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Soccer Could Use Some Card Reform: Pt 1

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The rules of soccer, while overwhelmingly fair, and effective at keeping the game flowing, still could use some improvement. Here's a couple suggestions for the FIFA Rules Committee.

William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

There have been a few persistent problems in soccer that the current rules seem to have not ironed out. Over two articles today and tomorrow, I'll address two persistent problems in the modern game that I think could be addressed with some rules changes.

Spoiler alert: if you're an uber-traditionalist; if you like the rules as they stand; if you still lament the days back when a leather football had thick laces and weighed 80 pounds; if you still refer to the game as 'association football like it's 1906; you probably won't like this article.

But for those of you interested in seeing the game evolve and flourish in new ways, I humbly suggest to you (and FIFA) that perhaps, if the game is still struggling with ongoing problems that the current rules don't properly address, it might be time to adjust the rules to the new reality. So here goes.

I have two suggestions: Orange Cards and Team Fouls. This article is part one: Orange Cards.

Orange Cards

Soccer fouls, as you know, come in three varieties: ‘fouls', ‘yellow card caution fouls', and ‘red card fouls'. From the FIFA rule book:


" a foul is the act of kicking, tripping, jumping in/at, charging, striking or pushing an opponent."

" A yellow card is awarded for the following actions--
Unsporting behavior
Showing dissent by word or action
Persistently infringes on the Laws of the Game
Delays the restart of play
Failure to respect the required distance when play is restarted with a corner kick or free kick
Enters or re-enters the field of play without the referee's permission
Deliberately leaves the field of play without the referee's permission"

"A red card is awarded for the following actions--
Guilty of serious foul play
Guilty of violent conduct
Spits at an opponent or any other person
Denies an opponent a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball (this does not apply to a goalkeeper within his own penalty area)
Denies an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player's goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick
Uses offensive, insulting or abusive language
Receives a second caution in the same match"
Using careless or reckless force such as:
Kicks or attempts to kick an opponent
Trips or attempts to trip an opponent
Jumps at an opponent
Charges an opponent
Strikes or attempts to strike an opponent
Pushes an opponent

These rules seem great and clear and perfectly adequate. On paper. Except, if you've watched a game before, you know that the rules are anything but clear when there is an attempt by the referee to make decisions in the heat of the moment at professional level game speed, with no video review available to him.

For instance, what if a defending player goes in for a slide tackle on what they think is a 50-50 ball, but the player with the ball suddenly turns, and the tackle becomes a ‘from-behind' tackle? What if a player, in the act of corralling the ball, misses and stomps on an opponent's shin? What if a player seems like they are denying a not-so-obvious goal scoring opportunity, i.e. there's one more defender after him? What if a player bicycle kicks at a ball and misses, striking an opponent?

All of these can be legitimately considered red card offenses, especially if they are reckless, dangerous, or show intent to attack the opponent rather than play the ball. However, all of the above cases could be legitimate attempts to play the ball, but end up failing.

I can't claim to be a legal scholar under a functioning modern common-law system. However, the training and practice of being a rabbi is fundamentally based in being a legal adjudicator, and so I've learned much law. Granted, it's Talmudic in nature, meaning that it tends to be philosophical and theoretical more often than it is practical.

That being said, in most legal systems, including the Jewish legal system, intent is an important factor in determining the law. In sports, the main focal point of that determination is the attempt to discern if the player was playing the man/woman or the ball. Generally in soccer, an earnest attempt to play the ball that fails, resulting in a foul, will result in a yellow. An earnest attempt to play the man/woman, cut them down, and potentially hurt them, results in a red.

But when it's right in between? Or when the player's intent is completely unclear? It's up to the referee. And they have a terrible choice to make. We all know a red card can ruin a game, especially an early red. We all know there are times when a red card gets played unjustly, or, alternatively, times when a player gets away with a brutal tackle and earns only a yellow. It is probably the most argued, most game-changing, and potentially most unjust thing that can occur in a soccer game.

The fix is the orange card.

Before you get hysterical about tradition and time honored rules, you should know that yellow cards and red cards do not go back to 1700s Gaellic football, or Italian calcio, or even the first, second, or third renditions of the English league in the 1870s.

Referee Ken Aston invented them after a rough match in 1966, inspired by traffic lights.

They came into regular use by FIFA beginning at the 1970 World Cup. So they aren't some time honored tradition. And they're certainly far from perfect, as I've explained.

An orange card could be exactly what it sounds like: an in-between for that occasional play that's between yellow and red. It could be employed when a tackle is rough, but probably not intentional, or when the intent of the player is murky at best.

The orange card would result in a 45 minute sending-off. A referee could play an orange knowing that it will send the desired message and yet still not ruin the game. A player could earn an orange at minute 15, reducing their team down to ten players, knowing that that player would return at minute 55. If the orange card foul occurred in the 85th minute, or anytime in the second half, the penalty on the player and their team would roll over to the next league match like a red card: the player would be ineligible to play for the first half of the next game, but the team would begin the game at the full strength of eleven players.

Considering it might be an attractive alternative to red, thereby serving as a de facto watering-down of the strictness of the current judicial system, I have a further suggestion: each team can get only one orange per game. If Nigel De Jong earns an orange in the first half, and Jelle Van Damme comes in reckless but without intent to harm to start the second half, it's a red.

It might be a little imperfect and clumsy, and it might take some time to get used to, but the current system of yellow and red has led to a great deal of problems, as the rules are too clunky and inflexible to be applied consistently, and the game itself often suffers. Perhaps another type of card might improve matters and make the game less about the subjective decision-making of the umpires and more about the 22 players on the field.

Tomorrow: part two of soccer dreaming... Team Cards.