Football: the Inequality of Sendings-Off

In football, and many other team sports, for certain types of foul play the penalty is the sending-off of the offender, thus reducing the team’s playing strength by one member. This can have a huge effect upon the team. And there is usually a subsequent ban for the player involved, which can also affect the team.

Here, we are not going to be concerned with refereeing inconsistency, where one referee adjudges a transgression to warrant a sending-off, when another referee might adjudge what appears to be a virtually equivalent transgression unworthy of even a free-kick. And we are not going to be concerned with whether a certain transgression should or should not be punished by a sending-off. These arguments will be dealt with on another day.

Instead the focus here is on the inequality of the effect of the sending-off.

As mentioned above the effect of a sending-off on the team is great. Playing the rest of the match with 10 players against 11 is a big difference. And it is meant to be. After all it is designed to be a disincentive to commit transgressions. I have no problem with that. But what I do have a problem with is the length of time of the penalty.

Let’s look at two extreme examples to highlight my point.

Example A: a player is sent off in the 1st minute of a game, and the rest of the team must play for 89 minutes with one player short, an enormous burden, not to mention a much greater risk of injury.

Example B: a player is sent off in the last minute of a game for handling on the line, preventing a certain equalising goal. The resulting pk, with the last kick of the game, is missed. The team play zero minutes minus one member, and wins the game courtesy of foul play.

This is inequality

In many countries and tournaments there is further punishment for a player who is sent off, usually a 3 game ban. The team can play with a full complement of players but of course the banned player is ineligible, so there may well be a disadvantage to the team, especially if it is one of their best players. But who benefits? The opposition. And who is the opposition? Almost certainly not the team that the original sending-off was against. So an advantage accrues for teams lucky enough to be the three subsequent opponents, who may well be rivals of the team that the original sending-off was against, thus punishing an innocent team.

This also is inequality.

So there is an inequality insofar as a player sent of early in a game ends up missing nearly 4 matches (sent of for most of one, and banned for three), whereas a player sent off in the dying moments of a game misses only the 3 subsequent matches.

How can this inequality be addressed? Not an easy problem to solve, but one possible option would be for the player involved to be banned for 3 matches plus the amount of playing time he had when he was sent off. So someone who is sent off in the 15th minute (and who therefore missed 75 minutes of that game) receives a 3 match ban plus 15 minutes.

In effect, having missed the first 3 matches, he could be placed on the bench for the next match, and could enter the game as a substitute any time after the 15th minute.

For someone sent off in the 85th minute the ban would be for 3 matches plus 85 minutes. After serving a 3 match ban he could be placed on the bench for the next game (as in the previous example), but he would not be able to enter the game until after the 85th minute. In a real situation the manager may well decide not to select the player for this game, for the sake of only 5 or so minutes of playing time, but nevertheless the option remains.

So in both of the above examples the player who is sent off is forced to miss exactly the same amount of possible playing time, 4 matches worth. And this would be true of all situations. This is equality.

But there is the additional problem: a team who has a player sent off against them gains no direct advantage from that player’s subsequent ban. Finding a suitable solution here is even more tricky. However simple is best, so the 3 game ban should apply to that player’s next three games against the same opposition. And if one of those games happens to be a cup-final, or whilst playing for a different team, then so be it. For tournament football, like the World Cup, then the current rule is obviously better, since some countries don’t play each other for decades, but for regular club football it would surely be fairer. This again is equality.

Just a final caveat: these are tentative solutions which I have come up with all by myself. Surely a FIFA think tank could come up with something better? Or is that too much to ask?