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Bin the Blue Cards?

Why criticisms of the proposed sin-bins in football miss the point

Let’s get one thing clear: football has a discipline issue. It has for decades. Throughout the top leagues of football in all countries, dissent is as common as clouds in the sky. Anyone who has attended a football game will have witnessed players swarming the referee after a fifty-fifty call, screaming obscenities and generally showing zero respect for the officials. This disdain isn’t limited to the players; the biggest managers in football, such as Jose Mourinho and Mikel Arteta, are regularly sent to the stands and fined for disciplinary issues. If even managers show zero respect for referees, how can we expect players to show it? Or, more troublingly, fans?

The major governing bodies of football have done nothing to change the prevailing culture of ill-discipline. This refers not only to dissent. Top-level footballers regularly dive to draw penalties even if a foul is committed, the way that players fall to the ground is overly theatrical. Players are supposed to be booked for both diving and dissent, yet this rarely occurs. The seeming impotence of referees to enforce their own rules makes them look weak, which leaves them open to criticism, which leads to more ill-discipline. Football is in a vicious cycle.

Yet for the first time in decades, football lawmakers Ifab have suggested a solution to the problem: blue cards. This will introduce a sin-bin system like the one seen in rugby. If a player receives a blue card for dissent, they will be sent to the sin bin for ten minutes. If a player receives another blue card or a yellow card afterwards, they will be dismissed. This would empower referees to punish dissent properly, but the suggestion has been roundly criticised by everyone from Ange Postecoglu to Karen Carney to Jim from down the pub.

Most of these criticisms stem from a perception that sin-bins will halt the momentum of the game and encourage time-wasting. These are legitimate concerns. Players already fake injuries for long periods of time, elongating goal kicks and throw-ins when their team has a lead. A sin-bin would arguably not conclusively, mind you open up more such opportunities.

Players and managers spend half their time complaining about the state of officiating in football, yet when a measure is introduced to empower referees, they don’t like it. One of Ange Postecoglou’s reasons for disliking blue cards is that a punitive measure for dissent already exists: the yellow card. It’s the referee’s fault for not giving them out enough, in other words. This completely misses the point. Referees may run football matches, but they don’t run the sport. The players, managers and owners are far more powerful. If referees sent players off every game for dissent, as would be reasonable given the amount of abuse they receive, then Postecoglou would complain far more. So which is it?

If football wants a culture of ill-discipline, we should continue the way things are. If we don’t, we shouldn’t criticise attempts to change it, especially without suggesting an alternative solution. The sport cannot have it both ways. 

Illustration by Sandra Palazuelos Garcia

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