Football: Sin-Bins and Orange cards

A potential candidate as next FIFA president, Jerome Champagne, recently brought the issue of sin-bins to the fore again. And he mooted the use of an orange card to signify the expulsion of a player to a sin-bin. This is an issue that could be viewed as either a cast for votes, or a can of worms.

What is a sin-bin? When a player is expelled from the field of play for a fixed amount of time he sits in the sin-bin (usually a bench with a cover) while his time runs down. Sometimes the sin-bin is metaphorical, there is no actual structure, and the player just sits out his time on his team bench.

What is an orange card? An orange card is an orange card. The referee already has a red card and a yellow card, so an orange card would give him a third option. The referee would brandish this orange card to indicate to player and spectators that this player has been sent to the sin-bin.

Why orange? Presumably M Champagne hit upon orange as it is midway between red and yellow.

What is a yellow card used for? Before cards were introduced the referee would caution a player who committed one of a number of offences. This acted as a warning to the player, and served to inform the player that if he committed another similar offence then he would be dismissed from (sent off) the field of play, and his team would play the rest of the game with one less member.

What is the red card used for? This simply indicates that the referee has dismissed (sent off) a player for a major infringement, and his team plays the rest of the game with one less member.

Yellow-red card (football)

Why red and yellow? A sending-off is pretty obvious to everyone involved but, before cards were introduced, the cautioning of a player was not so clear. The referee would inform the player and then write the player’s name in his notebook. This was referred to as a ‘booking’, but sometimes it was not clear who was being booked, and occasionally no-one but the referee knew a booking had taken place. This came to a head at a big World Cup match in 1966, when there was a lot of confusion both during and after the match as to who had and hadn’t been booked.

The head of referees at this World Cup, Ken Aston, thought that something had to be done. As he was driving home that evening he pondered the situation. Cautions and sendings-off had to be clear to players and spectactors, so a kind of symbol was needed. He looked up at some traffic lights and got his inspiration: a red light indicating stop, and a yellow (or amber) light indicating caution. When was the last time you ever heard of a referee coming up with a useful idea? Red and yellow cards were first implemented at the 1970 World Cup, and have been standard ever since. In fact many other sports have also adopted similar colored cards.

(Incidentally I had the chance to meet Ken Aston in person. My school team had just won the local under 11 league and Mr Aston, whose main job was as headmaster at a neighbouring school (Newbury Park School, Ilford, London), kindly came to present the trophy. I was the captain so I had the pleasure to receive the cup from Mr Aston, a real gent. As a referee I recall he was impeccably fair, and very low-key. He seemed more like a butler serving the game, very undemonstrative, keeping out of the limelight, perhaps England’s finest ref. In addition he was the first referee to wear black, he had the idea of linesmen’s flags to be bright yellow, he forced through the pressure of balls to be standardized in the laws of the game, he pioneered substitute referees in case of injury, which later became known as the fourth official, and he also introduced numbered boards to clarify player substitutions. Has another ref done anything more for the game?)

So let’s get to the nitty-gritty.

Are sin-bins a good move for football? The knee-jerk reaction is probably to say yes. Sin-bins have been around in other sports for a long time (since 1904 in ice hockey), and have stood the test of time, so why not football? There is much to consider.

What are the merits of sin-bins?

  • At present there are only two punishments a football referee can deploy: awarding a free kick, and showing a card. A yellow card is merely a warning and a red card is an extreme punishment so a sin-binning would provide a less extreme third option.
  • A sin-bin is an immediate punishment, which somehow feels right.
  • A sin-bin not only punishes the offending team, but is also advantageous to the team who were on the receiving end of the offence. Contrast this with a red card in the last minute of a game, when the offending team loses a player for a minute, but the player is subsequently suspended for the next few games against different opposition. Thus the real advantage lies with rival teams.
  • A sin-bin provides time for the player to reflect on his digression, and helps to defuse volatile situations.

What are the demerits of a sin-bin?

This is perhaps best answered with a series of questions.

  • How long should the sin-binning last?
  • Is it real time, or actual playing time?
  • What happens if the sin-binning takes place very near the end of the game?
  • If a team loses 5 players to the sin-bin should the game be abandoned (teams with less than 7 players automatically forfeit the game), even if one of the sin-binned players has only a few seconds more to serve?
  • Can a player be yellow-carded and sin-binned for the same offence?
  • Would multiple sin-binning for the same player add up to a red card and/or a subsequent suspension?
  • Or is a sin-bin the sole punishment, and after serving the sin-binning a player effectively restarts with a clean slate?
  • What is a yellow card offence, and what kind of offence warrants sin-binning?
  • What happens if a referee mistakenly sin-bins a player?

And then there are the changes to play and tactics that sin-binning may bring in its wake.

  • Time-wasting. Can you imagine the time-wasting that will go on while a team-mate is sin-binned for (say) 10 minutes? The ball will be lodged by the corner flag with the inevitable kicking, shoving, histrionics and temper tantrums that we now endure in the last few minutes of some games. Thierry Henry would be in his element. The ball would be kicked high into the stands and would never come back. Who knows what else would happen. If three players are sin-binned in the same game then the spectators could be treated to an extra thirty minutes of time-wasting nonsense.
  • Use of substitutes. I can almost guarantee that if sin-bins were introduced then the clubs would push for more flexible use of substitutes. For example, a greater number of allowable substitutions, or the option of a substituted player re-entering the match. Maybe this is inevitable in any case, and maybe it has its merits, but I think this potential scenario should also be considered when debating sin-binning.

The whole idea of sin-bins is fraught with problems. Are we ready to open the can of worms? Not yet methinks. It requires a lot more debate, planning and trialling, and I don’t think it should hastily be rolled out without deep consideration.

The huge merit in my eyes is that the sin-bin system results in the opposition receiving the full advantage. A yellow card will oftentimes be of no real benefit to the opposition. A collection of yellow cards may result in a subsequent suspension benefiting rival teams.

The secondary merit is that it affords referees a medium option. Sending off is an extreme punishment, especially near the start of the game. A sin-binning is a reasonably harsh punishment, but way short of a sending off, and this option will probably result in a much more satisfying punishment than a free kick and yellow card. Referees may feel much more comfortable with multiple sin-binning than multiple sendings-off.

But it is a double-edged sword. Referees may also choke the red card punishment and continually take the soft sin-bin option, though you never know this might prove to be the best way.

IMHO the sin-bin is worth trialling, but even I can foresee a great many potential problems which can and should be addressed beforehand. Some problems could be eliminated, some reduced to an acceptable level, and some we may just have to live with, and deal with later. But let’s do what we can FIFA.

My suggestions

  • Have a game clock for professional games. Cut out much of the time-wasting. I read somewhere a bit of research which found that the ball is in play for about 60 minutes, and for the other 30 minutes there is no action. This seems like a good starting point. So how about 60 minutes of actual action with the clock stopped when play stops, and the rule that keepers should release the ball in 6 seconds should be enforced.
  • Award a free kick when a player shepherds the ball towards the corner of the pitch. Come on FIFA, address the problem, this is a simple one.
  • Have only sin-bins and red cards. Having three cards is too problematical; some referees fumble around with only two cards (by the way if three cards is the way, please don’t make the third one orange, it’s too similar to red, green would be my suggestion, which would complete Ken Aston’s traffic lights). Why not simply employ sin-binning instead of yellow cards. A yellow card offence becomes a sin-binning offence. In fact a yellow card can indicate a sin-bin.
  • The sin-bin is the complete punishment. In most cases I guess there will also be a free kick awarded, but surely the sin-bin is punishment enough for a non-sending-off offence. No need for double or triple whammies. If a player is sin-binned twice or thrice in the same match so be it, his team is punished each time.
  • The time in the sin-bin should be 15 minutes. A team might be able to get away with a lot of negative play for about 10 minutes, but 15 minutes is a different proposition, and tiredness would play a big part.

So let’s try sin-bins, but let’s avoid orange cards.

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