Brazil's Neymar, second left, is booked by referee Yuichi Nishimura from Japan during a World Cup soccer match between Brazil and Croatia on Thursday in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Counting the Cards at the World Cup

Everything you ever wanted to know about the cards World Cup referees wave around.

Brazil's Neymar, second left, is booked by referee Yuichi Nishimura from Japan during a World Cup soccer match between Brazil and Croatia on Thursday in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Brazil's Neymar, second left, is booked by referee Yuichi Nishimura from Japan during a World Cup soccer match between Brazil and Croatia on Thursday in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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Basics of Bookings

Cautions. Bookings. Yellow cards. They all mean the same thing to a player: tread lightly, or face ejection. Yellow cards are doled out to soccer’s rule breakers when the referee decides an ordinary free kick isn't enough punishment.

Brazil's Neymar took home the first yellow card in the 2014 tournament.


Referees also keep a red card in their pocket as a last resort, which sends a player straight off the field, no questions asked.

Uruguay's Maxi Pereira was sent off with the Cup's first red.


Two yellows in a game add up to a red, which means the player is sent off the field and banned from returning to the match. His team continues the rest of the game playing a man down.

The player is then banned from at least the next match. Flagrant fouls and extreme misconduct can net multi-game suspensions. In a tournament like the World Cup, where every game counts, red cards - or two yellow cards - can be disastrous.

Simple enough, right? Wait, there's more.

FIFA took discipline a step further by introducing tournament-spanning yellow card tallies. Before 2010, a player who tallied two yellow cards collectively during his team’s first three games would have to sit out a subsequent game.

The player’s tally would then reset after three games, or after he served his suspension, assuming his team advanced beyond the group stage. But if the player received a card in, say, the quarterfinal and semifinal games, he would be ineligible to play in the World Cup Final.

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In 2010, FIFA moved the card reset point to follow the World Cup’s quarterfinal games. So the last two teams standing are guaranteed to be at full strength - barring injury or a red card in the semifinal.

But the fight to the top got trickier. The card tally no longer resets after the opening games, so the longest stretch players have to go without netting two yellow cards is five games instead of three.

Seeing Red

The 2006 World Cup in Germany was the most carded World Cup in the competition’s 19-tournament history, with 373 cards dished out. 

There were 345 yellows and 28 reds shown during the tournament, both individual card records for a single World Cup. That’s an average of more than 5 cards per game.

The title for fastest red card goes to Uruguay’s Sergio Batista, who in 1986 committed a brutal tackle only 56 seconds into Uruguay’s game against Scotland.

Arguably the tournament’s most infamous red card went to France’s Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final against Italy. Zidane headbutted Italian defender Marco Materazzi as the Frenchman’s last act as an international soccer player. He retired after France lost to Italy in a penalty shootout.

This was Zidane’s second red card in World Cup competition, tying him with Cameroon’s Rigobert Song as players with the most reds in World Cup history.

Zidane also tied Brazil’s Cafu as players with the most total cards in World Cup competition. Both ended their careers with six cards. All six of Cafu’s were yellow, making him the most yellow-carded player in World Cup history.

Argentina is the only team in the competition’s history to have a player red carded from the bench: not once, but twice. Claudio Caniggia hounded a referee from the sidelines and saw red during a group match in the 2002 World Cup.

The very next cup, Leandro Cufre kicked German defender Per Mertesacker in the thigh and groin after his Argentine side lost to the Germans in a penalty shootout during a 2006 quarterfinal.

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Italy’s Mauro Tassotti holds the record for most games suspended in a World Cup. Tassotti was suspended eight games after breaking the nose of Spain’s Luis Enrique during a quarterfinal match in the 1994 cup. Enrique reportedly lost a pint of blood after Tassotti elbowed him in the nose, according to Goal.com.


Iraq’s Samir Shaker Mahmoud holds the title for longest suspension for spitting at a referee during a match against Belgium in 1986. Mahmoud was banned from the competition for a year.

Croatia’s Josep Simunic is the only player in World Cup history to pick up three yellow cards. Referee Graham Poll showed Simunic a yellow in the third minute of the game. Apparently forgetting about this first booking, he awarded Simunic a card again in the 90th minute and then in the 93rd minute of play before finally sending him off, according to Football League.

The Battle of Nuremberg

The second round showdown between Portugal and Netherlands in the 2006 World Cup lives on in tournament infamy as the “Battle of Nuremberg.” More cards were shown during this match than in any other World Cup game.


Sixteen yellows and four reds were shown during the game, according to ABC News. The matchup between Portugal and Netherlands set an individual record for most red cards handed out in a single match, according to ABC News and the BBC.

The Battle of Nuremberg shares the title for most yellow cards in a World Cup match with the game between Germany and Cameroon during the group stages of the 2002 tournament, according to the BBC.

Countries’ Card Counts

Argentina is the most carded country in the history of the World Cup, with 99 yellows and 7 reds, according to Quartz. But this will be Argentina’s 16th World Cup, so its players naturally rack up more cards than teams with less history on their side. 

Quartz broke down cards-per-game averages for countries that have participated in the World Cup. Slovenia averaged more than 3 cards per game, but Slovenia didn’t qualify for the 2014 tournament.

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The statistically dirtiest team in the 2014 World Cup, by cards-per-game average, is Ghana, who will kick off against the U.S. on Monday.

The friendliest? That would be Algeria, who average less than a card per game.

FIFA's World Cup statistics contributed to this post.