The World Cup's stupidest rule doomed Brazil against Belgium

There is no utility in excuses. Brazilians everywhere would surely be the first to admit to their futility, even now. But as disappointment floods soccer’s spiritual home on Friday night, it is difficult to escape the feeling that Brazil’s 2018 World Cup campaign, one that had teemed with promise, was in part derailed by one of FIFA’s stupidest rules.

It was derailed by other things as well, many of them wearing red. But if there was a lasting image of Friday’s Belgium upset, it was red flying past yellow. It was Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku powering past Fernandinho in midfield, untouched.

It was a telling image, too. Because it was emblematic of the difference between Friday’s Brazil and the one that had developed into a definitive World Cup favorite. The difference was defensive midfielder Casemiro.

And the reason Casemiro was sitting on the bench while Lukaku skipped by his countrymen was that absurd rule.

Romelu Lukaku glided past Brazilian midfielders Paulinho and Fernandinho in Belgium’s 2-1 World Cup quarterfinal upset of Brazil. (Getty)
Romelu Lukaku glided past Brazilian midfielders Paulinho and Fernandinho in Belgium’s 2-1 World Cup quarterfinal upset of Brazil. (Getty)

FIFA’s yellow card suspension rule

Casemiro was suspended because he had picked up a yellow card against Switzerland three weeks ago, then another one this past Monday against Mexico. That’s it. He was suspended for these fouls, 15 days apart:

(Original video: Fox Sports Go)
(Original video: Fox Sports Go)

He and Brazil were victims of cruel punishment that didn’t fit the crime. FIFA rules call for a one-game suspension for any player who picks up two yellow cards throughout his team’s first five matches at the World Cup. And if that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is.

It’s essentially the equivalent of a basketball player being banned for Game 5 of an NBA playoff series after picking up technical fouls in Games 1 and 4. Or an NFL player missing a conference championship game because of personal fouls in the divisional round and a late regular-season game.

The point of the rule is to keep the game clean; to deter excessive fouling, or anything else that infringes upon the sport’s beauty. But it is nonetheless grievously flawed and overly harsh.

Yellow cards double as “cautions.” They are warnings. And in most soccer competitions, they more or less expire at the end of a given match, as they should. (In top European leagues, five yellows cost you one match in a 30-plus-game season.) Their purpose isn’t to restrict players over long time horizons. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Plus, yellow cards are fickle. Casemiro’s were probably deserved, but many are brandished based on refereeing whims or in-game precedent. Some are for violent tackles. Others are for time-wasting or verbal tirades.

At the very least, the suspension threshold should be three yellow cards over five games, or back-to-back cautions. Maybe two in three during the group stage. But two yellows, three matches apart? Certainly not cause for a ban.

Casemiro’s importance to Brazil

Casemiro is Brazil’s second-most important player. He’s a one-man defensive shield. He sits at the base of the Brazilian midfield, and only departs to snuff out opponent attacks.

Evidence of his value was all over the place in the Round of 16 against Mexico. He intervenes in and around his own penalty area …

(Original video: Fox Sports Go)
(Original video: Fox Sports Go)

He nips counterattacks in the bud higher up the field …

(Original video: Fox Sports Go)
(Original video: Fox Sports Go)

He covers for fullbacks who bomb forward. He goes sideline to sideline, blanketing the width of the field, making Brazil as impermeable in transition as can be.

His presence was precisely what Brazil lacked against Belgium. Never mind that his replacement, Fernandinho, was credited with an own goal on Belgium’s opener. It was Fernandinho’s inability to sense danger and stem the Belgian counterattacking tide at the source that hurt Brazil, especially in the first half. The second goal was one of several examples.

On other occasions, he simply failed to make plays that Casemiro probably would have:

(Original video: Fox Sports Go)
(Original video: Fox Sports Go)

Again, Casemiro’s absence was one of many reasons the Brazilians faltered. Poor finishing and rotten luck played a big role as well. So did Roberto Martinez’s masterful gameplan. But it worked as well as it did because of the suspension.

Casemiro and Brazil join long list of victims

Poetically, this is the second World Cup in a row that Brazil has been victimized. Center back and captain Thiago Silva was suspended for the disastrous semifinal against Germany four years ago.

Brazil has also benefitted. Back when two yellows cards in six games drew a suspension, Michael Ballack missed the 2002 World Cup final after being cautioned in the semis. Brazil beat Germany 2-0.

Countless other players have had dreams dashed as well. So Brazil is far from the first team to be harmed. And unless FIFA comes to its senses, it won’t be the last, either.

But it’s time FIFA did come to its senses. The law was recently changed to grant players clean slates heading into the semifinals. It’s long overdue for a more significant amendment.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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