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Those Dreaded Red Cards

Antonio Lambino's picture

As the World Cup semifinals rage on in South Africa, I noticed that a number of those dreaded red cards have been issued both on and off the football field.  They are of particular interest because, while they communicate formal authority and official sanction against the most grievous offences on the football field, they have also become symbols of various good governance and anti-corruption initiatives in the broader public arena. 

The innovation was first introduced more than 4 decades ago by legendary British referee Ken Aston and, since then, has diffused into the global public sphere.  A Google search utilizing the phrase “red card campaign” resulted in around 283,000 results.  Some recent examples include the campaign against human trafficking in Africa, the Khulumani campaign for human rights in the DRC, and the UNAIDS campaign against HIV in South Africa.  The International Labour Organization and UNICEF have both run red card campaigns for children’s rights, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and USAID have used them in anti-corruption efforts, and a number of controversial campaigns have been launched against high-level politicians in several countries.

I wasn’t able to find evaluations on these campaigns and don’t know whether they were successful.  Nonetheless, I believe it is fair to argue that the sponsors of these campaigns were convinced of the red card’s potency as a symbol -- one that has the power not only to grab attention, but telegraph a message of injustice to affected parties as well as to larger audiences. 

As we know, footballers and other athletes are issued red cards as a result of foul play, to signal that they are being penalized for breaking the formal rules of the game and also to embarrass them through public spectacle.  It is the combination of these formal and informal institutions that makes the red card a powerful symbol.  It is, perhaps, also this combination that increases the likelihood that human beings will behave properly in any public arena.

Photo credit: Flickr user christophercarfi


Submitted by Myrna Lopez on
Red Card. I was a quintessential "soccer mom" in my day. Before my introduction to futbol I thought a red card meant you were a communist/socialist. My son received his share of those dreaded las tarjetas rojas. But much to my dismay the team (and the coach) dreaded them not because of the over-eager play but for my son's expulsion from the game. The cause of the card was regarded as a badge of honor - 'dude, that was some mean play, Ramon!' A throw back to the cave man I suppose. It was not shame that made them fear the card at all.

Submitted by Terry Matthews on
This blog entry brought back memories - I was a football (sorry soccer0 referee in England when "good Old Ken" introduced the Red and Yellow card system. They were introuduced primarily as a communication aid for spectators in the stands. Up to that time I simply "whispered a warning" in the offending players ear (yellow card) or pointed (as in exit stage right) to the dressing rooms (red card. Very useful cards they were too - as noone, either on the field of play or watching from the stands, could fail to understand the meaning,. Yellow =last warning, - Red = early shower. Although I stopped being a "man in Black", (no red/yellow or orange referee shirts in those days!)back in 1981, perhaps we could introduce them into the Sanction process as a cost-saving device? :-) I am sure I have those cards somewhere..............

Submitted by Anonymous on
please explain... i know what a red card is in soccer (football), but don't know anything about the red card campaigns you mention. how do they work? what do they do? who gets red cards and what happens to them?

Please try clicking on the campaigns referred to in the blog post. They are hyperlinked so they should bring you directly to websites that provide more info. If this doesn't work, would be happy to send the links separately.

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