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.