Yellow Card In Soccer: A Complete Guide To What It Means

Soccer is one of those games that can have you sitting on the edge of your seat and biting your nails or screaming at the television screen, so when you see that flash of yellow pop up you know it’s about to change the game, for the better or for worse. 

As one of the oldest sports in the world, soccer, or football as it’s otherwise known, is played in many different countries and is enjoyed by all ages.

Yellow Card in Soccer: A Complete Guide to What it Means

From spectators who’ve grown up supporting a favorite team to older fans who’ve spent many a weekend in their youth playing for their local club, soccer is truly a universally loved sport with a cult-like following. 

If you’ve been living under a rock, or if you want to touch-up your knowledge of the specific rules and regulations of the game, this article is here to tell you all you need to know about the yellow card in soccer.

We’ve put together a complete guide to what it means, how players end up receiving one, and what some of the consequences of having one are. 

So, lace up your boots, settle in, and get ready to learn about the yellow card. 

A Yellow Card - What Does it Mean?

It’s the root of the article, so we thought we’d tackle this question first. What does a yellow card mean when it’s pulled on a player? 

Firstly, it’s yellow - as you might have guessed. It measures at just 3 inches (L) x 4 inches (W) so it’s pretty small, but it is of great importance and it can have significant consequences both during the game and in the grander scheme of things.  

If you see one of these cards during a game, it’s meant to signal a warning to a player and it pulls them for their conduct on the field.

The yellow card indicates to the player and the watchers that this has been an official caution for committing an offense, thereby acknowledging and disciplining it accordingly. 

How Does a Player Get a Yellow Card

Contrary to what you might have heard shouted at the television, yellow cards aren’t just given out for no reason.

They are only given when a player has committed an offense or foul and it is considered enough that it requires cautioning. 

If the referee determines that an offense worthy of this has been committed, they will halt the game with a blow on their whistle so they can issue the card.

They will often hold the card up so it’s clear to everyone that the player is being cautioned for the conduct and a free kick will be awarded to the opposing team.

The only time the referee won’t call a stop to the game is when it would be interfering with a potential opportunity to score a goal, in which case the game will carry on until the ball goes out of play.

It is at this point that the player will be shown a yellow card for their behavior, and in this instance, the injured party would forfeit their free-kick by choosing to play on. 

What Warrants a Yellow Card?

Soccer may not be a contact sport, but that’s not to say that it’s free from contact completely.

In some cases, this is taken too far, but there are plenty of other offenses that will guarantee you getting a yellow card being waved in your face. 

If you’ve got a game coming up, you’ll want to know what exactly will get a player a yellow card so you can know what to avoid if you’re playing or what to look out for if you’re watching. Luckily for you, we’ve put together a list so you can see what these offenses are:

  • Wasting time or stalling unnecessarily to delay the restart of play.
  • Dissenting or behaving threateningly towards the referee or other players through word or action.
  • Constantly changing between being on and off the pitch without getting permission from the referee.
  • Breaching the distance that you are supposed to keep from another player who is taking a corner kick, free kick, or a throw-in.
  • Taking it too far when tackling and causing repeated offenses, especially if they’ve already been warned for this type of conduct. 
  • Generally unsporting or explosive behavior.

You can probably understand where most of these rules are coming from and why they’re in place, but the one offense that can cause a little confusion is ‘unsporting or explosive’ behavior, because who can define what this means exactly? 

Isn’t ‘Unsporting’ Subjective?

In a manner of speaking, yes, ‘unsporting’ behavior is largely subjective and it will come down to what the referee deems to be inappropriate to the point where it requires reprimanding.

Based on what they see, the referee will make a decision which is then final.

However, there’s an outline of specific behaviors that the official Laws of the Game of soccer have put together, which the referee can use as a reference point to help guide his decision. 

Here’s what we know from their list: 

  • Any attempt to feign injury or deceive the referee in the hopes of being awarded a free kick or causing another player to be shown a card for committing a fraudulent foul. 
  • Swapping places with the goalkeeper during the game when the ball is in play without getting permission from the referee.
  • Committing a direct free kick offense without caution or care. 
  • Allowing the ball to come into contact with your hand or arm below your shoulder to interfere with or block a potential attack. 
  • Fouling another player or tackling them with too much force in order to prevent a goal or stop a potential attack. An exception would be if the referee gives out a penalty kick when it was an attempt to play the ball. 
  • Allowing the ball to come into contact with your hands or handling it in order to score a goal, regardless of whether or not you actually succeed. 
  • For making unwarranted and unsolicited remarks on the field of play.  
  • Continuing to play the ball after receiving permission to leave the field. 
  • Generally disrespecting the game, pitch, other players, or even the referee.
  • Performing a sneaky combination that will pass the ball from the player to the goalkeeper with the head, chest, or knee to work around the law, regardless of whether or not the goalkeeper actually comes into contact with the ball using their hands. 
  • Verbally abusing or trying to distract another player during play or when they’re about to restart play. 

You can clearly see that the point of this list is to highlight how any behavior that is deemed to be not in keeping with the ‘spirit of the game’ will earn a player a yellow card from the referee if they believe it to be unsporting. 

Is it a One-Warning Card or Can You Be Shown Multiple Yellow Cards? 

If a player doesn’t clean up their act after the first yellow card, the referee will not hold back from showing them a second, and once they have, it’s game over for the offending player. 

The maximum number of yellow cards a player can be shown is two, as at this point they will be given a red card and will have to leave the field immediately to face their suspension which will last for at least the duration of the game. 

Yellow Card in Soccer: A Complete Guide to What it Means

Unless you’re the lucky player from 2006 who got away with playing on after the referee forgot to issue a red card, only to go on and then earn himself a third yellow card.

 You would think he’d have worked harder to fly under the radar after getting away with it once!

Besides this amusing exception to the rule, players who have received two yellow cards will then be shown a red card and sent off the field, and they cannot be replaced by another player from the team. 

How Long Does the Caution Last? 

Sometimes the game won’t have been going on for long and the referee will already be pulling his yellow card out to wave it around in the air, which can leave you wondering, how long do the consequences of a yellow card last? 

You already know that once a player has received their first yellow card they’re at risk of being suspended for the rest of the play if they get issued a second, so how long will the player need to be cautious about their movements to avoid being sent off? 

The bad news is that a yellow card will last for the duration of the game. That means that even if you’re cautioned within the first five minutes of a match, that yellow card will last for the remainder of the entire game, so you’ll need to watch your step.

This can be a huge disadvantage as it means the player will have to be on their best behavior for the rest of play which might restrict their movements or cause them to be more careful and reserved in their choices. 

However, once the game comes to an end the yellow card is considered removed and the player will start fresh at their next game without a caution already attached to their name. Except for when it carries over… 

Consequences Carried Over

First things first, a player cannot be given a red card because they have been issued with a yellow card in two separate games.

However, all major soccer tournaments and competitions will carry over into the next game and the next and so on until the tournament ends. 

If a player accumulates a predetermined number of yellow cards then they will be suspended from play for a certain amount of time. 

For example, the FIFA World Cup will suspend players for their next game if they have been given two yellow cards in different games during the group or earlier stages of the tournament.

When it gets to the semi-finals, these yellow cards will be scrubbed from the players' records and they can go into this phase of the competition with a clean slate. 

If the competition is one that lasts for the whole season then again, players will carry over the yellow cards they receive until they reach a certain number of them, at which point they will be suspended for one game. 

What the Referee is Writing

If you’ve ever noticed the referee writing on the back of a yellow card after it’s been issued, they’re not jotting down something they forgot to add to their grocery list.

They’re actually just noting some useful descriptors that will come in handy when they’re handed in later.

This will typically include: 

  • The time at which the offense was committed 
  • What type of offense occurred 
  • The identity of the player who was responsible for the offense via their name/number/position

If there’s a particularly chaotic game where yellow cards are being pulled left, right, and center, then it can help the referee keep track of who has been issued with a yellow card already to avoid another triple-card incident like in 2006.

What might be a surprise for you to learn is that the referee has to submit a report of the game once the final whistle has been blown and it’s all wrapped up.

Keeping track of the key information like this will make it much easier for the referee to recall the details that are needed for these reports. 

Is it Just the Players? 

Most of the time, if you see a yellow card being flashed during a game, then it’s directed at one of the players. After all, they’re the ones engaging with the rules designed to uphold the spirit of the sport. 

However, it’s also not unheard of for other team officials to be issued a yellow card, including managers and coaches. If the referee can’t say for sure who was responsible for the offense, they are within their right to card the most senior member of the coaching team. 

What type of behavior will earn a non-player a yellow card? Here are a few examples: 

  • Not respecting the technical area the team is supposed to keep within. 
  • Interfering with or delaying their own team’s restart of play.
  • Straying into the opposing team’s technical area on purpose.
  • Dissenting or behaving threateningly towards the referee or other players through word or action, including throwing or kicking objects.
  • Disrespecting the match officials or the game itself through sarcastic gestures such as slow clapping. 
  • Entering the referee review area (RRA) without permission. 
  • Excessively gesturing for or demanding a yellow or red card for the opposing team, or persistently requesting VAR ‘review’ by making the TV signal.
  • Generally behaving in a way that is provocative or inflammatory. 
  • Continuing to behave in any way that could be considered unacceptable after being warned. 
  • Showing a lack of respect to the match officials, the other players, and the game.

If you remember the English Premier League game on New Year’s Day and the incident with Jose Mourinho, then you’ll know for yourself that this can and does occur. 

After feeling like Andrew Sparks, who was the Orlando Pirates goalkeeper coach at the time, was purposefully slowing the game, he entered the opposing team’s technical area and was given a yellow card for doing so. 

He has since admitted that his behavior warranted the yellow card, but from interviews and comments, he’s made it’s clear that he’s not exactly regretful of his actions. 

Why the Color Yellow?

One of the great things about soccer is that it is multi-faceted and interesting in so many different ways.

Even the history of soccer is an exciting topic and there are a few things that you may not know about that have actually shaped the way the game is played today. 

For example, the reason behind the yellow and red cards and how those two colors came to be chosen is more interesting than you might think.

Did you know that they didn’t actually come into play until 1970? That’s only just over 50 years ago, and it can definitely be considered a recent addition seeing as the game itself dates back to 1863.

It was Ken Aston, a former referee, who came up with the idea of introducing yellow and red cards to signal a warning or disciplinary action against players who have committed an offense.

This was after a miscommunication between himself and an Italian player who refused to leave the pitch because he didn’t understand the referee when he tried to send him off, as they did not speak the same language.  

Prior to this, players would still receive a caution from the referee, but Aston wanted a way to more easily and effectively communicate this with the players themselves as well as the team’s coaching staff, the commentators, and the fans watching in the stadium or at home. 

According to Aston, the lightbulb idea was sparked when he was stopped at a traffic light, and watching the colors change, he realized that the yellow and red symbols of a warning or ‘take it easy’ and stop or ‘sent off’ could be applied to the pitch as well. 

He ran with the idea and presented it to FIFA who agreed that it could be a good system that would make the game easier to follow, so it was introduced in Mexico at the 1970 World Cup and has been a part of the game ever since.

So, there’s a fun fact for you, and you never know when this type of knowledge will come in handy for a pub quiz! 

Final Thoughts 

We hope that we’ve been able to answer any questions you may have had about the yellow card in soccer, what it means, how it’s used, and where it started. 

If you’re confident that you’ve learned all you need to know about the yellow card and what it means, why not check out our article on a goal in soccer: what it is, the rules, and it’s worth.  

You might feel like you’ve finished brushing up on your practical knowledge and that you’re ready to move on to learn about tips and tricks that could help you to improve your own game, in which case, you’ll definitely want to take a look at our piece on ten of the best tricks and skills you can learn with useful step-by-step instructions and video tutorials. 

One final word - all the information we’ve covered in this article regarding the yellow card, its meaning, and its consequences is based on the official Laws of the Game of soccer which is governed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). 

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