How Many Red Cards Does It Take to Abandon a Match?

Football is all about skilful play, great goals and players who can get the crowd on the edge of their seats, right?

Well, yes. But let’s face it, part of the allure of the “beautiful game” is the rivalry between the players on the pitch, and when that boils over, the fans’ investment in the match really ramps up.

Red cards are commonplace in modern football, and more so since the introduction of VAR. So how many can be dished out before a referee has to abandon a match?

How Many Red Cards Can End a Football Match?

In professional football, where each team starts the match with eleven players, it would take one side to get five players sent off for the match to be abandoned, as the rules state that a team cannot continue to play with only six players.

Technically, the referee could show eight red cards to players – four for each team – and the match would continue as a seven-a-side contest.

How Many Red Cards Can a Team Get?

A team can receive four red cards – thus reducing them to seven on-field players – and still continue the match by the letter of the law. However, the rules state that substitutes do not count in this case, so any number of subs could also receive red cards and the match would continue.

Managers, coaches and other team officials on the bench can also receive red cards nowadays, so the referee can technically send them off as well and the game will continue as long as both teams have a minimum of seven players on the field. 

Has a Team Ever Received 5 Red Cards?

Although it has never happened in British football, there are instances in world football where teams have received five (and more) red cards, with two notable examples found in derby matches in the football hotbeds – literally – of Brazil and Argentina.

The match between Vitoria and Bahia in Brazil in 2018 saw an on-field fight break out after a Bahia equaliser, and the referee subsequently dished out eight red cards to players and substitutes.

Two further Vitoria players were sent off later in the match, reducing them to six players, meaning the match had to be abandoned, with Bahia awarded a 3-0 victory as a result.

However, Argentinian football holds the dubious record of the game with most red cards when in 2011 the match between Claypole and Victoriano Arena descended into chaos and the referee ended up red-carding all 22 players and 14 subs and officials, making for an unbelievable 36 red cards. 

What Happens When a Team Gets 5 Red Cards?

When a team gets five red cards the match has to be abandoned, as the rules state that a team cannot continue with less than seven players. The team that has received the red cards are then forced to forfeit the match, with the opposition side generally awarded a 3-0 victory.

Most Famous Football Abandonments

The most famous red-card-related abandonment in English football is the “Battle of Bramall Lane”, otherwise known as a match between Sheffield United and West Brom in March 2002 in the-then second-tier First Division.

At 3-0 down, having used all of their permitted substitutes and down to eight men after three red cards, two Sheffield United players were forced off due to injury, meaning they had only six players able to continue.

Under the rules of the game, referee Eddie Wolstenholme was forced to abandon the game with eight minutes of the ninety remaining. The Football League awarded Albion the 3-0 victory, and several United players and manager Neil Warnock received fines and bans.

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Thomas Smith

Tommy is a freelance writer and editor based in Spain but originally from the north east of Scotland. A former daily newspaper reporter, he is passionate about football, loves cricket and snooker and enjoys watching most sports.

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