Suspending players like Aaron Ramsey for yellow cards is cruel punishment
PARIS -- We call it cruel, because it is. A player picks up a second yellow card in a tournament and he's gone, forced to sit out while his teammates do battle.
And so, both Portugal (William Carvalho) and Wales (Ben Davies, Aaron Ramsey) will be short-handed when they square off in Lyon on Wednesday. Similarly, Germany will be without the services of Mats Hummels against France on Thursday.
UEFA's tournament regulations stipulate that, up until the semifinal, if you get two yellow cards in separate games you are banned for the next one. It doesn't matter how you get them or when you get them: it could easily be the opener and the quarterfinal, some three and a half weeks apart. After the quarters, the slate is wiped clean: the only way you miss the final is if you get sent off in the semis.
In the past, we've seen plenty of high profile players missed out on finals. Roy Keane and Pavel Nedved were banned for the Champions League final in 1998-99 and 2002-03, respectively, and Michael Ballack famously was suspended for the 2002 World Cup final against Brazil. That's part of the reason why the protocol was changed before the 2010 World Cup.
The question is whether it ought to be changed further. If you're Davies, Ramsey, Hummels or Carvalho, you would say yes. Why not wipe the slate clean earlier? Say, if you get two yellows in the group stage, you miss the Round of 16, but if you only get one, the clock resets in the knockout phase?
The problem with that approach is that it would not have made any difference to Ramsey, Hummels or Carvalho, all of whom got their bookings in consecutive matches after the group stage. In fact, unless you do away with suspensions entirely, it's not easy to find a formula that works.
The obvious solution would appear to be lifting the threshold to three yellows before the ban kicks in. That's how they do it in the Champions League, with an additional ban coming at every odd-numbered (fifth, seventh, etc.) card after that. Indeed, domestic leagues go even further, with bans being applied only after the fourth or fifth (depending on the competition) caution.
The argument against this, though, is that those are simply longer tournaments and it's a question of frequency. One way to look at it is how many cautions you can get in a tournament without getting a ban. If you bump it to three games in the Euros, then a player could theoretically accumulate yellows in four of seven games (two up to and including the semifinal and then the semifinal and final) without ever getting suspended. In the Champions League, that ratio is 5 in 17 and in domestic leagues, while it varies by country, it will usually be something like four or five in 38.
In other words, in a shorter tournament the impact of every disciplinary decision is magnified. And what you want to avoid is a situation where a player gets a "free hit" and cards don't have consequences.
This is all part of the officiating conundrum. In a perfect word, referees would get every decision correct and deal with infractions, wherever possible, with a stern, Mark Clattenburg-style lecture. Broadly speaking, this has been the officiating trend from both FIFA and UEFA over the past few years: referees are encouraged to let play run more and to defuse situations without resorting to cards wherever possible.
But when players are booked, it has to have consequences that go beyond the possibility of a sending off: and that means suspending players. Otherwise, you're offering up the proverbial "freebie" foul.
It goes beyond that. Referees are generally praised when they manage games in such a way that nobody needs to be sent off. That results in officials being very aware of who has already been booked and, sometimes, a yellow card becomes a license to get away with more because referees are reluctant to show a second caution. (The extreme example of this is cautions for time-wasting. Few referees have the guts to give a second yellow for time-wasting, so it's often guys who have already been booked who look to eat up the clock.)
So bans for accumulated cards are, in a sense, a way of spreading responsibility for punishment from the individual referee to the collective. Yet there's another, fundamental problem at work here and it has to do with basic principles of crime and punishment.
When we commit a crime in real life, the sentence has three functions. It acts as a deterrent, it's punitive and it offers compensation to the victim. Yellow cards, and bans for yellows, fulfill the first two criteria, but not the third. The fact that, for example, Davies and Ramsey will miss Wales' next game offers no redress whatsoever to their "victims" (I'm using the term loosely here) who suffered from their actions, Belgium. Instead, it gives an advantage to their next opponent, Portugal.
We're so used to it that we don't really think about it, but Portugal's chances of winning the Euros are increased by some percentage simply because they are facing a Wales team without two regulars, one of whom, Ramsey, is arguably their second-best player. And this happens every time a player is suspended: there's a third-party beneficiary here.
Is there a better solution? I don't know. I'm not a fan of sin-bins -- temporary red cards -- but there's an argument to be made that if Ramsey or Davies had been punished for their second tournament bookings against Belgium with, say, 10 minutes off the pitch it might have been a fairer solution than making them miss the semifinal.
Of course, then you'd consider the fact that the only reason they would have been sin-binned is for cautions they committed in earlier games which had nothing to do with Belgium. And so you end up tying yourself in knots, asking yourself the same question: Why should Belgium benefit from the fact that Davies and Ramsey committed an infraction against previous opponents?
The bottom line here is that this accumulated bookings system is a tough racket. There's no perfect or even good way of handling this. It's tough on those who miss out -- though less tough than if they were missing a final -- but ultimately the rules were clear before the tournament began.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.