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Why is LaLiga leading the red card count across European big leagues?

The referees in the Spanish top flight are under fire for a high number of sendings off, but they make their case for their performances.

El árbitro Munuera Montero muestra la cartulina roja a ambos jugadores por enzarzarse en una pelea.
Quality Sport ImagesGetty Images

Tensions are running high in Spanish football over the issue of referees, with clubs publicly expressing their disagreement and unhappiness with the group and demanding changes. President of Sevilla, Pepe Castro, stated, “We did not make a statement for fun, we did it because things are happening that are not normal.” Players being sent off has become a major source of contention with referees, surpassing even issues such as VAR and handball. Adding to the tension is the Negreira Case, which has further strained relations between the various parties. This situation of conflict comes just months prior to the negotiation of the new referees agreement in LaLiga for the coming seasons.

LaLiga red cards compared with Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1

Players and coaches have argued that LaLiga referees are quicker to issue red cards than those in other leagues, with Spain drawing 112 red cards compared to Ligue 1′s 81, for example. Astonishingly, combining the number of red cards shown in Serie A, Bundesliga, and the Premier League would not reach the Spanish total. This comparison is particularly unfavourable for LaLiga when compared solely with the English top flight, which has 84 fewer expulsions.

While Spain has traditionally been among the countries with the highest number of cards shown, this season has seen a significant increase in the number of expulsions. However, Luis Medina Cantalejo, the head of the Spanish referees (CTA), warned in August that protecting footballers was a priority, and tough actions that led to injuries had been missed in the previous season.

Red cards and injuries assessed

The data seems to support this stance, with LaLiga having the fewest injuries in Europe at 345. The Premier League and Bundesliga, the two competitions with the fewest expulsions, have the most injuries at 581 and 615, respectively. While there have been exceptions to this trend in recent years, the leagues with fewer red cards have tended to have more injuries. It is also important to analyze whether the expulsions compensate for the days off, with Premier League players spending 6,452 more days on the sidelines than LaLiga players this season. Over the last five years, footballers in England have suffered 739 more injuries and spent 29,627 more days on the treatment table than their Spanish counterparts.

Injuries and red cards in top European leagues
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Injuries and red cards in top European leaguesAS English

Despite facing criticism and pressure, Medina Cantalejo has reiterated his support for the criteria followed by LaLiga referees in an interview with AS. According to him, protecting players is the top priority of Spanish referees, even if it means drawing more red cards than other leagues.

He stated that LaLiga referees have made progress in player protection throughout the season and are obligated to ensure the safety of players as athletes and valuable assets of football clubs. He also mentioned that the number of serious injuries due to violent tackles has reduced significantly in LaLiga. Despite the criticism, he is confident that the data supports his conviction and the policies followed by LaLiga referees are for the good of the competition.

“One of our obligations is to protect the player. Above that there is nothing, even if the clubs feel harmed ”

Luis Medina Cantalejo, referees president

Are LaLiga refs less tolerant to protests?

The high number of red cards in LaLiga cannot be solely attributed to the aim of protecting players from injuries. While most red cards are given for fouls, including serious foul play and preventing obvious goal scoring opportunities, there is also a significant number of second yellow cards, with 43 of the 112 total red cards being issued for this reason. Among these, 11 were for insults, seven for protesting to the referee, and two for arguments between players, according to OPTA.

In contrast, in the Premier League, only two players have been sent off for protesting to the referee or using foul language. This is one of the main complaints from LaLiga players and coaches, who believe that referees are less tolerant of protests than they used to be, leading to more second yellow cards being issued.

In addition, clubs are unhappy with the sanctions imposed under what is being called the “law of silence,” which punishes players with four to twelve games of suspension if they make post-match statements that criticise or have an insulting attitude towards referees. The players’ association has called for this rule to be revoked, arguing that it infringes on players’ right to express their opinion. The CTA has denied this, stating that they will always accept criticism, even the harshest ones, as long as they do not question their honour or accuse them of premeditated bias towards a particular team.

Premier League playing style

Another question around the Spanish game surrounds the pace of play in LaLiga which is slower than in other leagues, an effective time of around 52 minutes per game impacting on the spectacle. The struggle between teams and referees centers around who is to blame for this. Atlético Madrid boss Diego Simeone recently pointed out that in England, there is a more dynamic way of refereeing, which allows for more contact, while in LaLiga, the game is slowed down more. Some blame coaches and players for wasting time in the final minutes with simulation and constant fouls. The number of expulsions could affect the pace of the game, but it seems that this is not the case in the Premier League.

Although there are fewer red cards, they are punished more severely by the administration. For instance, an expulsion for serious foul play is a three-game ban (four if there is a repeat offence) in the Premier League, while in Spain, it is only one. Additionally, the second cycle of accumulation of yellow cards is punished with two games in the Premier League against one in LaLiga. However, despite these regulations that could restrict the playing time of footballers, the English top flight sees most duels contested (58,900).

Will the increased attention change the approach?