So a lot of players will be suspended for the Champions League final—David Alaba, Luiz Gustavo, Holger Badstuber for Bayern Munich, and John Terry, Raul Meireles, Ramires and Branislav Ivanovic for Chelsea. While the case of John Terry is more cut-and-dried (he received a straight leg for an idiotic knee to Alexis Sanchez), the other players will miss the finals for picking up their second yellow since the knockout stage of the tournament commenced. It’s controversial, and the player’s union is taking it up with UEFA.

Many believe this is a case of after-the-fact whining from players who should have known better. I discovered this morning via the medium of Twitter that many otherwise politically-leftish types who back the statistically-verifiable claim that more prison sentences doesn’t mean less crime do in fact think more yellows equal fewer fouls. Many of their arguments in favour of the suspensions for the final could in fact be slotted in a right-wing crime-and-punishment op-ed with little alteration. “The punishment should fit the crime,” “They knew the law before they did what they did,” and “If you don’t punish wrong-doers, there will be chaos.”

What’s going on here?

Part of it is the fact that some teams play a more “physical” (read foul-heavy) style, which is less aesthetically-pleasing for the purists. Certainly that applies to Barcelona, who rank 18th out of 32 in the disciplinary tables for this season’s Champions League, remarkable considering they played right up until the semifinal. Chelsea meanwhile are in first place with 27 cautions. There is an argument that Chelsea’s physical approach gave them an unfair (and unsporting advantage) and are now reaping what they’ve sowed.

But no one would say Bayern Munich isn’t often pleasing to the eye, and they rank number three in the discipline stakes, behind Benfica.

There are other telling details. There have been 502 yellow cards doled out to all 32 teams since the group stages, and 22 red cards. That’s a ratio of just under 23-1. Furthermore, the total number of yellows across the group stages has remained fairly static since the inception of the 32-team group stage in 1999-2000:

1999/00 Champions league: 538 total yellow cards 32 teams new format

2000/01 Champions league: 553 total yellow cards 32 teams

2001/02 Champions league: 508 total yellow cards 32 teams

2002/03 Champions league: 532 total yellow cards 32 teams

2003/04 Champions league: 434 total yellow cards 32 teams current format adopted

2004/05 Champions league: 427 total yellow cards 32 teams

2005/06 Champions league: 463 total yellow cards 32 teams

2006/07 Champions league: 477 total yellow cards 32 teams

2007/08 Champions league: 438 total yellow cards 32 teams

2008/09 Champions league: 489 total yellow cards 32 teams

2009/10 Champions league: 472 total yellow cards 32 teams

2010/11 Champions league: 451 total yellow cards 32 teams

(Thanks to Devang Desai for the help on this). This year’s total is high but not a statistical aberration. So what conclusions can we draw from this?

First, that the number of cautions has remained steady for the last decade and change. So if the point of yellow cards is to dissuade players from reckless fouls, it’s not working. Second, anyone who’s ever watched football knows that yellow cards are about as common a sight in a football match as throw-ins, which helps explain their high ratio to red cards which preclude a game-changing sending off. Third, as far as agency is concerned, yellow cards are a pretty hazy grey area. Often their ill-judged, or overly-severe. Sometimes they stand in for what should have been a red. They are a disciplinary half-way house.

The underlying issue is that they are not rare; they are a fact of life in the game. While I don’t come to you today with an easy solution, part of the problem for me is that the yellow card seems in and of itself pointless and ineffective on the whole except where they involve suspensions for the final. In other words, they don’t matter until they do. Either yellow cards should matter more—perhaps a single yellow would not involve a sending off but an automatic three game suspension, for example—or they should be done away with in favour of more red cards. The status quo however is less-than-desirable.

Comments (3)

  1. Interesting article, I’ve thought for a couple years now that both yellows and reds plus their punishments are pretty stupid.

    How about a yellow card equals a 5 minute sin bin and a red 10 perhaps (both carried over to the next game if recieved at the end) and besides that all rough play is judged after the fact by review referees after the game and bans can be handed out if necessary, eg. 6 games out for genuine violent play, 3 months out for career-ending tackles, whatever stuff of that nature can all be done post-game.

    Maybe it all makes a bit too much sense though if it gets done like that and also we wouldn’t want to mess with the ‘laws’ of the game, tradition, etc, blah, blah, blah, and finally – here’s the kicker – the sport will be “Americanized” (Probably the most damaging criticism of any good idea that might actually improve anything I think – it’s my ball and if we can’t play this way then I’m taking it home, meh…).

    Anyway, great having this subject up on here by the way.

  2. It’s idiotic because you’re never going to cut questionable tackles and “unsporting” fouls out of the tournament, even with the extreme disincentive of possibly missing the most important game of your career. Looking at Badstuber’s face after he made the fairly innocuous challenge that led to his yellow card, you could tell that he knew he was slip-up card away from missing the final, it’s just that part of his and every other footballer’s job is to go in for 50-50 challenges which sometimes lead to you getting booked. A lot of the time players are suspended as a direct result of fouls that weren’t dangerous or even deliberate, making the “punishment fits the crime” argument patently absurd in most cases. They should just void all yellow cards after the before the quarter final stage and stop trying to uphold this false moral standard.

    • Completely agree. Missing regular matches is fine, but missing a final over yellows is ludicrous.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *