As objects go, it doesn’t look like much. It’s, you know, a yellow card. But when theatrically brandished by an official, almost literally in the face of a player who has done something uncool, it has wild power. It sets off a stadium-full of whistling, and cartoonish arm-flailing from the carded player and his colleagues. A yellow card has real consequences: Possession, a free kick, and the possibility that if the carded competitor blunders again he’ll leave his team understaffed for this match, and will sit out the next.
It strikes me as more interesting than the other penalty card, the red. That one results in instant ejection, in response to some plainly egregious act. Its presentation is memorable, of course. But the yellow card is both more ambiguous and more humane. It’s a warning: There’s trouble; but it could be worse.
According an item on FIFA’s site, the penalty-card notion was invented by an official named Ken Aston, in the wake of a 1966 World Cup quarterfinal match between England and Argentina. Apparently there was some controversy about whether the referee had clearly communicated penalty warnings leveled against two English players:
It started a train of thought in Aston’s head too. He began to think about ways to avoid such problems in the future. “As I drove down Kensington High Street, the traffic light turned red. I thought, ‘Yellow, take it easy; red, stop, you’re off’.”
Yellow and red penalty cards became part of the World Cup in 1970, and are of course now a routine element of soccer and (according to Wikipedia, anyway) a number of other sports.
The cards are a such a brilliant solution to the problem of making sure a penalty has been adequately signaled — they transcend language; they’re clear not just to everyone on the field, but in the stadium, or watching on a screen — that it’s hard to imagine the game without them.
Moreover (and this is the line of thought that idle World Cup moments lead me to every four years), I semi-seriously wish we could port the card system into daily life. Imagine a yellow card as a warning to the shop employee whose insolence is getting close to inspiring a boycott; to the dinner companion whose habit of checking his phone is on the verge of becoming a friendship-ender; to the aggressive tailgater who is just about to inspire a road-rage incident.