Professional football could be set for one of its biggest rule changes in a generation with the introduction of sin-bins and blue cards. Football’s lawmakers, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), are determined to crack down on dissent towards referees by giving officials the power to send players to the technical area for 10 minutes - following similar protocols that are used in rugby union and other sports.
It comes after an initial trial phase at the grassroots levels in England, where sin-bins have been used up to step five of the National League system since 2019, in a general effort to improve participant behaviour in the game. The introduction of blue cards would target two areas: dissent towards officials and tactical fouls, such as when a defending player stops a counter-attack through a trip or tug on the attacker.
The addition of blue cards would mark a significant change in football’s long-standing laws when it comes to discipline. Yellow and red cards were introduced in the 1970 World Cup and this would signify the biggest alteration to the game since then: under the proposals, if a player has already been booked, they would be sent off if shown a blue card, while two blue cards would equal a red.
While the use of VAR has significantly altered elite football, it could still be some time until blue cards or sin-bins are used at top-level competitions. Next season’s men’s and women’s FA Cups have reportedly been suggested for the first stage of the trial being tested at the professional levels, but after that the new rules could be rolled out across the Premier League and Champions League.
We asked our writers for their thoughts…
Richard Jolly, Senior Football Correspondent:
In theory, sin bins seem a good idea for the more cynical offences or those that are sometimes described now as "orange card". In reality, however, it will prove another reason for yet another outbreak of tedious whingeing about referees and VAR, of more whataboutery and more conspiracy theorists inventing agendas that their club has had too many blue cards and others have had too few.
Jamie Braidwood, Sports Reporter:
I think using blue cards and sin-bins to punish dissent works at grassroots, but I think top-level football is a bit more complicated. With VAR in its current state, on-field referees have become hesitant when it comes to big-game decisions, while being encouraged to be more proactive in punishing dissenting players and managers. The balance doesn’t seem right and it only adds to the frustration. Introducing blue cards adds another layer onto that.
Lawrence Ostlere, Deputy Sports Editor:
What I am all for: clamping down on dissent towards referees. Football has an anger problem, and the perpetual abuse of officials is at its ugly heart.
What I am against: blue cards, because the classic red-yellow duo are already taking the fight to dissenters with promising results. This season, referees across the English game were told to get strong on abusive behaviour, and the early data suggests players are responding. Over the first four months of the season, bookings for dissent rose by 88 per cent, causing a decrease in the incidents of players surrounding referees (down 37 per cent) and a drop in mass confrontations (down 47 per cent).
In the Premier League the numbers are even more dramatic. Yellow cards shown for dissent have more than tripled and in November, for the first time in more than a decade, a Premier League player was shown a straight red card for swearing at an official when Brighton captain Lewis Dunk launched a verbal tirade at referee Anthony Taylor. The point is that the current clampdown appears to be having some effect, and until there is reason to conclude the strategy has failed, perhaps we shouldn’t start adding new colours into the long-established palette of discipline.
Alex Pattle, Sports Reporter:
I like the idea as a means of punishing challenges that seem to fall in a grey area. If a team feel that an opposition player should be sent off but there's no red card, they'll at least be less likely to moan if that player receives a blue card than if they receive a yellow. Maybe that's wishful thinking, as I understand Richard's point about a new, different form of 'whingeing'. In any case, a potential downside could be more frequent spells of lower-quality football while a sin-bin is in effect. The flipside to that, though, might be more goals in such periods and in the sport overall.
Karl Matchett, Assistant Sports Editor:
It’s 50-50 for me: I’m in favour for tackling ill-discipline and dissent at the senior/professional level, but not for increasing the number of subjective calls we get for fouls, which will infuriate fans and give managers more reasons to moan. Abusing officials has long been an issue which has been tackled in different ways and for a while it appeared to have an impact, but in the Premier League at least we’ve seen countless recent instances where players are punished in inconsistent ways, even within the same game. A ten-minute sit-down for berating refs would quickly put an end to it in any regard, but I don’t include the “throwing up the arms” gesticulations in that category - players should be allowed an emotional response to decisions they feel are rubbish.
Michael Jones, Sports Reporter:
Blue cards will not be popular among football fans. Giving referees more power to restrict cynical tackles and dissent sounds good but isn’t needed as the yellow card currently serves the same function. Officials just need to be bolder and more assertive when awarding them. The ten-minute sin bin punishment seems to be a way of giving referees confidence over issuing a card without them impacting the game as much as red cards do. That’s admirable but in this case a blue card adds another layer of complication for all involved when fans are hoping for less over-officiating not more.
Kieran Jackson, Sports Reporter:
Sin bins work at grassroots, where the scale of abuse directed at referees can reach abhorrent levels – including physical threats – but even the most foul-mouthed player should think twice if it means they miss out on playing, with the net-result costing their team via a numerical disadvantage. But at a professional level, I worry blue cards could lead to more confusion and inconsistency in a time where VAR has failed to eradicate controversy in the manner hoped. Tactical fouls, too? Not for me. That grey area between a cynical tackle and a tackle attempting to retrieve the ball does exist. Blue cards would just complicate the decision-making process further for officials whose job is tough enough as it is.
Jack Rathborn, Sports Editor:
As others have said, referees should feel compelled to brandish a yellow card more often for dissent. However, a blue card for cynical tackles is appealing. Players gladly accept yellow cards to halt counterattacks and a red card is usually too excessive. The dark arts have been lauded in the past as a vital component to great teams, but flow and uncertainty towards the end of games are far more valuable to the game’s future. A temporary spell out of the game, especially in the later rounds of cup competitions, would bring a much-needed deterrent and improve the product.