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Blue cards, 10-minute sin bins trials announcement delayed

A day after announcing the potential for significant changes, IFAB has backed off.

A-League Men Rd 16 - Adelaide United v Perth Glory Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images

Well, that happened quickly. Yesterday, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) announced plans to publish new protocols for the new ‘blue card’ and 10-minute sin bin stints for offending players to be trialed next season at some senior levels of the game (but not the Premier League).

Today, IFAB said they would delay publishing those protocols following pushback from other football stakeholders including FIFA and UEFA. Instead, the idea will be discussed further at upcoming meetings.

The intent of the blue card and the sin bin is a good one — to discourage cynical fouls and curtail dissent / referee abuse. As an overall goal, I’m all in favor of doing both.

I’ve long thought that a yellow card is not a significant enough punishment for denying the opposing team a possibly promising attack / committing a professional foul, more generally. Case in point example: Giorgio Chiellini’s horse collar tackle on Bukayo Saka in the Euros. While it probably wasn’t enough to rise to the level of a red card, although it looked pretty bad and you really couldn’t complain if he’d been sent off, a yellow card was not a significant enough punishment.

I’m beyond tired of “get beat, take ‘em down” being a defensive tactic. We want attackers to beat defenders, break away, and make things happen. That’s one of the most exciting parts of the game. Similarly with fouling to stop counters. If you want to press high up the pitch / you make a mistake in the attacking third, there should be consequences.

As for clamping down on referee abuse, sure, why not. It doesn’t seem nearly as big of a problem and is overblown by the media more than anything else. But it would be nice if they could figure out a way to avoid having multiple players surrounding referees at every flashpoint moment.

The new proposals that were to be announced included only allowing the captain to approach the referee. I don’t want to get too far into it because it’s not a major part of the proposed changes, but I don’t particularly like the change. At least not without nuance and understanding. Part of the referee’s job is player and game management. Players being able to calmly approach the referee at an appropriate time is a good thing! It builds rapport, it lets players ask questions and get brief explanations, and it keeps tempers in check.

But let’s get to the heart of the changes: blue cards and a sin bin.

I like that IFAB is showing a willingness to make significant changes in an attempt to improve the game. They’re thinking creatively and not letting “tradition” restrain them, which has frequently prevented the game from progressing.

I’m generally on board with the idea that there needs to be a more significant punishment between a yellow card and a red card. Will playing down a man for 10 minutes make a meaningful difference in matches? I’m not sure, we’ll have to see.

But I’m not sure this particular regime is the answer. Honestly, I think the best way to fix the problems of cynical fouls and dissent would be to properly enforce the rules as they exist.

Give yellow cards and second yellow cards when deserved.

So often we see referees hesitant to give that first yellow card, especially early in a match. Or they give warnings in the first half and only start brandishing the cards in the second. And then when players are on cards, referees are extremely hesitant to issue the second and send a player off.

If referees properly handed out yellow cards when they were deserved, we’d have a period in football where more players would be sent off. It would be a painful adjustment with some wonky looking matches and results. But the players would adjust and modify their conduct. They always have in the face of rule changes.

If we accept the premise “referees are hesitant to mete out permanent punishment,” the blue card has the same problem as the yellow does. Players will take the punishment and then feel relatively safe in the knowledge that they won’t be sent off for good. That it will take something egregious for them to receive a second blue (or yellow) card.

Further, if you feel that referees aren’t all that good at correctly, consistently, and fairly handing out cautions, empowering them with another tool, one that has more of an influence on a match than a yellow card, is moving in the wrong direction. It’s giving them another judgement to make, creating more opportunity for unconscious bias to come into play, and creating more chances for them to get it wrong.

I’m sure that some of the thinking behind adding the blue card and the sin bin is that by giving referees an intermediate tool that doesn’t permanently affect the number of players on the field, referees will be less hesitant to administer discipline. In turn, the increase in cards and perhaps the sheer magnitude of the disadvantage created by temporarily going down to 10 might force players to change their behavior.

One concept that I haven’t seen discussed that I think might be an effective change is team cautions. It’s pretty easy for teams to rotate who breaks the rules. First, the defensive midfielder hauls a guy down. Next time, the fullback slides over and does the dirty work. Then, the centerback does it. The attacking team has lost three chances and what has it cost the defending team? Very little.

For example, three cynical, yellow card fouls to stop counters sees the player who commits the third one sent off. Or the second blue card received by a team, regardless of who gets it, is upgraded to a red.

There are likely other creative solutions out there to be trialed. Hopefully IFABs willingness to float blue cards and sin bins, even if they immediately caved to other football decision-makers saying “woah, let’s pump the brakes,” is an indicator that they’re going to keep working towards cutting down on cynical fouls and referee abuse. Further, perhaps their newfound flexibility could be applied to other problematic rules like Offside and Handball.