A red card is the heaviest punishment the referee can give to a player. The offender must leave the field at once, and he may well be banned for at least one further match. Once he is gone, he cannot be replaced by a substitute; his team must continue with one less man. In the English Premier League there is an automatic three-match ban, although players can appeal against this.
Because they are so powerful, red cards are reserved for very bad behaviour such as violence, abuse or deliberate cheating. A red card can stain an entire team’s performance in a tournament, taking their players out of crucial games and sapping the morale of the squad.
The offences that warrant a red card are defined in FIFA’s Laws of the Game
- Being guilty of ‘serious foul play’ (for instance, a very dangerous tackle).
- Spitting at an opponent or other person.
- Denying the other side an opportunity to score by handling the ball.
- Denying the other side an opportunity to score by fouling a player.
- Offensive or abusive language or gestures.
Players frequently criticise the referee’s decision to ‘book’ them and it is quite ordinary for a yellow card to be upgraded to a red when they argue against his decision.
The system of coloured cards was invented in 1970 by a British Referee called Ken Aston, who came up with the idea while waiting at traffic lights on Kensington High Street.