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

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

By Sonia Denoncourt

By Sonia Denoncourt

Administrating a red card is one of the most crucial decisions in a game. The referee decides to use the card to show the player, the substitute, or the team officials that they broke the Law. It is a particularly important decision as the impact is significant and could be costly for the guilty team as they continue the game without a player. As you know, a match may not start or continue if either team has fewer than seven players.

I am sure you have seen some mass confrontations (hopefully on TV and not in your match). You know how hard it is sometimes to identify the guilty players, the one who started the fight, the one responsible for the mess. Get the help for your teammates, the assistant referees and even the fourth official. Take good notes and restart only after you are convinced you made the correct decision.

Even the best professional referee can make a mistake. Remember, it has happened before in a men’s World Cup! A well-known FIFA referee showed 2 yellow cards to the same player without sending him off! It could happen to you, especially when there are so many cautions during a match.

Let us break this topic in 3 sections:

  • A description of each red cards and codes
  • Best practices for issuing cards to players, coaches, and team officials
  • Tips for referees about issuing cards

Description of Sending-off offences (red card, RC)

According to the official LAWS OF THE GAME, a player, substitute or substituted player who commits any of the following offences is sent off:

  • Denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by a handball offence (except a goalkeeper within their penalty area) (DOGSO/HB)
  • Denying a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent whose overall movement is towards the offender’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick (DOGSO)
  • Serious foul play (SFP)
  • Biting or spitting at someone (B/S)
  • Violent conduct (VC)
  • Using offensive, insulting, or abusive language and/or gestures (AL)
  • Receiving a second caution in the same match (2YC)
  • Entering the video operation room (VOR)

A player, substitute or substituted player who has been sent off must leave the vicinity of the field of play and the technical area.


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

There are many reasons to send-off a player and being such a critical decision, the referee must be 100% sure of their decision. While issuing a card, the referee will sell the decision better if some guidelines are respected as explained in the previous article A guide to yellow cards. In a nutshell, remember a few key words: Urgency, identification, movement, isolation, signal, clear decision.

  • Teamwork: Referee, assistant referees and particularly the fourth official plays an important role during a red card issuing scenario.
  • Explain a decision: The referee is not obligated to explain his decision but for a red card, it is particularly important the guilty player and team official know the reason for expulsion. Managing the game is key and sometimes few words will make your life easier.
  • Violent conduct: red card is a profoundly serious offence. It is when a player uses or attempts to use excessive force or brutality against an opponent when not challenging for the ball. We do not want these scenarios in our beautiful game. So, if this happens, the referee needs to react with urgency
  • Serious foul play is one of the most common reasons for issuing a red card. As this is more part of the game, it is mainly the result of a tackle or challenge that endangers the safety of an opponent or uses excessive force or brutality while the play is at proximity. This also needs attention immediately as the excessive strength used could easily lead to a mass confrontation. Referee should sprint to the area and use preventative methods, so the situation does not escalate.
  • AL: Using offensive, insulting, or abusive language and/or gestures (AL) often occurs more discreetly between the player and the referee. Remember that it is not because no one can hear that it should not be punished. Be strong and firm.
  • 2YC: Receiving a second caution in the same match (2YC) occurs regularly in matches. While issuing the second yellow card, the referee must clearly show the YC first, put the arm down and then clearly show a red card. This is a 2 steps action that needs to be clear for everyone to see in the stadium.
  • Escort: The referee makes sure the player leaves the field of play and from there, the fourth official must be certain to escort the player towards the tunnel and from there disappear from any visible area. From the tunnel, the organization usually helps to escort the player to the locker room. In an amateur match, the player must leave the area completely. Be patient.
  • Restart the game: The referee must not resume the game until the situation is fully under control.

Tips for referees issuing red cards

  • Similarly, all tips explained in the previous article “A guide to yellow cards” are applicable for a red card as well. But additionally, it is crucial to fully control the player’s official exit as they must leave the vicinity of the field of play.
  • Do not let the player cool down on the sideline, they must go to the locker room
  • Do not let the coach/team official to stand by the technical area, they must leave the area completely as well
  • Keep a clear count of the player because if the games need to finish with “kicks from the penalty mark”, you must manage it properly. Remember, a player who has been sent off during the match is not permitted to take part.

As much as referees do not like to administer cards, it is a very efficient and clear way to control the match. Use common sense on when to prevent, to manage by words or actions or when you must issue a card. Some cards are simply compulsory.


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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