The Red Card Rules In Soccer (With Examples)

When a red card is given, it can dramatically change a soccer match. With one team having an extra player, it can really prove difficult for a team if they have had a player sent off.

The match can become very one-sided as one team tries to defend with one less player and then try to counter-attack.

The Red Card Rules In Soccer (With Examples)

If players and coaches know the rules which exist around red cards then they can be prevented from occurring and putting their team at such a disadvantage. 

In this guide, we will look at what is signified by a red card, the offenses where a red card may be given, what happens when a red card is shown, what happens when a goalkeeper is sent off, and the history of the red card. 

What A Red Card Signifies

A red card being shown by a referee is a serious moment in any soccer match that has repercussions during the match itself but also after.

Once a red card is shown to a player, they have to leave the field of play immediately.

The referee’s decision should be final (though a VAR review has changed things), as they have deemed the offense so serious that the player is not allowed to continue playing. 

Red is a bold color and as soon as the referee holds up a card with that color to a player it is to signify to everyone on the pitch and in the stands that the decision has been made and that player is automatically excluded. 

This is due to the infraction that the player has committed which may be deemed worthy of a red card on its own or the accumulation of two yellow cards.

A red card is the highest form of punishment that a referee can administer doing a soccer match so they do not take the decision lightly.

However, the punishment can go further as the player should be suspended from playing in further matches in that competition. 

Those two ways that a player can be shown a red card are relatively straightforward.

One way is that a player can have committed a foul so serious that the referee decides that the player deserves to be sent off the field of play solely for that.

As soon as the serious offense occurs, the referee will blow their whistle to halt the game and then approach the offending player to show the red card and dismiss the player from the field.

The second method where a player can be shown a red card is through the adding up of two yellow cards.

If a player has been cautioned by a yellow card during the game then they have to be careful not to commit a further offense that could result in another yellow card. 

Should they commit a further infraction that the referee also deems worthy of a yellow card then they will be issued with that second yellow card followed by a red one and their participation in the match comes to an end.

The Offenses Where A Red Card Can Be Given

There are seven distinct offenses where a red card can be given by a referee.

These include receiving a second yellow card, violent conduct, serious foul play, biting or spitting, and using offensive, abusive, or insulting language/gestures. 

A red card can also be shown for the denial of a goal or a goal-scoring opportunity by a handball or when committing a foul.

Try your best not to commit those offenses and you should be able to finish the soccer match.

It is worth noting that although these offenses would typically merit a red card being shown, technology has changed things somewhat.

If VAR is applicable in the match then it can be used by a referee to review the referee’s decision.

What was once a final decision could now be overturned following that review by the referee who initially decided it was worthy of a red card.

Serious Foul Play

The definition of serious foul play involves a tackle/challenge that ‘endangers the safety of an opponent or uses excessive force or brutality’.

A high foot or a seemingly deliberate attempt to injure an opponent will qualify for a red card.

One such example involves Roy Keane and his admittedly pre-meditated challenge on Alf Inge Haaland in the 2001 Manchester derby at Old Trafford. 

A red card given in this circumstance is essentially a punishment for trying to seriously injure an opponent.

This is likely in a lunge which can be from the side, front, or even behind a player which uses excessive force.

Such a challenge can break bones and cause an injury that can seriously harm a player’s career. 

Violent Conduct

The offense known as violent conduct is slightly different from serious foul play in that it can be committed by players who are not playing at that moment.

For instance, a substitute or a substituted player can be sent off for violent conduct. This could be due to a violent offense committed against spectators, match officials, or even teammates. 

The offense could even have occurred after the final whistle. This occurred when Benjamin Tetteh was sent for Ghana when throwing a punch at a player for Gabon in a brawl after the game had finished.

Tetteh even tried to leave the field and head to the dressing room to avoid being shown the red card.

Though the red card did not have ramifications for the match itself, Tetteh would have had to serve a suspension in the African Cup of Nations 

Contact does not even have to be made for the act to be considered violent conduct as it is conducted against an official, spectator, or even a team-mate that is considered.

A player can also be found guilty of violent conduct when they are not challenging the ball. 

If they are deemed to have deliberately struck an opponent, or another person, on the head or face with their arm or hand then, even if the force was negligible, this is still considered a sending-off offense.

Any type of violence can receive a red card, even a headbutt to the chest as Zinedine Zidane found out in the 2006 World Cup Final. 



Tempers can fray during a tense soccer match and the offense of biting or spitting would result in a red card.

This is truly a rare offense yet when it does occur it proves unforgettable, and pretty much unforgivable. 

The offense can be directed at an opponent but also at the referee which will result in a red card. Such an occurrence happened with Edin Dzeko who was sent off for spitting at the referee during Roma’s 7-1 defeat to Fiorentina in 2019.

Denial Of A Goal Or Goal-Scoring Opportunity Via A Handball

If a handball is deemed to have denied a goal or a goal-scoring opportunity then it is worthy of a red card.

Such an offense occurred when Reece James was sent off for Chelsea in their away game at Liverpool in August 2021.

With the ball on its way to going into the goal, James put out his right arm and prevented the ball from going in.

This was deemed to be a deliberate attempt to play the ball and a penalty was subsequently awarded after James had been sent off.

It may be tempting for a defender to use any part of their body to prevent the ball from crossing the line or providing a goal-scoring opportunity.

In extreme examples that can mean using their arm to deliberately intercept the flight of the ball from being an easy tap-in for an opponent. 

One of the highest-profile examples involved Luis Suarez in the 2010 World Cup.

With time ticking down in the quarter-final between Uruguay and Ghana, Suarez deliberately handled the ball to prevent it from crossing the line and keep the scores level however he was sent off and a penalty was awarded. 

Denial Of A Goal-Scoring Opportunity Via A Foul

This offense is a little more detailed as if the referee awards a penalty for the foul and if it was deemed an attempt to play the ball then this is not classed as a red card offense.

For instance, if a player is through on goal and a slightly mis-timed tackle halts their progress inside the penalty box then a penalty is given but the offending player is not sent off. 

This is a newly updated ruling which effectively mitigates a double punishment so unless the foul is considered worthy of a red card anywhere on the field, typically it results in just a penalty. 

The rules used to suggest that any foul that denied a goal-scoring opportunity would be a red card though that has since changed.

If the foul is a deliberate one and is not an attempt to play the ball then the red card would be shown.

This could also mean that not only fouling an opponent but holding, pushing, or pulling an opponent without playing the ball and denying a goal-scoring opportunity could result in a red card. 

Such an incident occurred when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sent off for Manchester United against Newcastle United at Old Trafford in 1998.

With the soccer match entering its final stages and the home side looking for a winning goal, the ball broke for Newcastle’s Rob Lee who had a clear run on goal.

Solskjaer decided that he would halt Lee’s progress to prevent a goal-scoring opportunity. However, as Solskjaer had not attempted to play the ball then the red card was shown. 

A sending-off offense that is rarely seen is when a substitute, substituted player, or sent-off player, enters the field of play without the referee’s permission and then interferes with play to deny a goal-scoring opportunity. 

Here, the suitable offense is still denying a goal-scoring opportunity yet because the player has not been allowed on the pitch it is deemed a serious enough offense by the referee.

When the referee does consider if a goal-scoring opportunity has been denied they have a few things to consider.

These include the general direction of play, the distance between the goal and the offense, how likely it is that the fouled player would keep the ball and whether there are any covering defenders. 

Offensive, Insulting, Or Abusive Language

If a player says something to the referee that is deemed offensive, insulting, or abusive then the referee can show that player the red card.

Such language would include calling the referee a ‘cheat’ as it would be tantamount to suggesting that the referee has been swayed to make certain decisions.

Even in the heat of the moment, if the referee is subjected to verbal abuse or an insult then it is at their discretion to send off the offending player  

An example of a red card being issued for offensive, insulting, or abusive language occurred when the Vancouver Whitecap’s player, Brek Shea, was initially cautioned for a foul tackle against Toronto FC’s Nick Hagglund.

Upon receiving the yellow card, Shea uttered something to the referee, Ismail Elfath. Whatever it was, Elfath deemed it fit to be worthy of a red card and issued it promptly.

Even though Shea had already been cautioned, this was an offense deemed worthy of a red card on its own.

A Second Yellow Card

If a player has already been cautioned with a yellow card for an infraction then they run the risk of a second offense having them removed from the field of play.

It does not matter how far apart in time these two offenses are, if they are individually deemed worthy of a yellow card then both will add up to a red card. 

Such an example is Ashley Cole being sent off for the LA Galaxy for two offenses in the space of 15 seconds.

The first was for time-wasting at a throw-in and the second was for a reckless foul

Other Offenses That Could Result In A Red Card

While seven distinct offenses typically result in a red card, there are a few obscure ones too.

Several of them are associated with aggressive behavior and this includes showing dissent to a match official or acting in an inflammatory manner towards one.

If the referee is confronted during the half-time interval or after full-time then a red card can also be shown. 

A new offense that can also result in a red card includes entering the video operation room. 

If a player or coach interferes with play or a match official then they can be sent off. This is also similar to if a player or coach enters the opposing technical area in a confrontational manner.

Should the offense occur during play and the referee wants to play an advantage then the referee can still issue a red card after play has come to its next natural stop, this is unless the player is seriously injured, especially with a head injury. 

What Happens After A Red Card Has Been Shown

The Repercussions Of A Goalkeeper Being Sent Off

Following a red card being shown, the offending player has to leave the field of play immediately. This not only means the soccer pitch but also the technical area too.

They cannot argue their way into remaining in the game or they run the risk of the match being forfeited for their team and the team cannot substitute the offending player.

The team will be reduced by one and will have to play the remainder of the game with one less player. 

Once the player has been sent off they cannot watch the game with the rest of the team. That means that they cannot watch the game with the substitutes on the substitutes bench or with the manager and coaches.

Most of the time, the player leaves the field of play and heads straight to the dressing room to see out the rest of the game.

Once the offending player has left the field of play, the referee can restart the game with a free kick to the team against whom the player who has been sent off committed the offense. 

In all likelihood, the player will also be suspended from playing in the next match in that competition. If the offense is deemed so serious, they may even be suspended from multiple matches.

Should the player have been sent off for a second yellow card or due to a professional foul, such as denying a goal-scoring opportunity or preventing a goal, this will typically be deemed worthy of a one-game suspension.

These offenses where only a single game ban is issued are typically termed as a ‘minimal red card offense’. 

However, if a player has been sent off for dissent, such as aiming offensive, insulting and abusive language at a referee or match official, then they could expect a two-game suspension depending on how serious the confrontation was.

The strictest of suspensions are typically given out for players who have been shown the red card for violent conduct or serious foul play.

For these offenses, you can expect a player to be suspended for at least three games depending on the severity of the offense. 

The Repercussions Of A Goalkeeper Being Sent Off

Goalkeepers can also be shown a red card and they will still be expected to immediately leave the field of play.

A goalkeeper who has been sent off cannot be replaced by a substitute yet this scenario does potentially impede another rule.

Each team has to have a player that is designated as the goalkeeper on the field at all times. That means another player has to play in goal, even if they are not a goalkeeper.

That typically means that an outfield player will be substituted to be replaced by the substitute goalkeeper. However, the team can also reposition an outfield player to become the goalkeeper for the remainder of the game.

The latter option is rarely used as many outfield players have not trained to go in goal.

While they may be able to take goal-kicks, they are extremely vulnerable when it comes to taking crosses, saving shots, and commanding their penalty area. 

The History Of A Red Card

The red card dates back to the Sixties, though the action of excluding and cautioning players who break the Laws of the Game had existed since 1881.

Introducing language-neutral colored cards was first suggested by the English referee, Ken Aston.

He was responsible for the referees when England hosted the World Cup in 1966 and an incident between the host nation and Argentina prompted the debate.

Various newspaper reports had stated that the referee during the quarter-final match, Rudolf Kreitlein, had sent off Antonio Rattin for Argentina and also cautioned both Bobby and Jack Charlton.

However, this was not clear and the England manager, Alf Ramsey, asked FIFA to clarify after the match. If it was not clear to the manager then the spectators, and those watching the match, were none the wiser too. 

Ken Aston had previously been involved in a famous match in the World Cup before that when he officiated the ‘Battle of Santiago’ between Chile and Italy in 1962.

Both sides were hungry for the victory yet it only took a mere 12 seconds for the first foul to be committed.

Only seven minutes later and Aston wanted to expel the Italian, Giorgio Ferrini, from the pitch for kicking a Chilean player.

Alas, Aston’s limited grasp of Italian meant that he could not force the player to leave. 

Eventually, Ferrini’s teammates and stadium security effectively dragged the Italian off the pitch yet the offending continued.

Shortly before half-time, the Chilean, Leonel Sanchez, punched the Italian, Mario David, yet Aston did not send him off.

David then kicked Sanchez directly in front of the referee and only then did Aston decide to send a further player off though he still did not have a signal to use.   

Aston began to think of a means of using color to identify a referee’s decision and based the scheme on a set of traffic lights.

Yellow meant caution while red meant stop which went past any language barriers thus the concept of yellow and red cards was born.

It took until the next World Cup in 1970 for the use of yellow and red cards to be used, incidentally, this was the first World Cup to be broadcasted in color which also helped. 

Since the red card was introduced in soccer, it has also been used in several other sports including rugby which uses its own set of codes.   

Final Thoughts

The red card is used in a soccer match by a referee to automatically eject a player from the pitch. That player’s team will be shorthanded for the rest of the game though the referee will not have come to that decision lightly.

Seven distinct offenses amount to a red card and this could be a second yellow card or a foul deemed so serious that the player has to be removed from the match.

Once a red card has been shown to a player, they must immediately leave the field of play though they could also be suspended for playing in multiple matches after too. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How Many Players Can Be Sent Off In A Single Soccer Match?

A total of four players can be sent off for a single team during a soccer match.

Once a fifth player is sent off from that team and the team is reduced to six men then the referee has to end the game immediately. The team which has been reduced to six men will be required to forfeit the game. 

This rule was introduced as the rules of soccer determine that a team is required to have at least seven players on the field during the match. Once a team is reduced to less than seven players, it is not possible to continue the match.

Can A Manager Receive A Red Card?

Yes, they can. A manager can be sent off for similar offenses to their players including violent conduct, preventing an opposing player from restarting play, and even spitting.

The manager can also be sent off for being responsible for their staff’s behavior in the technical area or dugout if they have behaved irresponsibly.