppage in play the caution must be issued and the yellow card displayed. However, advantage should not be applied in situations involving serious foul play, violent conduct or a second cautionable offence unless there is a clear opportunity to score a goal. In this situation, if the player who committed the offence for which the advantage is being played touches the ball or challenges/interferes with an opponent, the referee will stop play, send off the player and restart with an indirect free kick, unless the player committed a more serious offence.
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:
- If a foul has occurred as well as misconduct, play is restarted according to the nature of the foul (either an indirect free kick, direct free kick or penalty kick to the opposing team)
- If no foul under Law 12 has occurred, play is restarted with an indirect free kick to the opposing team
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 can caution or dismiss team officials from their technical areas and immediate surroundings. In 2019 the IFAB approved the use of red and yellow cards for team officials.
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.
Many football leagues and federations impose 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 suspending a player from playing in his team's next game(s) after reaching a particular number of cautions. 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.
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 a red card (whether directly or after a second booking) 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 they are suspended for a meaningless final group game, so as to "strategically" reset their tally of yellow cards to zero for the knockout round (known as "clearing cards"), but this is considered unsportsmanlike with UEFA levying fines and/or suspensions.
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.
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