How Many Cards Per Game on Average at the World Cup?

yellow card close up referee faded in backgroundThe World Cup will always be a tournament filled with action and drama. If a player isn’t rolling around the floor clutching their leg in supposed agony, they’re being sent off. In the midst of all that action, the ball gets fired into the net.

Every national team wants to be the best and hold the trophy at the end. Of course, this can also lead to some issues when the level of competition soars to new heights. It is clear to see that the stakes are always high in a game of World Cup football. In this instance, there is likely to be an outpouring of cards from the referee. Yet it is intriguing to find out what the average number of cards handed out during the World Cup is?

Here, we will have a closer look at this. We want to know the average of red cards and yellow cards given at World Cups. Indeed, the 2022 tournament saw its first red card given in the clash between Wales and Iran in their Group B match.

The goalkeeper for Wales, Wayne Hennessey, received a red card after hitting Iran’s Mehdi Taremi. The clash between the players was inadvertent, but Hennessey had to leave the pitch as last man. This left Wales with 10 men, and they suffered a 2-0 defeat to their Iranian opponents.

Despite this only 4 red cards were shown in 2022 but the number of yellow cards was the highest since 2010, at 227.  It is worth considering, however, that 2022 was the cleanest tournament this century with less fouls (1599) than any of the previous five editions.  This contrast may be explained by the fact that referees were told to let the game flow but at the same time caution cynical fouls more often.

When Are Yellow and Red Cards Given?

player shown a yellow card

We all know that the referee gives yellow and red cards as a way of disciplining players. If a player engages in certain misconduct, then there is the potential for a card to appear. A yellow card is, of course, a milder caution than a red card. It acts a sort of warning against any further misconduct. A red card results in the player’s dismissal from the pitch. Any player receiving two yellow cards in a game will also receive an automatic red card.

The introduction of both cards came about after 1966. Ken Aston is the man responsible for them. At that year’s World Cup, he had to keep control of the referees. Of course, a variety of languages were being spoken. Aston saw various instances of non-understanding between referees and players. Spectators were also sometimes left out of the loop. So, he came up with the two coloured cards. These were then utilised in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico for the first time.

It’s true to say that players did receive their marching orders long before this time. In fact, the first player to have to leave the pitch in a World Cup was Placido Galindo of Peru. His dismissal came about in the 1930 edition of the tournament. Yet the first player to ever receive a red card in the tournament was in the 1974 World Cup. Carlos Caszely of Chile is the player who received it during the team’s game against West Germany.

The showing of a yellow card can come about for any of the following instances:

  • Unsporting Behaviour – Any action deemed as unsportsmanlike. This includes attempts to deceive the referee or celebrating a goal in an over-elaborate way.
  • Dissent by Action or Word – Anything that challenges the referee’s authority on the football pitch. This can include excessively loud comments at an official or players ganging up on an official to disagree with a decision.
  • Continuous Law Infringement – There is always some leeway given in terms of the football laws during a match. Yet if a player is doing so on a constant basis, the referee can issue a yellow card.
  • Delaying the Restart of Play – Time wasting. Excessive time periods to take free kicks or deliberately taking such from an incorrect position, for example.
  • Not Standing at the Required Distance – Opposing players have to stand 10 yards away from the ball on a free kick or a corner. Any failure to do so will result in a yellow card.
  • Entering or Re-Entering the Field – When a game is in-play, footballers cannot enter or re-enter the pitch. They also cannot deliberately leave the pitch without the permission of the referee.

When it comes to red cards, these appear in the following circumstances:

  • Serious Foul Play – This is quite a subjective issue; thus, it is up to the decision of the referee on such. This can include two-footed tackles or any other activity that endangers another player.
  • Spitting and/or Abusive Language – The first of these is almost always a straight up red card. Abusive language, including that of racism or anything else offensive, is also dealt with accordingly.
  • Violence – If one or more footballers engage in punching, kicking, headbutting or any other violence, a red card appears.
  • Deliberate Fouling – If an attacker has a clear advantage to score a goal and deliberately fouls, this is a red card offence. Any intentional use of hands or arms to block an attempt on goal has the same outcome.

Yellow and Red Cards at World Cups

headbutt by French player Zinedine Zidane on Italian Marco Materazzi
Sculpture showing headbutt by French player Zinedine Zidane on Italian Marco Materazzi – David Merrett, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At the World Cup, games tend to be a little friendlier than in say the Premier League. That doesn’t mean that yellow and red cards aren’t given, though. The average number of yellow cards handed out at the World Cup per game rests between 3 and 4. Yet that remains as an average, so there have been instances of more occurring.

Cards of both colours are so impactful that they have left their legacy in the World Cup, though. Some of the most memorable moments during the tournament have come about from them. You only need to look at the 2006 tournament, which took place in Germany.

The final match of the World Cup saw France take on Italy. Zinedine Zidane, playing for France, will likely always remember this match. Why? Because it was his final act for his home nation. As the match went into extra time, Zidane entered into a heated exchange with Italy’s Materazzi. Some shirt tugging occurred before Zidane headbutted Materazzi in the chest. That was enough to get the French attacker sent off.

As it happens, the 2006 World Cup saw the most red cards in history. A total of 27 appeared, surpassing the 22 from France 1998. This means that the average red cards in that year’s event came in every 2.37 matches. In essence, the referee gave a red card in almost every other game.

That was also the year that Croatia’s Josip Šimunić received three yellow cards. Referee Graham Poll had already shown two yellow cards to the player. Yet he forgot to send him off after the second one, as should have been the case. Yet four minutes later, he received the third and finally had to exit the pitch.

In that game, Croatia were playing Australia in Group F. Dario Šimić received his marching orders with five minutes to go. Then, Australian Brett Emerton got a red card shortly after. With the red card also issued to Šimunić, the drama in that World Cup match was boiling over.

Yet a World Cup record of four red cards in a single match outdid that event. This also occurred during the 2006 event, in a match between the Netherlands and Portugal. As well as the four red cards, 16 yellow cards made an appearance. Both nations took hits from the Russian referee, Valentin Ivanov, in this round of 16 match. Portugal would go on to win the game 1-0, but the drama on the pitch made headlines.

In the 2nd minute of the game, Mark van Bommel received a yellow card. Before Portugal scored the only goal, Dutch defender Khalid Boulahrouz received the same. His foul injured Cristiano Ronaldo, forcing a substitution to occur. Ronaldo left the pitch in tears, citing the foul as intentional.

Meanwhile, Portugal’s Maniche received a yellow card for a foul on van Bommel at 19 minutes. Shortly after Portugal’s goal, the team’s midfielder Costinha received a yellow card. He would then have to leave the pitch a few minutes before half time, having received a red card. This came about following a handball.

The second half of the match brought even more drama with it. Several more yellow cards appeared before Boulahrouz received a red at the 63rd minute. This brought about a melee on the touchline between him and the Portuguese bench. Further yellow card cautions followed in the proceeding minutes. Portugal’s Deco received a second yellow card and dismissal in the 78th minute. His crime? Delaying the restart of the game after gaining a free kick. Then, during injury time, van Bronckhorst received his marching orders. He had a second yellow shown for a foul on Tiago.

Referee Ivanov received a lot of criticism from FIFA in the aftermath of the match. FIFA president Sepp Blatter suggested that Ivanov give himself a yellow card. The referee was not allowed to officiate any more matches in the 2006 World Cup.

In 2022 the Quarter-Final game between the Netherlands and Argentina descended into anarchy.  This was partly driven by the fired up teams but was largely down to poor refereeing by by Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz who issued no less than 18 yellow cards in the game – a record.  This included a card for the Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni and one to one of the Argentinian coaching staff.

In total 15 outfield players received a card, either on the pitch or as a substitute; 12 in normal time, 3 in extra-time and 3 after the penalty shoot-out.

Despite the number of yellow cards issued there was only one red card shown and this actually came after the penalty shoot-out when the game was over.  Another melee on the pitch saw Denzel Dumfries receive a second yellow making a red.

World Cup Card Statistics

rigobert song playing for cameroon
Rigobert Song playing for Cameroon – mustapha_ennaimi, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the World Cup competition, no player has received more than one red card. Yet since the tournament first began in 1930, two players have received red cards across several World Cups.

Rigobert Song, who is the current manager of Cameroon, has been sent off twice. The first time came about in 1994 against Brazil and the second against Chile in 1998. We spoke about Zidane’s dismissal in 2006 earlier on. Yet he was also red-carded at the 1998 event against Saudi Arabia.

It is also true to say that 64 nations have seen players sent off during the World Cup. The countries receiving the most red cards are as follows:

  • Brazil – 11
  • Argentina – 10
  • Uruguay – 9
  • Italy – 8
  • Cameroon – 9
  • The Netherlands – 8
  • Mexico – 6
  • France – 6
  • Portugal – 6
  • Germany – 5
  • Hungary – 5

Five red cards have appeared during World Cup finals, too. We noted Zidane’s dismissal in the 2006 final against Italy. The other four final match red cards are:

  • John Heitinga (the Netherlands) – Versus Spain, World Cup 2010
  • Marcel Desailly (France) – Versus Brazil, World Cup 1998
  • Pedro Monzon (Argentina) – Versus West Germany, World Cup 1990
  • Gustavo Dezotti (Argentina) – Versus West Germany, World Cup 1990

Of the five people to receive their marching orders in the finals, only one became a winner. France picked up the victory over Brazil in 1998, making Desailly a winner, too. His team had a 2-0 lead over Brazil when he received his red card at the 68th minute. They ended up winning 3-0 at the final whistle.

One final statistic comes with regard to the referees. Mexico’s Arturo Brizio Carter has issued the most red cards in World Cup history. He refereed in the 1994 and 1998 tournaments. He showed three reds in the former and four reds in the latter. Carter gave these to the following players:

1994 (USA)Gianfranco ZolaItalyNigeria
1994 (USA)Rigobert SongCameroonBrazil
1994 (USA)Marco EtcheverryBoliviaGermany
1998 (France)Ariel OrtegaArgentinaThe Netherlands
1998 (France)Arthur NumanThe NetherlandsArgentina
1998 (France)Zinedine ZidaneFranceSaudi Arabia
1998 (France)Mohammed Al-KhilaiwiSaudi ArabiaFrance

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