What Are Yellow and Red Cards in Soccer? The Ultimate Guide


A black and white photo of a soccer linesman watching the game.

Every yearly tournament, World Cup or Olympics, soccer fans and players alike fear seeing yellow and red cards. Each time the referee reaches for their pocket, everyone wonders what color is going to be pulled and if it will be an early end to the game for a player.

So what are yellow and red cards in soccer?

Yellow and Red cards are issued to players by referees for dangerous and/or unsportsmanlike conduct. A player who receives a yellow card is essentially receiving a caution. If a player receives two yellow cards, it’s the equivalent of a red card. A red card results in immediate ejection and fines.

Red and yellow cards are common staples of professional and collegiate leagues alike. Given the high amount of competitiveness that players bring to the field, it can be difficult to have a completely card-free game. There are even some youth leagues that issue red and yellow cards as players age, especially if they’re club or competitive leagues.

This keeps younger players safe but also imbues that sense of consequences that can occur if a player continues to behave that way. Although referees have red and yellow cards on hand in youth leagues, they’re not often handed out and refs often opt for verbal reprimands instead.

In this article, we’ll go over some of the basics of red and yellow cards in soccer, but with more depth than just a simple explanation. We’ll also look at different colored cards used in other leagues, along with the players that have received the most red cards of all time.

We’ll analyze and discuss all rules of the cards, the consequences, and what options are available to a team if a player receives a penalty card.

The Origin of Yellow and Red Cards

Red and yellow cards were the culminating result of a lot of incidents and conversations, but the focal point remains that these penalty cards were the invention of Sir Kenneth George Aston. There were two inciting events that led Aston to think up the penalty card system.

The most notable is known as the Battle of Santiago and it’s regarded as one of the dirtiest games in the history of the sport. And none other than Ken Aston was the referee for the game.

Picture this: the 1962 World Cup, where Chile faced off against Italy on their home turf. The first foul occurred within the first twelve seconds of the game, the first ejection coming eight minutes into the game.

The police were called and had to intervene in the game a total of four times because numerous physical fights broke out between players. Chile ended up winning the game 2-0, and Aston never refereed a World Cup match again.

Less exciting, soccer players and brothers Jack and Bobby Charlton had to talk with the association to find out if they had been cautioned in recent games. Before the card system, it was all verbal cautions, and it could be hard to keep track of everything for all parties.

If you were thinking about the color relationships to traffic lights, you’re not far off. Aston was the one to think of such a system while sitting in traffic, supposedly after the Charlton brothers had their conversation and the horror show that had been the World Cup game.

Yellow was a warning, a clear signal to the player to slow down and to consider their actions. Red was a full stop and that the player would not be allowed to continue.

Red and yellow cards were first used in the 1970 FIFA World Cup, and have been in use ever since. And while the game of soccer has changed immensely, the card system has stood the test of time for almost 50 years.

What Is a Yellow Card in Soccer?

Two soccer players battling for the ball.

A yellow card is reserved for minor offenses and is often the most used card in soccer. This is because they are warnings or cautions to players who have committed a minor infraction or misconduct of the game.

Yellow cards aren’t often given for anything that involves physicality between two players or any infraction from one player to another but are more often handed out because of impeding the flow of the game.

When you receive a yellow card, there aren’t any stringent or immediate consequences. The player that received a yellow card is still allowed to continue playing. However, that player will play under caution for the remainder of the game, which can lead to larger consequences if they receive another card, but more on that later.

How Do You Earn a Yellow Card in Soccer?

A player can earn a yellow card for minor infractions, as determined by the referee. However, there are some clear-cut yellow card offenses. Here is how a player can earn a yellow card:

  • Unsporting behavior (which includes, but is not limited to faking an injury or foul, deceiving the opponents or referees, or causing an unfair advantage)
  • Dissent through word or action
  • Infringes on the Laws of the Game consistently
  • Delaying the game or restart
  • Failure to allow for the required distance when play is restarted (throw-in, corner-kick, free-kick, etc.)
  • Deliberately leaving the field without permission of the referee
  • Entering or re-entering the field of play without the permission of the referee

Again, yellow cards are for minor offenses. Things that aren’t harmful to other players, but seriously impede the game. There isn’t a large consequence associated with receiving a yellow card.

What Happens When You Get a Yellow Card in Soccer?

A single yellow card is a warning signal of misconduct. You may also notice the referee writing things down when a card is given out, which is the player’s name and number. This is so that the referees can keep track of which players are under caution and how many yellow cards a player has received in the game.

The player is allowed to continue playing, however that player is under caution for the remainder of the game. So no matter if the yellow card was issued in the first minute or the last minute of a match, the player has to play out the rest of the game under caution.

What does it mean to play under caution?

When a player earns a yellow card, it means that they’re liable for being ejected from the game if they commit another yellow card offense. Sometimes you may see a referee issue one yellow card just to issue another one to the same player during a heated argument. That is considered a second card, as the player was under caution after the first.

What Happens if You Get Two Yellow Cards?

When a player commits a second yellow-card infraction in a single game, whether it be back-to-back infractions (like arguing the first card) or minutes apart, things can get a little hairy when a player gets their second yellow card.

Two yellow cards is an automatic red card. Two yellows received in a game equals the same punishment as a red card, and the player has to leave the field and cannot play in the match for the remainder of the game. The player cannot be substituted out, and the team plays short a player for the rest of the game.

Some leagues have post-game consequences for a player if they receive two yellow cards. This can be administrative fees or suspensions similar to that of a red card. Often two yellow cards warrant a single-game suspension.

There are also penalties and suspensions if a player accumulates a certain number of yellow cards throughout the season, with the highest penalty being commissioner involvement and decisions on punishing a player.

What Is a Red Card in Soccer?

A soccer player dribbling a ball.

Red cards are for serious, violent, or malicious infractions that usually involve two players. They can also come from two minor infractions. Either way, a red card is the heavy-hitter of the penalty cards as it results in immediate dismissal and the player cannot return to play for the remainder of the game.

Red cards are often the final defense for a referee, and aren’t as common as yellow cards; however, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t handed out. When it comes to professional leagues, it’s not too uncommon to see a red card handed out. Players, especially rivalries, can get heated, and it doesn’t take much for minor infractions to escalate.

How Do You Earn a Red Card in Soccer?

Red cards are for more serious infractions and if a player receives a second yellow card, the referee will follow up the second yellow with a red card.

What determines the severity of a red card offense? Again, that is up to the ref, as sometimes there is no malicious intent from players and things happen on accident.

With that being said, some offenses are textbook red card offenses. Here is how a player can earn a red card:

  • Serious foul play
  • Serious violent conduct
  • Spitting on someone
  • Denying the opponent a goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball
  • Denying the opponent a goal-scoring opportunity by offending the attacking opponent
  • Offensive, abusive, insulting, and/or vulgar language and/or gestures
  • Receiving a second yellow card in the same match

Red cards are reserved for more serious offenses that players commit in a match. Red cards also have more serious consequences, and even post-game fines/suspensions, which is why some players react very passionately to receiving a red card.

What Happens When You Get a Red Card in Soccer?

When a player receives a red card, they have to leave the match. They aren’t allowed to play in the remainder of the game, nor are they allowed to be substituted out. That means that the team that received the foul has to play a man down for the rest of the game.

Depending on the offense, such as those that deny goal-scoring opportunities, the fouled team is awarded a free kick or penalty kick. These can be pretty costly in close matches and championship games.

Red cards also come with post-match consequences, often in the form of suspensions and administrative fees. Some leagues and teams have automatic suspensions, while others let committees or refs decide if the player should be suspended from play in other matches.

The length of suspension depends on the nature and seriousness of the committed foul. Each league has its own set of rules and regulations in regard to suspensions. Players are suspended between one and three matches for a red card, with some leagues having serious offenses punished with up to six to 10 match bans.

What Happens If a Goalie Gets a Red Card?

Goalies are not immune to red cards. Just like any other player, when a goalie receives a red card, they have to leave the field, despite the rules of the game stating that there has to be a goalie at all times.

So, what happens now?

The team that has been carded will still play a man down. The team can substitute the reserve goalie for an outfielder if they have substitutions remaining. If they don’t have any substitutions left, an outfield player becomes the goalie for the remainder of the game.

Goalies may get red-carded for a variety of reasons. An obvious foul that impedes an opponent from scoring or through holding, pushing, pulling, or tackling without any attempt to play the ball, will result in a goalie receiving a red card.

If a goalie handles the ball outside the penalty area to prevent an opposing team from scoring, they’ll likely receive a red card.

In 2015, the former situation happened in the Women’s World Cup. Colombia and the United States faced off, with Colombia keeping the American club scoreless for a half, before the Columbian goaltender, Catalina Perez, received a red card in the 47th minute of the game.

She swept the legs out of United States’ Alex Morgan at the edge of the penalty area. The United States ended up winning the match 2-0.

Do Soccer Players Get Fined for Receiving a Red Card?

A nose-bleed view of a soccer stadium.

They aren’t worded as fines, but some players do have to pay their clubs or associations for earning penalty cards. These are termed as ‘administrative fees’ and vary depending on the club rules, or the larger association rules.

If you are a fan of American football, then that may seem commonplace to you. NFL players can be fined for a lot of reasons, from penalties and conduct to even uniform violations.

But in soccer, it depends entirely on the club whether or not to assess fees to players that receive red cards in matches. Many teams and clubs have administrative fees for players that receive red cards.

Some clubs also financially penalize players for receiving yellow cards. Though it’s rarer than those that enforce administrative fees for red cards, some clubs add in a lesser fee for yellow cards.

The idea and purpose of these administrative fees are to keep sportsmanship as much of a priority as skill. It works for some players, but others seem unaffected by the hit their wallets take in receiving cards.

Famous Red Cards

In 2018, Cristiano Ronaldo received a red card while playing for Juventus that brought him to tears as he only played for around 30 minutes of the UEFA championship game. With that said, there have been many extremely famous red cards issued throughout the years, and you can watch all of them via YouTube.

Zinedine Zidane, while playing for France in the FIFA World Cup into 2006 against Italy, earned arguably the most famous red card history. The game went into extra time before Zidane received his red card. The act? Zidane head-butted Marco Materazzi’s chest as a reaction to the latter player provoking him. Italy ended winning that game.

David Beckham also ended up costing his team a World Cup round victory in the second round against Argentina in 1998. Beckham ended up losing his temper against Columbia’s Diego Simeone, which earned Beckham a red card and cost England the game on penalties.

Also in the 1998 World Cup (semi-final round) came one of the cruelest red cards in the history of the sport. The recipient? France’s Laurent Blanc. Debate remains on how well-intended his actions were and how much Slaven Bilic of Croatia debuted an Oscar-winning performance on the field.

It was Blanc’s first career red card and he was suspended for the final game against Brazil, which is a pretty harsh punishment for a first career offense of that nature.

Wayne Rooney, playing for England in the 2006 World Cup, also earned one of the most famous red cards against Portugal. The game was memorable not only for Rooney but also for Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronaldo and Rooney both played for Manchester and this was the first time the players faced off as opponents. After Rooney received his red card, Ronaldo appeared to have winked, forever solidifying the event in soccer history.

Who Has the Most Red Cards in Soccer?

Colombian defensive midfielder, Gerardo Bedoya holds the record for the most red cards in history. Over his 20-year career, Bedoya garnered 46 red cards.

Another notable offender is Sergio Ramos. The defender has earned 26 red cards in his career. Ramos has the most red cards of any player since 2000. He has also received over 40 yellow cards in his career.

Can a Referee Get a Red Card?

Referees are the issuers of red cards, not the earners of them. Red cards may only be issued to players and coaches. Red cards are the most serious offense in soccer, and that applies even to sideline and off-field personnel, consequences notwithstanding.

As of 2019, referees have been encouraged to show managers, coaches, and off-field personnel penalty cards (either red or yellow) for any indiscretions. This isn’t uncommon in other sports, such as football, hockey, and baseball.

If there is serious misconduct that happens off-field, and the offending player cannot be identified, it’s the highest-ranking coach of that area that receives the card. It’s because of this newer referee empowerment that a lot of sideline arguments have been negated, as coaches can be ejected from the game, just like players.

Fans also can’t receive red cards. The laws of the game, which are the “rules” of soccer on the international circuit of sorts, don’t allow referees to interact with fans in this regard.

However, players and coaches that do engage or harass spectators are liable for red cards, if the offense warrants such a penalty.

What Is the Advantage Rule in Soccer?

A soccer referee in yellow signal who receives the ball.

If there is an obvious foul against a team, and you hear the ref yell “Play on!”, the advantage rule (also called the advantage clause) is in effect. The advantage rule is when a referee does NOT call a foul if stopping the play would do greater harm to the fouled team.

This can be, for example, when a fouled team has a breakaway or if the fouled player still plays through a sliding tackle to take a shot on goal.

Any sports fanatic or player knows how crucial momentum can be for a team, and penalties can be great little sacrifices to ruin an opponent’s momentum. The advantage rule is in place to stop that from happening.

However, when player safety comes into effect, the advantage rule may not always be enforced. This is to ensure that serious injuries are tended to and cared for promptly, no matter the state of the game.

How Many Red Cards Has Messi Received?

Lionel Messi has a total of three red cards in his professional career. He received his first one in 2005, which was the first game he played for Argentina. The second happened in 2019, also while playing for Argentina. His third was in 2021, playing for Barcelona.

In terms of soccer professionals, this seems like a low number, and it is. It pales in comparison to both Bedoya and Ramos. Messi has the reputation of being one of the most self-disciplined soccer players, and it was a 14-year span between his first and second career red cards.

How Many Red Cards Has Ronaldo Received?

In contrast, Cristiano Ronaldo has a total of 11 red cards across his professional career. He received four red cards playing for Manchester United, which all happened between 2004 and 2008. When Ronaldo played for Real Madrid, between 2009 and 2017, he received a total of six red cards. He was also given a red card while playing for Juventus in 2018, which famously brought Ronaldo to tears.

What Is a Green Card in Soccer?

Green cards are interesting, as they depend on which type of league they’re used in. For example, FIFA only uses red and yellow cards. But other leagues and associations use other colored cards. It’s important to note that the green card is symbolic, no matter what context it’s used in.

Green cards are used in the CONIFA league, which oversees many teams not affiliated with FIFA. The green cards are awarded to a player for a minor dissent or a dive. When a player receives a green card, they must leave the field, but they can take part in the next game.

A big upside to the green card is that a team can substitute out the player if they haven’t used all their substitutions. To many, the green card is seen as a less harsh alternative.

But in the Italian Serie B league and some other associations, a green card is positive. It’s to reward a player for a commendable act or a display of good sportsmanship. In these leagues, it’s the only positive-meaning card in a referee’s possession.

Either way, the green card is symbolic. Historically, it has only seen two uses in the professional circuit—one for each type of mentioned offense. So it’s unlikely that you will see and or hear about green cards as often as red or yellow cards.

What Is a Blue Card in Soccer?

If you’re familiar with hockey, then the blue card is just like a two-minute minor penalty. That’s exactly what it is. When a player receives a blue card, they are suspended from play for two minutes.

If the opposing team scores within that two-minute window, then the player can return to the game. It’s up to the referee to determine whether an act is deemed a blue or yellow card offense.

Blue cards are used most often in indoor soccer leagues. The FIFUSA/AMF Indoor Soccer league uses blue cards. Outdoor leagues, like FIFA, don’t use blue cards and instead stick to yellow and red cards for disciplinary acts.

What Is a Black Card in Soccer?

The Gaelic soccer league, commonly referred to as the GAA, uses a black card. It’s similar to the green card in CONIFA. When a player receives a black card, they are immediately sent off the field and can be replaced by a substitute. The black card was introduced to the GAA in 2014 for cynical behaviors or fowls.

However, there is a little caveat to the black card. If a player receives a yellow card and then a black card, it’s the equivalent of a red card. Under these circumstances of earning a black card, the player must leave the field, and can’t be substituted.

Now you know all there is to know about cards in soccer—some history and different league rules for colored cards, to even some trivia about certain players. Also, we discussed the various offenses that warrant penalty cards, the consequences associated with them, and some famous instances when players received red cards.

While there is a time and place to stick up for what you believe in on the field, a player has to weigh the consequences of their actions. As many professional players have demonstrated, a reactive action can cost championships.

It’s important to demonstrate good sportsmanship and to keep a level head on the field. Soccer is best played when everyone respects each other and the game itself.

Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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