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Soccer Could Use Some Card Reform, Pt 2

Yesterday I went over the concept of introducing Orange Cards into football. Today's effort at improving game management and fairness: Team Cards.

Fans are the heart and soul of football. Misbehaving fans are a blemish on the game, and it needs to be addressed.
Fans are the heart and soul of football. Misbehaving fans are a blemish on the game, and it needs to be addressed.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Part two of my article on Card Reform. For part one, go here.

Team Cards

The modern game of soccer has been plagued by a unique problem in the sporting world: fans influencing, affecting, and even ruining the game. Fans making monkey chants or throwing bananas at black players. Fans declaring their teams will be ‘racially pure' of ethnic or religious groups they deem undesirable. Fans yelling homophobic or sexist chants. Hooligans brawling before or during games. Fans endangering the safety of players and other fans with unsanctioned flares*, or by running on the pitch. Fans using laser pointers on opposing goalies.

All of this is intolerable. It harms the game and the integrity of sport itself. FIFA's reaction to all of these things has been weak, at best. Teams can be sanctioned on occasion by being forced to play behind closed doors, or by league point deductions. But those sanctions are ex post facto, and also pretty strong: like ‘red cards', they lack the flexibility to be employed when things are just brewing at the beginning, and are only utilized when things have gone very badly sour. There's no way to effectively police fans from yelling ‘puto'; it's considered too minor to result in some massive punishment, and there are no intermediate courses of action.

There's an additional problem in soccer, and that is that rough play by lots of players could, hypothetically result in 11 yellow cards, zero reds. It's been relayed on ExtraTime Radio and other media outlets that MLS teams struggle to defensively stop creative maestros like Sebastian Giovinco. So smart teams around the league are resorting to the only tactic they've got: kick him. Everyone on the team, kick Seba. How is that fair? How does it possibly make sense to have a disciplinary system where a violent player is countenanced by being effectively told ‘OK, that's enough. Gargan, you can't foul anymore.' But De La Garza can. Until he gets the yellow. And then Van Damme can play "Hack-a-Shaq" on Gio. This is dumb and illogical.

So here, I'm stealing an idea from basketball, but in a limited and very specific fashion. Have a ‘team yellow card'. First: if fans, or the manager, engage in unacceptable behavior of the type outlined above, that's a yellow card. No exceptions, no relief. You want to yell ‘puto!' at the opposing GK? Boom. Yellow card, first time. Do it again? Red. Manager is instructed to remove one player and play down a man. Smart teams would stamp this out before it ever got going: teams would meet with their supporters groups and plead with them in advance of the season. SGs that didn't pay heed would be hurting their team.

How? Like in basketball, each team has a ‘team fouls' category, except here it is team yellows. Four (five?) yellows equals a red. Manager must remove a player, team plays with ten players.

If fans knew they would hurt their team, it might change the culture. MLS is actually pretty good at this: leagues in Eastern Europe and Russia; Israel and Holland; and even England are less good at fan behavior.

Someone might claim I'm trying to allow sport to police free expression. A fair point. I'm not saying these rules apply to chanting that the referee is the illegitimate spawn of an unsanctioned relationship, or telling fans from Utah that we strongly dislike them in all manner of language, foul and otherwise.

But I, and most fans, draw the line at racist, homophobic, transphobic, fear-inducing, or violent conduct. It has no place in the game, the stadium, or human society. If you can't say it to a co-worker at the watercooler without getting fired, then you shouldn't be able to yell it at a sporting event. And certainly not at my stadium, with my team.

I recognize that this is a tough one to enforce in some cases. What if it's five people yelling it, not fifty? What if a fan brings a laser pointer to point at their OWN goalkeeper, hoping to earn the opposition a yellow? What if me and ten friends dress up like RSL fans and yell racial slurs in hopes of earning RSL a card?** Better stadium policing, good communication, and better technology should help. If laser pointers persist as a problem, teams will need to do a better job of banning them. Let the ref address the crowd over the PA with his wireless mic: "A yellow card has been issued to the home fans for the unacceptable chanting of hateful slurs at opposing players. You should all be ashamed of yourselves in that Southeast corner. An email will be sent to your bosses, your wives, and your mothers. Knock that BS off."

Generally, the home fans can be held accountable in most games, since away fans are often small in number. I think it reasonable to assume that in the Mexico-Jamaica game last week, of the 80,000 fans, less than 500 came to support Jamaica. It was a fan of El Tri that tried to blind Andre Blake. Who gets the yellow isn't going to be in doubt, 98% of the time.

FIFA would need to institute both rules: perhaps by testing them for a season in a few leagues such as MLS. Failure by FIFA certified federations to enforce such rules could result in sanctions. I can foresee such a situation in the event that referees in, say, the Russian Football League fails to crack down on the rampant racial abuse found in Russian soccer.

Similar concerted efforts from the very top of the soccer-rules world would be necessary to stamp out the ‘puto' chant, which is virtually ubiquitous in Mexico's Liga MX. Until a zero-tolerance approach is developed, with real consequences for teams, we can expect that these ugly elements will continue to mar the beautiful game.

In short, soccer is a great game, and in terms of rules and regulations, fouls and infractions, it is a far better, far clearly, and far less litigious sport than American Throwball or Major League Baseball. I don't aspire to a sport with a billion-page rule book and a byzantine system of fouls and corresponding penalties. But if the game has problems, it's stewards must find solutions. I think these two ideas: orange cards and team cards, would improve the game we all love.


* I love flares and smoke bombs. I think they make for a great and exciting aspect to games. But if you've ever been at a game with flares, they can still get kinda scary. In many matches, two or three flares will get thrown in a waste bin and a massive fire will erupt, smoke engulfing the crowd, fans coughing and choking to run and stumble from the flames. It can result in a danger to the fan. I'm in favor of smoke and flares, but I'd prefer if teams and supporters groups could have specific times and places and guidelines for when and how to do it. Yeah, maybe I'm no fun. But I've also seen people get hurt.

** I don't really think in MLS that's a thing we should expect to see (what Rapids fan wants to blow $90 on the jersey of their rival team?) but it's possible. Strong fan management efforts go hand-in-hand with all of these suggestions around reigning in fan misbehavior.