Colombia's miracle escape from soccer's red-card ejection rule

A good deal of attention has been focused on the functioning of the VAR system during this World Cup. Rightly so, for it represents a revolution in soccer thinking (and how many of thoseoccasions can you think of?), a move into allowing technology to play a major role in refereeing.

So far -- according to my own measurements -- we’re getting about equal shares of positive interventions and less satisfactory situations. I have now developed a feeling -- possibly quite false -- that the mere presence of VAR -- the threat of that intimidating battery of extra officials -- may be sharpening referee performances on the field.

Exactly the sort of thing, so hard to measure, that makes it difficult to judge VAR’s effectiveness. There are still 16 World Cup games to go, plenty of time for me to concoct new theories, and plenty of time for VAR to prove that its huge cost and complex operating procedure are worth it.

In the meantime, I must draw attention to a refereeing procedure that is far from new and that has nothing to do with technology. But one that very definitely does pose a huge problem.

One that is entirely created by soccer itself, one that has been enshrined in the rules for as long as anyone can remember: that when a player is ejected, he cannot be replaced. His team is thus forced to play the rest of a game with 10 men.

Full disclosure is necessary: I do not like this rule, and have come out strongly against it in the past -- including in this column, in 2005 and 2009.

SoccerTalk (11/12/2009): Rethinking the red-card rule

This long-standing rule hit Colombia with catastrophic force in the third minute of its first game in Russia. Defender Carlos Sanchez was judged to have handled the ball (a correct decision by referee Damir Skomina). Sanchez was ejected, Japan got a penalty, from which it scored. Colombia, now a goal down, would have to play virtually the entire game with 10 men.

Colombia lost the game -- a game which, inevitably, had been drained of the expectant competitiveness of a real encounter and had turned into something rather different, something much less vibrant, almost like a death-watch for the Colombian fans as they waited to see how long their team could hold on to a 1-1 tie.

Losing the first game is likely to be fatal in the World Cup. After less than four minutes of play, Colombia found that all its World Cup training -- lasting over two years, costing probably millions, was in dire danger of coming to nothing, that its World Cup was going to be over almost before it had started.

Does that make any sense at all? Well, Colombia knew the rules, so therefore had only itself to blame. All true, but that falls well short of being an acceptable justification for an absurdly excessive punishment that marred what promised to be an enthralling game, that diminished the tournament, that ferociously punished one offense -- not merely with the penalty kick and the ejection, but by jeopardizing the entire Colombian World Cup adventure, and by making a mockery of their traveling fans -- of whom there seemed to be plenty in the Saransk stadium.

The Japanese fans presumably found nothing wrong with the events, but the soccer authorities should be seriously disturbed. How can they justify a rule -- their own rule -- that quite methodically distorts their sport?

A rule that, in this case, threatened to introduce into the greatest of all sports events an element of sheer farce? As it happened, that woeful outcome was avoided by a close-to-miraculous performance from Colombia which, aided by an unlikely Poland 1 Japan 0 scoreline, ended up topping the group.

A happy ending, then for this episode of soccer soiling its own nest. But the problem remains. In the modern sport, the sport should always be played as it is meant to be played -- as an 11 v 11 competition. It must be permissible to replace an ejected player. An alternative to reducing it to 10 men must be found to punish the offending team. It seems to me that there are plenty of options, an almost bewildering number of them. The use of sin bins (which I do not like), awarding penalty kicks for every red card, only allowing replacement once per game, allowing replacement but canceling all other substitutions, allowing replacement only after a two-yellow ejection, not after a direct red, replacement only in the first half, replacement only after a stipulated time lapse, and so on.

Of course, none of those ideas, nor any variation or combination of them, will be totally satisfactory. But any of them is almost certain to be better than what we have now.

17 comments about "Colombia's miracle escape from soccer's red-card ejection rule".
  1. charles davenport, June 29, 2018 at 8:23 p.m.

    Still haven't found out how a head to arm ball produces a hand ball call in one situtation but not another seemingly identical situation.

  2. Ric Fonseca, June 29, 2018 at 9:30 p.m.

    This never ending limitless in time-topic vis-a-vis a red card player ejection could be remedied if FIFA were to adopt the ice hockey rule where in an "offending" player must sit out a determined length of time in, ready PG, a penalty box, while his/her team continues play whort.  Heck if it works for hockey, it can sure as tootin' work for futbol soccer. Jeez, 'tis worth a try!

  3. Ginger Peeler replied, June 29, 2018 at 9:41 p.m.

    It’s worked very well for indoor soccer, too!

  4. Wooden Ships replied, June 29, 2018 at 10:52 p.m.

    I don’t agree Ginger, Ric and Paul. The indoor game we were constantly tinkering with the game trying to win over non soccer people. In the states we always seem to try to improve what is already accepted and adored everywhere else. VAR pretty much unilaterally inserted itself and I still prefer the occasional injustice. Perhaps there are other voices in other countries lamenting the consequence of a red and playing down a man, but I’m not aware of any. I’m a big fan of Colombian futbal and haven’t heard a peep from them about changing how it is. It was tough watching Pablo, Captain at the time, get tossed against Italy (think it was Italy). I don’t see the need, it’s part of the tapestry. 

  5. frank schoon replied, June 30, 2018 at 9:42 a.m.

    SHIPS, AMEN!!!!

  6. Kent James, June 29, 2018 at 11:40 p.m.

    PG, I completely agree with a team being allowed to replace a player who has been ejected.  The Red Card should punish the guilty player (and be severe enough of a punishment to deter the foul), not the team (and should not change the nature of the game, which it inevitably does).  I think the simplest solution is to eject the player, but allow a team to replace the player as long as they have a sub.  So most early ejections (like the Colombian player) would be subbed, and if they ran out of subs late in the game, had a player ejected, and had to play a man down towards the end of the game, that's okay.  

    An important positive effect of allowing a player to be replaced is that referees would be more willing to eject players (rather then hesitating for fear of altering the game dynamics), so dirty players would be sanctioned more often (and maybe forced to change their behavior??).  

  7. R2 Dad replied, July 1, 2018 at 6:04 p.m.

    good points, Kent!

  8. Kent James, June 29, 2018 at 11:45 p.m.

    I think VAR has been a great success.  It has helped call some penalties that might not have been called, took back at least 2 penalties that were called and then (rightfully) rescinded.  I only saw one game where it took too long, and that was because the ref took a long time before he went over to look at the monitor.  The only alteration I would make is that instead of VAR only being used when their is a "clear error", I think the referee should be allowed to use VAR by his own choice (if he's not sure); no one needs to know who asked for the VAR, but then there would be less pressure to change the call (if VAR is only used to correct obvious errors).  I don't understand the idea that referee errors are a cherished part of the game as an argument against VAR; adding 2-3 minutes to a 90 minute game in order to have a much greater chance of getting the game critical calls right is a trade off that's well worth it.

  9. Wooden Ships replied, June 30, 2018 at 12:13 p.m.

    Kent, aside from the obvious notion that life is rought with bad breaks, miscarriages and such, the desire for perfection in sport is not attainable. Once we go down (and we are) the road to technology assist, the danger then is where does and will it stop? Jeannie’s ourt of the bottle, toothpaste squeezed. As we already see in the Cup, there’s argument over what is in plain sight. Proponents will never be satisfied. I liken the situation to feeling the obligation of capturing images-footage while traveling or watching your children, grandchildren, great grandchildren for all of posterity. Are you fully appreciating the moment with that obligation? Too many, IMO, haven’t lived singularly in the futbal moment. Especially in the states. It’s now a never ending quest to get it RIGHT. You will be disappointed.

  10. frank schoon replied, June 30, 2018 at 12:33 p.m.

    SHIPS,<Too many, IMO, haven’t lived singularly in the futbal moment. Especially in the states. It’s now a never ending quest to get it RIGHT. You will be disappointed."> NOTHING MORE NEEDS TO BE SAID.

  11. Bob Ashpole, June 30, 2018 at 1:01 a.m.

    I am with WS. Letting them sub after an ejection will just encourage more dangerous play and professional fouls.

    I first thought that Paul was going after the punishment of certain fouls inside the box with a red card and a penalty too. Harsh. Very harsh. I am old enough to remember a time when handling to prevent a sure goal and giving away a penalty was considered smart play rather than misconduct.  

  12. Ron Harbin, June 30, 2018 at 5:17 a.m.

    Why not let the player be replaced but ban the player from playing the next three(?) games?

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, June 30, 2018 at 7:04 a.m.

    Right now, the cynical players engage in misconduct and professional fouls until they see a yellow card. Then they play more fairly. If subs are allowed for ejected players, a cynical team may continue a campaign of misconduct and professionnal fouls until three players are ejected.

    Not only does the quality of play suffer, but the risk on injury increases.

    I quit watching MLS matches (in part) because Houston in particular was taking advantage of the fact that MLS referees would not apply advanatage to opponents when still in their own half and would not card a professional foul in the opponent's half. They based their game plan on defending in this manner. In my view this ruined the play. Might as well give them hockey sticks and let them check and fight like hockey in my youth.

  14. Chris Lipscomb, June 30, 2018 at 8:59 a.m.

    While I agree with the fact that a team should not be penalized for up to 90 minutes for one player's actions, I can also see where if this rule were lifted in its entirety, there would be an openbing to bring in enforcers (players who may not be superior players, but who are there simply to take out the other team's best player(s), as an example).

    This rule change would just have to be thought through thoroughly in my mind, from a devil's advocate perspective.

  15. John Toutkaldjian, June 30, 2018 at 6:05 p.m.

    Finally! Gardner is getting serious about the need to change the ejection rule. I'd like to see him rant on this topic regularly until FIFA wakes ups rather than torch them for not doing enough about the diving and fake injuries (which, I agree, should also be dealth with more harshly). Playing a man down completely changes the game and cheats everyone of their enjoyment of it and is too harsh a penalty against the team. Punish the player, not the team, the organization or the fans.

  16. Bob Ashpole replied, June 30, 2018 at 10:10 p.m.

    John, actually it completely changes the modern game. I am old enough to have played before substitutions were allowed. Playing short was part of the game.

  17. R2 Dad, July 1, 2018 at 6:15 p.m.

    I think this topic, as well as the details of yellow card accumulation and Fair Play as it relates to the World Cup and player discipline, should be revisted. Some teams are deprived of top players because of yellow card accumulation. Until and unless groups can be equalized (ie no Groups of Death), yellow cards are not all the same but are treated as if they were.

    Based on only 1 CONCACAF team reaching the knockout stage (even Asia has more), perhaps CONCACAF should rethink their allowance of excessively rough play and crappy fields, two areas in variance from UEFA standards. That seems to be hurting the improvement of our regional association.

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