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Against Red Cards

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In the Champions League tie between Manchester United and Real Madrid which finished last night, for roughly 145 minutes the two sides played at even strength, and United outscored Real 2-1. For roughly 35 minutes, Real were a man up, and outscored United 2-0. Real went through.

The shape and flow of the game changed instantly after Nani’s controversial sending off. Whether or not his particular red card was justified, it seems to me that the whole idea of the red card itself is not, and it would make more sense if teams were able to replace a sent-off player, using one of their substitutions.

There are three reasons to punish players for committing fouls: disincentive, retribution and compensation for the other side. I don’t think the red card rule, as it stands now, can be justified on any of them. The threat of being sent off is a strong personal disincentive, regardless of the effect on the team. And the league can always add suspension and fines to the punishment after the game, when they’ve had a chance to review the foul.

As for compensation, the red card gives the injured team a disproportionate advantage. We saw that last night. It’s a very crude device. In an article published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association in 1994, G. Ridder, J.S. Cramer and P. Hopstaken found that after a red card ‘the scoring intensity increases by 88 per cent for the team with 11 players’ (a.k.a. ‘team 1’) while remaining unchanged for the penalised team, and that ‘a red card early in the match increases team 1’s probability of victory substantially’. Andrew Titman and colleagues at Lancaster University made similar findings last year, while observing ‘no direct effect of yellow cards on goal scoring rates’. What makes the crudity of the punishment particularly obvious is that two yellow cards add up to a red. So you get this anomaly: a team with two players who commit a bad foul each is punished much more lightly than a team with one player who commits two fouls.

This leaves retribution. It seems a little odd to talk about that in the context of football. It’s a game. But the league itself would be better placed to decide appropriate punishment after the heat of the match, with the benefit of video replays. Players often get a bad rap for protesting, but on the whole I find that less offensive than the posturing of the referee, officiousness brandishing authority in the face of brilliance.

There’s another kind of argument fans sometimes make. That injustice is part of the game. That it heightens the drama (Ridder, Cramer and Hopstaken observed that ‘a motivation for the more frequent use of the red card is to increase the number of goals scored in a match… it has the desired effect’). Sometimes that’s right, though last night the red card killed off the match pretty quickly.

Besides, most athletes are competitive people – they want to win because they’re better, and they want the outcome of the game to prove it. There’s not much joy to be had from beating a guy with his hands tied.


  1. Harry Stopes says:

    Re: the last sentence, I suspect the Real Madrid players are feeling quite comfortable with the manner of their victory (which was arguably coming anyway.)

  2. keith smith says:

    The entire English media are filled today with self-pitying whining on behalf of poor victimised Manchester United. Do we really have to have this shit in the LRB too?

    • Amateur Emigrant says:

      Where’s the ‘thumbs up’ button?

    • DanJ says:

      Oh please, you sound pretty self-pitying yourself. You dont think that Marca etc would be full of exactly the same if the roles were reversed? Media hype and whining is all part of the game as it is in every country, now grow up and get over yourself. This was an interesting article building on a topical subject to explore the basis of the rule in question

  3. zbs says:

    I am favor of all archaisms in sports as long as people aren’t getting killed and sometimes even then. Non-pragmatic feats of strength are not the proper place for fussing about managerial efficiency. Drama isn’t about fairness.

  4. Gavin Comte says:

    This seems very much to be a fan’s perspective on the rationale for red cards. Let’s think about this issue in terms of those actually playing the game. Without the red card regime certain matches would become unplayable as the level of violent conduct would simply be too great. That’s my experience from low-stakes amateur competition at least. The amount of (often inadvertent) physical contact involved in an average game is very high so were malice or even accidental endangerment to go unpunished the effect on the game, as well as the spectacle, would be disastrous.

    • Mat Snow says:

      I couldn’t agree more. The Nani red card was borderline but by no means absurd, and it did not kill off the game, which was absorbing to the final whistle. Contrast it with the 2010 World Cup final where referee Howard Webb indulged Holland’s systematic violent play until far too late, by which time football’s biggest showcase game had been utterly ruined.

      If you need reminding, here’s a match report:


  5. streetsj says:

    Not sure that it would be such a strong personal disincentive if part of the punishment – that you have left your own side at a huge disadvantage – were removed.

    I think where a sending off is clearly justified as an appropriately harsh penalty is for a cyncial “professional foul”.

  6. Philipak says:

    How about a rugby (both codes) style “sin bin”? A halfway house between football’s present yellow and red cards. That way the red card could be reserved for egregious offences (violent conduct, cynical “professional” fouls etc.) and the actions of a player who commits two yellow cardable offences would not skew the game against his/her team as much as at present. Ten minutes off the pitch would give only a temporary advantage to the team with 11 players, and the onus would be on them to make it count – making for interesting tactical deliberations from both managers and for an intriguing spectacle for supporters watching.

  7. David Gordon says:

    At last! A subject on the LRB blog that attracts more comments than a post about the administration of universities!

  8. John Beattie says:

    Yes! So here are two ways to continue the discussion: either compare ‘managerial’ performance in academia compared to professional football or compare team performances in football compared to universities.

    The second would be better, I think. It would be allow us to refer to the Monty Python sketch with the philosophers playing football, for a start.

    And then, what is the equivalent of a red card at University? Being expelled? What about a yellow card? Who are the refs, are they the same as the managers?

    • David Gordon says:

      I am sorry to be slow to reply. I was once in a job where I met many Vice-Chancellors – probably 30 or 40 over the years. The “managerial” ones – those who looked at their universities as a business and looked more at the money than at the people – were mostly a disaster. The skill to think first of the people (students, academic staff, and all the rest of the people who make up the community) and to keep the money and the managerial system in sight, but not on top, is a great skill.

  9. alynch says:

    Now, now, DanJ – you recommend to Keith Smith that he “grow up and get over yourself” – I recommend you stop impressing yourself. On the evidence it is all too easy…

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