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It’s time to rethink yellow card accumulation rules at major tournaments

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Wales’ Aaron Ramsey has been one of the best players at Euro 2016. But as he’s picked up two yellows in five matches, he won’t be playing in the semifinal Wednesday. That’s really dumb.

Wales v Belgium - Quarter Final: UEFA Euro 2016
Aaron Ramsey (2nd L) of Wales reacts after receiving a yellow card from referee Damir Skomina during the UEFA Euro 2016 quarterfinal match between Wales and Belgium at Stade Pierre-Mauroy on July 1, 2016 in Lille, France.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Aaron Ramsey has been one of the best players at Euro 2016. His four assists in five games is a great stat, with his most recent performance galvanizing Wales’ 3-1 win over Belgium in the quarterfinal yesterday.

But as the Welsh wake up from what isn’t a dream, attention will start to turn to their semifinal Wednesday against Portugal. And as that attention drifts from this week to next, a different Ramsey stat becomes the most important: his two bookings in five matches.

And quite frankly, that stat mattering… it’s absurd.

Take away every argument you’ve heard for yellow card accumulation suspensions — they make sense as an idea to promote “fair play” — and throw them out the window. Because the reality of the situation tells a different story.

Let’s talk about two truths:

  1. Suspending players for two bookings is bad for the tournament, taking quality out of the later rounds of the tournament.
  2. Bookings are highly subjective, meaning every player in the tournament isn’t necessarily playing by the same “set of rules.”

The first one first, because it’s the shorter one. Watching Wales in the semifinal Wednesday will be awesome. They fully deserve to be sitting in the semi, and seeing them have the chance to take down the most boring team of the knockout stages — that somehow has the competition’s best player (lol) — is gonna be great.

But it’s admittedly going to be less fun because Ramsey isn’t playing, for something that’s pretty pedestrian at that. Suspensions for yellow card accumulations make a level of sense during the course of a long club season — five bookings in the first 20 matches earns you a suspension, for example, in the Premier League — because in the long run, you’re actually able to punish “dirty” or unsporting players.

Ramsey, however, isn’t that. He was booked just four times in 31 Premier League appearances this year, a perfectly… normal rate. The average Premier League match saw 3.1 yellow cards issued in the 2015/16 season, which supposes a “normal” player that played 90 minutes would have a 14% chance of picking up a yellow in a match.

When we’re talking about a short sample, though, variance increases. The chance of a “normal” player avoiding suspension after playing 450 minutes at a European championship? It’s just 85%. That 15% chance of a suspension seems abnormally high for players whose discipline record is, well, par for the course.

The other issue though, with short tournaments, is how varied referees are from one match to another. Throughout the Euros and Copa América, I watched a fair bit of football. Sometimes (and especially in Copa), referees went straight to their cards, brandishing yellows left and right — Carlos Sánchez got bit by this — while other times, referees bordered on neglecting their duties, sometimes not even giving fouls for what were bookable offenses in other matches.

That’s fine over the course of a long, 38-match season with a smaller, closed pool of referees all from the same FA — you expect things to “even out” in that sample — but when we’re talking about a five-match situation, well… it’s just not good practice.

And further, if a referee is actually taking into account the accumulation rules when making his decisions — something I’d like to see more do in short tournaments — he should be less likely to go to the cards. At the end of the day, that’s a bad result for the match at hand and the tournament, because when referees don’t issue yellow cards for bookable offenses, matches start to get a little out of control.

But by keeping these asinine suspension rules around, you punish players for this erratic behaviour of referees — there could well be a player who’ll line up in the semifinals that deserves to be suspended just as much as Ramsey does — and in the process, harm the tournament. They fundamentally change matches in a way that accumulation doesn’t in the club world, and it’s not a good chance.

Now, for a solution? I don’t think accumulation suspensions are inherently bad, so I’ll give one I saw floating around on the internet: Suspend players if they’re booked in successive matches.

And I like that — at least a little better. It’s a good way to keep players from racking up the bookings, but it doesn’t punish players who happen to pick up the odd yellow a couple times during a short tournament. Football’s a great game, but it still can make a handful of quality tweaks to make it an even better one.

In the meanwhile though, we’ll watch one of the most enjoyable teams at the tournament going without one of their most enjoyable players, suspended for something that isn’t too far out of the ordinary.

That’s a little sad, don’t you think?