Who Invented the Yellow Card?

Penalty cards are a surprisingly recent creation that were, perhaps unsurprisingly, inspired by traffic lights

The yellow card is an elegant design solution that has been adopted by several sports. Wikimedia Commons

Among the stadiums and balls and robots specifically designed for this World Cup, a few objects remain unchanged. Most visibly, perhaps, is the yellow card. It is now and has, since its introduction to the World Cup in 1970, been a plain, handheld, yellow, card. That's it. But that simple yellow card can literally change the game.

The use of the yellow card is strictly outlined in the FIFA rulebook, which notes that “a player is cautioned and shown the yellow card if he commits any of the following seven offences:”

  • unsporting behavior
  • dissent by word or action
  • persistent infringement of the Laws of the Game
  • delaying the restart of play              
  • failure to respect the required distance when play is restarted with a corner kick, free kick or throw-in 
  • entering or re-entering the field of play without the referee’s permission
  • deliberately leaving the field of play without the referee’s permission

FIFA also documents the invention of the yellow card. The card was the creation of Ken Aston (1915-2001), one of the game’s toughest and most respected referees, who served on the FIFA Referee’s Committee from 1966 to 1972. In 1966, Aston, a Brit, was thinking about some controversial decisions made in a recent match between England and Argentina, which was so heated that, after the game, an angry Argentinian team purportedly tried to break into the English locker room. At one point, an Argentinian player was trying to communicate with a German referee, and his passioned pleas, unintelligible to the ref, got him expelled for "violence of the tongue." The Argentinian player refused to leave the field until Aston intervened. Driving home after the game, Aston pulled up to a stoplight and inspiration struck. "As I drove down Kensington High Street, the traffic light turned red. I thought, 'Yellow, take it easy; red, stop, you're off'," Aston had said. It’s that simple. Aston’s epiphany is now used to indicate warnings and penalties in more than a dozen other games, including fencing, field hockey, volleyball and water polo.

Over on Design Observer, writer Rob Walker shares some thoughts about the yellow card as an elegant design solution.

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....

The cards are 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.

Surprisingly, as Walker goes on to note, it’s hard to find any information on the official standards of the yellow card. Most commercially available cards seem to measure about 3 inches (7.62 cm) by 4 inches (10.16 cm), but 6 centimeters by 12 centimeters is often mentioned as well. And what exact color should these cards be? Is there a pantone designation for yellow cards? A mandated hue? What are the regulations of this regulating device? Football scholars, please enlighten us!

Aston would probably appreciate Walker’s analysis of the yellow card as a theatrical device. "The game should be a two-act play with 22 players on stage and the referee as director," Aston once said about the game he loved. "There is no script, no plot, you don't know the ending, but the idea is to provide enjoyment."

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.