World Cup – Fair Play Trophy

England’s quarter-final elimination to the French was hard to take for Harry Kane as an evenly matched game swung on his skied penalty six minutes from the end of full time. If the England captain is looking for a tiny sliver of a silver lining, Gareth Southgate’s side look odds on to pick up the 2022 Fair Play trophy. Harry Maguire’s booking in Saturday’s match was the only yellow that England picked up in their five games in Qatar and their respectful acceptance of their defeat will have added to England’s case. By contrast the Argentina Netherlands tie produced a World Cup record of 18 yellow cards for players and coaching staff. 

Long before VAR reared its ugly head at the 2018 World Cup, the 1970 tournament in Mexico saw the birth of two disciplinary innovations, which are still with us today. Firstly, there was the introduction of yellow and red cards, which was the brainchild of English referee Ken Aston. Aston had officiated at the infamous Battle of Santiago at the 1962 World Cup when two Italian players had to be forcibly removed from the pitch after being sent off in their match with the hosts, Chile. Aston encountered difficulty explaining his decisions partly because of language problems as he did not speak either Italian or Spanish, partly because of the belligerence of the Italians who felt aggrieved by the dismissals.  

Aston drew his inspiration for the coloured card system when he was driving home from a match at the 1966 World Cup. As the traffic lights changed it struck him that the use of red and yellow would give a clear indication to players, crowd and media of what was happening. Ironically the 1970 World Cup was one of only two tournaments in which not a single player was sent off so the first red card was not issued until 1974 when Chilean Carlos Caszely was dismissed in the match against West Germany after two yellow cards. 

Additionally in 1970 there was one team who avoided receiving any yellow cards, thus becoming the inaugural winners of the other new disciplinary innovation. By virtue of being the only team in Mexico to not pick up even a booking Peru won the very first FIFA World Cup Fair Play trophy. The Fair Play accolade was not awarded solely on the number of cards a side receives but also in combination with displays of sportsmanship, which is decided by a panel of FIFA officials and football experts. The panel nominate their first three choices with the first receiving five points, their second three and the third selection one point. One of the stipulations is that any team nominated must have qualified for the second round of matches. At this early stage the winners received a certificate rather than a physical trophy that was first awarded in 1982 to Brazil.

Looking at the next two tournaments a pattern began to emerge as the hosts West Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978 added the Fair Play trophy to the World Cup one as they both became world champions on their own soil. Twenty years later in 1998 the hosts and champions France picked up the Fair Play award, (shared with England), which was maybe the clearest indication that the judges might be swayed by whom the eventual winners were as well as if they were also the hosts. It seems bizarre that the home nation actually picked up the joint most red cards in the tournament with three – Zinedine Zidane was sent off against Saudi Arabia in a group match while Laurent Blanc was dismissed in the semi-final, followed by Marcel Desailly in the final itself. Additionally, their yellow card count reached double figures yet the judges seemed to have turned a blind eye to these series of indiscretions. 

Brazil have collected the most FIFA Fair Play trophy, winning it four times in 1982, 1986, 1994 and 2006. This is despite the fact that the South Americans have the most red cards in World Cup history with eleven in their twenty-two appearances. One of the most blatant of Brazil’s red cards came in 1994 when Leonardo smashed his elbow into Tab Ramos’ face, fracturing the American’s skull in the process. Despite this most brutal of assaults Brazil and amassing eight yellow cards, the Seleçao still picked up the Fair Play trophy. 

After Brazil, Spain have collected the most Fair Play awards, with three, all of which have come in the last four tournaments. This is more understandable considering they have only received one red card in their 67 matches to date. That single sending off came in 1994 when tennis star Rafa Nadal’s uncle Miguel was dismissed against South Korea. Over those three tournaments they collected only sixteen bookings in fifteen matches. 

It appears odd that the cleanest side in World Cup history have never been accorded the honour of Fair Play winners. In their 25 matches Japan have never had a player sent off and collected just 42 yellow cards, which is just over one and a half booking per match. Their relatively pristine record did help them in 2018 when they became the first and only side to qualify from a group on the fair play quotient. Having tied with Senegal in Group H on all metrics – points, goal difference, goals scored and record against each other – they had two fewer bookings than the Senegalese and made it through to the Last 16 at the expense of the Africans. 

During the latter stages of this year’s final Group C matches the issue of fair play looked set to become a matter of increasing significance as Poland and Mexico were, like Japan and Senegal in 2018, level on all criteria heading into the final fifteen minutes. In the end the Saudis scored a 95th minute goal to put Mexico behind on goal difference and the fair play quotient was not required. With only four players receiving red cards in Qatar, three of which came after 90 minutes including Denziel Dumfries’ dismissal that came after the penalty shoot-out, the 2022 tournament now has reached the same total as in Russia. When the Fair Play award is announced on the day of the final it seems to be a clean fight between England and Japan but the FIFA panel may again spring a surprise. 


1970 PERU (0/4)

1974 WEST GERMANY (3/7)

1978 ARGENTINA (4/7)

1982 BRAZIL (2/5)

1986 BRAZIL (3/5)

1990 ENGLAND (6/7)

1994 BRAZIL [1] (8/7)

1998 FRANCE [3] (10/7)/ ENGLAND [1] (5/5)

2002 BELGIUM (7/4)

2006 SPAIN (6/4) / BRAZIL (11/5)

2010 SPAIN (8/7)

2014 COLOMBIA (5/5)

2018 SPAIN (2/4)


HOST NATIONS in italics

(Yellow cards / number of matches)

[Red cards]

Published by richardfoster60

Author, broadcaster, historian, journalist. A regular contributor to the Guardian, Sky Sports and talkSPORT, my latest book is highly acclaimed Premier League Nuggets - "brilliantly written" - Darren Fletcher, "I love Premier League Nuggets" - Guy Mowbray, "the book is a labour of love" - Peter Drury.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: