The Ultimate Guide to Yellow Cards for Football (Soccer) Referees

The Ultimate Guide to Yellow Cards for Football (Soccer) Referees


By Sonia Denoncourt

By Sonia Denoncourt




The visual representation of yellow and red cards was introduced in 1970. Administrating a yellow card or red card is a huge decision in a game. The referee decides to use the cards to show the player, the substitute, or the team officials that broke the Law. It is an important decision as the impact is usually significant and could be costly.

There are three sections to this guide:

  1. A description of each yellow card code
  2. Best practices for issuing cards to players, coaches, and team officials
  3. Tips for referees about issuing cards

1. Description of Cautionable Offences (Yellow Card, YC)
According to the official LAWS OF THE game, a player is cautioned if guilty of:

  • Delaying the restart of play (DRP)
  • Dissent by word or action (DW, DA)
  • Entering, re-entering or deliberately leaving the field of play without the referee’s permission (EWP)
  • Failing to respect the required distance when play is restarted with a dropped ball, corner kick, free kick or throw-in (FD)
  • Persistent offences (no specific number or pattern of offences constitutes ‘persistent’) (PO)
  • Unsporting behaviour (see below for example) (UB)
  • Entering the referee review area (RRA)
  • Excessively using the ‘review’ (TV screen) signal (very unusual and only at Pro level when available)

2. Best practices for issuing cards to players, coaches, and team officials

There are so many ways to “show” a yellow card but there are some better ways than others depending on the situation. Here are some best practices when issuing yellow cards:

  • Urgency: Most of the time, the referee immediately shows the card to the player when stopping the game for an offence committed. It has an immediate impact; the player is quickly identified and normally it calms everyone else around the play. However, sometimes the card could be shown delayed if the temperature of the match is too high and the referee needs to calm the situation and get all players/technical area under control, prior issuing the card.
  • Identification: One of the key components is to clearly identify the guilty player. So, if need be, you must isolate the player before showing the card so there is no confusion on who is receiving the caution.
  • Mistake: if you realize you have made a mistake by wrongly identifying a player or giving 2 YC to the same player without the red card, please correct your mistake immediately before you restart the match. Make it right, everyone will understand.
  • Movement: While getting to the situation, the referee should also walk/run towards the player and meet halfway. It will show respect. It avoids dictating the player only to come forward. It is a two-way movement.
  • Isolation: If too many players are around and you need to isolate the player, do not point with fingers. Show dignity with a full hand movement, without doing it aggressively towards the player, it often calms the situation.
  • Distance: The distance between the player and referee is also crucial and even more now due to COVID. The referee shall respect the player by keeping 5-6 feet apart. This will also protect the referee for a potential aggression and provide more time to react, if necessary.
  • Signal: Showing a card is not a pleasant thing to do for most referees but a necessity to keep control of the match and to apply the Laws properly. So, show the card with the right hand straight up above your shoulder and keep the card up for a few seconds.
  • Clear decision: Showing the World a decision: some referees tend to show it so quickly by an up/down hand movement that other players, coaches, spectators do not have the time to see it. It is meant to be an information for everyone involved in the game and not just the player itself.
  • Persistent Offences (PO): A Yellow card for persistent offences is often due to a few incidents that occurred prior in the game, but there is no specific number of fouls or pattern of offences that constitutes ‘persistent’. If it is a cumulative of fouls committed by the same player, it is beneficial for the referee to show with the hand that a few offences occurred prior in different areas.
    • Unsporting behaviour: It is one of the most common reason to show a yellow card. It includes many offences such as but not exclusively:
    • Attempts to deceive the referee, (simulation for example)
    • Changes places with the goalkeeper during play or without the referee’s permission (see Law 3)
    • Commits in a reckless manner a direct free kick offence
    • Handles the ball to interfere with or stop a promising attack
    • Commits any other offence which interferes with or stops a promising attack, except where the referee awards a penalty kick for an offence which was an attempt to play the ball
    • Denies an opponent an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by an offence which was an attempt to play the ball and the referee awards a penalty kick
    • Handles the ball in an attempt to score a goal (whether or not the attempt is successful) or in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent a goal
    • Plays the ball when leaving the field of play after being given permission to leave
    • Shows a lack of respect for the game
    • Uses a deliberate trick to pass the ball (including from a free kick) to the goalkeeper with the head, chest, knee etc. to circumvent the Law, whether or not the goalkeeper touches the ball with the hands
    • Verbally distracts an opponent during play or at a restart

3. Tips for referees when issuing cards

  • Do not lean the arm forward toward the player, keep it straight up above your shoulder
    Keep a safe distance (about 2 meters) so no one can grab the card by frustration
  • Keep the yellow card and red card in 2 different pockets
  • Have a second set on you, just in case
  • In most situations, record the information of the yellow card on your RefLIVE App (download here) or notebook immediately so you do not forget
  • Ask members of your team to record details during the match
  • What you write is simple: the number, the team (card is separate in 2 sections), the reason using the codes, the time of the incident. It should take 3-4 seconds
  • Try always using the code for each reason so you save time writing (the RefLIVE App has all of the yellow cards stored and automatically records the time and list of players who have received a yellow card)
  • Do not try to rely only on your memory, write things down clearly if using a notebook
  • Resume with the game as soon as possible

Sonia Denoncourt is a former FIFA level referee, achieving some incredible accomplishments including 3 FIFA Women’s World Cups and 2 Olympic Games. She now works with a range of referees and leagues to focus on education and development. You can follow her updates on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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