Yellow Card in Soccer: A Complete Guide to What It Means

Yellow card in soccer meaning - header image

When a referee shows a yellow card to a player, it’s a significant moment in any soccer game. It can affect how a player continues to play or even if they are permitted to carry on playing at all.

A yellow card in soccer is used by the referee to caution a player for unsporting behavior, consistently infringing the rules of the game, dissenting, or delaying the restart of the game. If the referee has to show one player two yellow cards in a game, that player must leave the field of play.

Understanding the significance of the yellow card is important to really understand and appreciate the game of soccer.

This guide will give you all the information you need to feel much more informed and confident as you continue to play, watch, and enjoy the game.

The Meaning of a Yellow Card

So, firstly, let’s start by answering the question: what does a yellow card mean in soccer?

A yellow card in soccer means a player has received a warning about their conduct on the field. When a soccer player is shown a yellow card, it signifies that they have been cautioned by the referee in relation to an offense they have committed during the game.

A yellow card is used to signal to the player and the fans that a player has been disciplined for an offense and is now one warning away from being sent off of the field.

Holding up the yellow card clearly communicates to everyone watching what has happened and how the player has been disciplined for their actions.

The yellow card, which measures only 3″ wide and 4″ in length, may only be small in size but is of huge importance and has consequences that can go far beyond a single game of soccer.

How a Player Gets a Yellow Card

To get or be shown a yellow card during a soccer game, a player has to commit an offense that is deemed deserving of receiving a caution.

When the referee judges that a player has committed an offense, they will blow their whistle to stop the game, caution the player, show them a yellow card, and then award a free kick to the opposing team.

The only exception to this is when the referee would be preventing an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by stopping the game.

In this situation, rather than immediately stopping the game, the play will continue, and the player will get a yellow card once the ball is next out of play.

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Yellow Card Offenses

list of yellow card offenses in soccer

During a game, no player wants to be shown a yellow card. So, knowing what offenses would lead to being shown a yellow card is necessary if a player is to avoid them.

So, let’s have a look at the list.

There are 6 yellow card offenses that a player, a substitute, or a substituted player can commit. They are:

  1. Delaying the restart of play
  2. Dissent by word or action
  3. Entering, re-entering, or deliberately leaving the field of play without the referee’s permission
  4. Failing to respect the required distance when play is restarted with a corner kick, free kick, or throw-in
  5. Persistent offenses (Consistently infringing the Laws of the Game, especially after previously being warned about behavior.)
  6. Unsporting behavior

Most of these offenses are self-explanatory, but it’s worth having a closer look at Number 6: Unsporting Behavior – as it may not be immediately clear what that means.

If you’re interested in knowing more about number 2 on this list: Dissent, read the article I wrote about why players argue with the referee and whether it’s even worth it.

Unsporting Behavior

What is interpreted as “unsporting behavior” is ultimately down to the referee’s judgment.

They will assess what they have seen, make a decision, and have the final say on any decision they make.

However, to help the referee decide, the official Laws of the Game of soccer provide a list of what is considered unsporting behavior.

Unsporting behavior in soccer includes:

  • Attempts to deceive the referee, e.g., by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled (simulation)
  • Changes place with the goalkeeper during play or without the referee’s permission
  • Commits in a reckless manner a direct free kick offense
  • Handles the ball to interfere with or stop a promising attack
  • Commits a foul that interferes with or stops a promising attack, except where the referee awards a penalty kick for an offense that was an attempt to play the ball
  • Denies an opponent an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by an offense which was an attempt to play the ball, and the referee awards a penalty kick
  • Handles the ball in an attempt to score a goal (whether or not the attempt is successful) or in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent a goal
  • Makes unauthorized marks on the field of play
  • Plays the ball when leaving the field of play after being given permission to leave
  • Shows a lack of respect for the game
  • Uses a deliberate trick to pass the ball (including from a free-kick) to the goalkeeper with the head, chest, knee, etc., to circumvent the Law, whether or not the goalkeeper touches the ball with the hands
  • Verbally distracts an opponent during play or at a restart

As you can see from this list, any action that is not considered to be within the “spirit of the game” can be considered unsporting behavior, and a player may find that the referee will give them a yellow card for their actions.

A Player Can Get More Than One Yellow Card

In any soccer game, it is entirely possible for a player to be shown not just one but two yellow cards.

Once a player has committed an offense that warrants a yellow card, that same player can then go on to commit another offense that also deserves a yellow card.

If a player receives two yellow cards during a single game, they will be shown a red card

If any player does get two yellow cards in one game, they will immediately be shown a red card, which means they must leave the field of play straight away and will be suspended for at least one game.

When a player is shown a red card, they cannot be replaced by any other player on the team.

If you’re interested in learning more about what it means to get a red card, check out my post – Red Card in Soccer: Everything You Need to Know.

In one amusing incident in 2006, a referee mistakenly gave one player 3 yellow cards in one game!

I’m pretty sure the player was surprised not to be shown a red card and sent off after the 2nd yellow card, but after getting away with it, he should really have worked harder to avoid getting a third yellow card!

Watch the video below to see the referee showing one player 3 yellow cards in a single game.

Referee gives 3 yellow cards to a single player

How Long a Yellow Card Lasts

So, you may be a player in a game who has just received a yellow card, or maybe you’ve just seen a player shown a yellow card by the referee.

When this happens, you may wonder how long the yellow card lasts.

Once a soccer player has been cautioned and shown a yellow card by the referee, the yellow card remains in effect for the rest of the game.

Whether the player gets a yellow card in the first or last minute of the game, the player remains under caution until the game is over.

And because being shown two yellow cards means a player will be shown a red card, this means that once a player has been shown a yellow card, they are only one caution away from receiving a red card and having to leave the field of play.

This can often have a negative effect on a player as they will potentially be more cautious in their play and not be as effective a player as they could have been otherwise.

Once the game is over, the caution is removed from the player, and they start the next game with no yellow card to their name.

The only variation is when a yellow card still has an effect and is carried over for the duration of the soccer season or competition.

The Consequence of Getting a Yellow Card Can Carry Over

Although a player will never be shown a red card for receiving a yellow card in two different games, in all major soccer competitions, yellow cards are carried over from one game to the next until a previously decided number of yellow cards has been accumulated by a player who will then receive a suspension.

In the FIFA World Cup, for example, if a player receives two yellow cards in separate games during the group stages or the early knock-out phases of the competition, that player will be suspended for the next game.

But once the tournament reaches the semi-final round, any previous yellow cards are no longer counted.

This is to avoid a player being suspended for the final simply because they received a yellow card in the semifinal after receiving one in a previous round.

However, in competitions that run over the course of a season, yellow cards are usually accrued up to a certain previously decided number. Then, that player will be suspended for the following game.

An example of this is the Major League Soccer(MLS) season.

In the MLS, yellow cards are accumulated across the games until a player has received five yellow cards.

Once the player has received five yellow cards, they receive an automatic one-game suspension.

What Referee’s Write on Yellow Cards

Soccer referee writing on yellow card

When you’re watching a soccer game and see a player get a yellow card, you will usually see the referee writing something on the back of the card. But what is the referee writing?

There are three items a referee writes on a yellow card:

  1. The time in the game that the offense occurred
  2. What the offense was
  3. The identity of the player who committed the offense

Writing this information down is primarily done to help the referee keep a record of what has happened.

The referee uses this record so they don’t lose track of what has happened so far during the game and forget who they have already shown a yellow card. This is especially important during games where multiple players receive yellow cards.

They also keep a record of yellow cards because they are expected to submit a report of the game once the game is over. Having this written list available helps them to remember each offense, who committed it, and what time in the game it took place.

Managers and Coaches Can Also Get Yellow Cards

Although you will most commonly see players on the field shown a yellow card, the referee isn’t restricted to only showing the card to them.

Any team official, including managers and coaches, can receive a yellow card for committing an offense during a soccer game.

And if an offense is committed and it’s not clear to the referee who the offender is, then the referee is permitted to caution the most senior member of the coaching staff present.

The list of offenses that a team official can be cautioned for include:

  • clearly/persistently not respecting the confines of their team’s technical area
  • delaying the restart of play by their team
  • deliberately entering the technical area of the opposing team (non-confrontational)
  • dissent by word or action, including:
    • throwing/kicking drinks, bottles, or other objects
    • gestures that show a clear lack of respect for the match official(s) e.g., sarcastic clapping
  • entering the referee review area (RRA)
  • excessively/persistently gesturing for a red or yellow card
  • excessively showing the TV signal for a VAR ‘review’
  • gesturing or acting in a provocative or inflammatory manner
  • persistent unacceptable behavior (including repeated warning offenses)
  • showing a lack of respect for the game

An example of this was in an English Premier League game where the former Tottenham Hotspur manager Jose Mourinho was shown a yellow card for entering the opposing team’s technical area as he felt that former Orlando Pirates goalkeeper coach Andrew Sparkes was slowing down the game.

Although he accepted he deserved the caution, he clearly didn’t regret what he did, as this article shows.

Why Soccer Cards Are Yellow and Red

yellow and red card

The history of how red and yellow cards came to be used in soccer is also quite interesting.

You may be surprised to know that these cards have only been used in the game since 1970. To some people, that may not seem that long ago, but considering the game as we now know it was invented in 1863, that’s still fairly recent.

If you’re interested in discovering more about how soccer began, check out my article: How Soccer Was Invented.

Before 1970, players would still be disciplined for committing any offenses, but they were not shown a card at the same time. Referee Ken Aston is credited as the man who changed that and came up with the idea of using a yellow and red card.

At the 1962 World Cup, he was the referee for a game between the nations of Chile and Italy. During the game, one of the Italian players refused to leave the field after being sent off because he didn’t understand what the referee was asking him to do, as the Italian and the referee didn’t speak the same language.

This incident led Ken Aston to begin to consider how the referee could communicate not just with the players more effectively but also with the fans and team coaches who were looking on and often couldn’t understand what decisions the referee was making.

One day, while driving in London, Ken Aston had a realization about what to do.

He said:

“As I drove down Kensington High Street, the traffic light turned red. I thought, ‘Yellow, take it easy; red, stop, you’re off’”

Ken Aston

At that moment, he decided that an appropriate color for a card to caution a player would be yellow, and the best color to signify that a player’s game is over would be red.

After coming up with this idea, he approached FIFA and presented it to them. FIFA thought it could work and introduced it for the first time in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

It has been used in soccer games around the world ever since then.

That is the story behind why the cards in soccer are yellow and red.


Hopefully, at this point, you feel you have a much greater understanding of the meaning of a yellow card.

But now, you may also be thinking about what the red card means in a soccer game and how there’s much more to it than just telling a player to leave the soccer field.

If so, click here to go to the article I wrote all about the red card. It will tell you everything you need to know about the use of red cards in soccer, what they mean, how a player gets one, and what the consequences of getting one are.

*Also, check out the previous article I wrote: Where and When a Goalie Can Use Their Hands*

All information regarding what a yellow card means, what yellow card offenses are, and who can be shown a yellow card are taken from the official Laws of the Game of soccer as governed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB)

Ben Clayfield

Hi! My name's Ben. I've played, watched, read about, and enjoyed soccer throughout my life. I really enjoy finding out more about the game I love and sharing it with you all. Find out more about me here - Ben Clayfield

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