In the midst of a match, it may seem as if some referees have personal vendettas or a heightened sense of affinity toward certain clubs, but it’s quite difficult to prove that theory. We can speculate all we want, but taking a look at the data could shed some light on what’s potentially going on regarding officiator biases.
Specifically looking at how often referees hand out yellow and red cards in top football leagues across the world, we can compare and contrast the refereeing tendencies on both macro and micro levels.
Which league’s clubs get carded the most overall? Which referees are the most trigger-happy?
Do certain referees target some clubs more than others or have clear favorites? Read on to find out.
Seeing Red (or Yellow)
Let’s see which league’s referees are more likely to issue yellow or red cards, and which tend to let things slide more often.
- La Liga referees hand out the most yellow cards per match, on average (5.07), while English Premier League referees hand out the least (3.19).
- Ligue 1 referees hand out the reddest cards per match, on average (0.27), while English Premier League referees hand out the least (0.13).
The referees in Spanish top-flight football were the most trigger-happy when it came to dishing out yellow cards – the cards used to caution players for their on-field actions or behavior. With an average of 5.07 yellows given per game, they handed out nearly 0.5 more than the next league, Italy’s Serie A.
Red cards were generally much less likely to be used, but the data shows Ligue 1 match officials felt the need to use them the most. Unlike the yellow card, when a player sees red, they are promptly ejected from the match. Two yellow cards will result in a red one, but the latter can be given right away if the player’s action or behavior is deemed severe enough.
That’s a Warning
Which referees are quickest to book a player, and how many feel the need to pull the red card?
The referees that handed out the most cards per game, on average, in the top five European football leagues were as follows:
- Josè Antonio Teixeira Vitienes (La Liga) – 7.14 yellow cards and 0.38 red cards
- Fabio Maresca (Serie A) – 5.51 yellow cards and 0.34 red cards
- Stèphane Lannoy (Ligue 1) – 4.56 yellow cards and 0.26 red cards
- Thorsten Kinhöfer (Bundesliga) – 4.37 yellow cards and 0.24 red cards
- Stuart Attwell (English Premier League) – 3.67 yellow cards and 0.14 red cards
Across the top five leagues since 2011, La Liga referee José Antonio Teixeira Vitienes is the king of yellow cards. In fact, the first nine referees responsible for handing out the most yellow cards all officiate matches in the Spanish league, and in the top 20, only referees from the Spanish and Italian leagues are listed. Meanwhile, Lee Mason, who works in the English Premier League, was the least likely to flash a yellow. He is retiring from on-pitch refereeing at the end of the 2020-21 football season, which could disappoint any players who were used to getting away with questionable behavior under Mason’s watch.
For more serious match violations, Spanish referee César Muñiz Fernández was the quickest to eject a player from the game, whereas Bundesliga official Robert Kampka almost never reached for the red card.
Some More Than Others
Some clubs get punished for their on-field behavior more than others. Do certain referees discipline-specific clubs more often?
The clubs that received the most cards per game, on average, in the top five European football leagues were as follows:
- Getafe CF (La Liga) – 3.46 total cards
- SPAL (Serie A) – 2.90 total cards
- Monaco (Ligue 1) – 2.29 total cards
- Fortuna Düsseldorf (Bundesliga) – 2.24 total cards
- Watford (English Premier League) – 2.04 total cards
No club received more cards than Getafe CF, who are handed 3.46 per game, on average. As mentioned, Spanish and Italian referees seem to be harsher on their players, as clubs based in those two countries are the most carded up until the 31st club, which is France-based Monaco with a more modest 2.29 cards per game.
Taking a closer look at Getafe CF, we can see that one referee, Javier Turienzo Álvarez, hands out a whopping six cards per game to this club, on average. Ranked third among referees who hand out the most cards across top leagues, his no-nonsense approach has been a thorn in Getafe CF’s side. On top of that, the club has had a disastrous start to their season, losing their first six games in a row – they might benefit from someone a little more Lee Mason-esque officiating their games for the remainder of the season.
Some clubs tend to be treated favorably, others do not. Let’s see who’s getting which end of the stick.
The European football clubs that experienced the most bias in their favor in the last 10 years were the following:
- FC Barcelona (La Liga) – 0.76
- Napoli (Serie A) – 0.74
- Nîmes (Ligue 1) – 0.82
- Borussia Dortmund (Bundesliga) – 0.8
- AFC Bournemouth (English Premier League) – 0.42
The European football clubs that experienced the most bias against them in the last 10 years were the following:
- Leganés (La Liga) – -0.59
- Chievo (Serie A) – -0.53
- Dijon (Ligue 1) – -0.4
- Hannover 96 (Bundesliga) – -0.43
- Fulham (English Premier League) – -0.5
No club was subject to more positive bias over the last 10 years than Nîmes. Although the club only spent three years in top-flight football in France during that time span, they were carded significantly less in their matches than their opponents were. FC Barcelona, Napoli, Borussia Dortmund, and AFC Bournemouth experienced the most positive biases in their respective leagues.
On the other hand, Leganés, who currently play in La Liga 2 (second division Spanish football), were subject to the most bias against them during their recent four-year tenure in the first division. The club doesn’t seem to have been any luckier in terms of refereeing this year, as they currently sit low in the second league table and are at risk of getting relegated to an even lower level of competition. Chievo, Dijon, Hannover 96, and Fulham also haven’t been able to catch a break in regards to referee bias over the last decade.
Two Sides to the Story
We dive in a little deeper, looking at exactly which referees tend to favor some clubs or make life harder for others.
The referees that showed the most bias toward particular European football clubs in the last 10 years were as follows:
- Eduardo Prieto Iglesias toward Getafe CF (La Liga) – 2.80
- Luca Prieto toward Bologna (Serie A) – 2.50
- Hakim Ben El Hadj toward Nîmes (Ligue 1) – 2.20
- Peter Gagelmann toward Borussia Dortmund (Bundesliga) – 2.14
- Mike Jones toward Tottenham Hotspur (English Premier League) – 2.17
The referees that showed the most bias against particular European football clubs in the last 10 years were the following:
- Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz against Rayo Vallecano (La Liga) – -2.28
- Andrea De Marco against Udinese (Serie A) – -2.60
- Alexandre Castro against PSG, Amaury Delerue against Troyes, Olivier Thual against Monaco (Ligue 1) – -2.20
- Manuel Gräfe against Hannover 96 (Bundesliga) – -2.15
- Peter Bankes against Newcastle United (English Premier League) – -2.40
Using data based on referees that had officiated matches of particular clubs at least 10 times, Spanish referee Javier Estrada Fernández might secretly be pulling for Real Madrid in their games. His bias score is 0.54 points higher than the score for the next most biased referee for a particular club. That being said, looking solely at La Liga, it is actually Getafe FC who have been subject to the most favorable refereeing, overseen by Eduardo Prieto Iglesias.
Serie A has some referees who might especially have it out for certain clubs – going back to the graph of referees who’ve officiated at least 10 matches of a given club, Fabrizio Pasqua has shown the most bias against the club Cagliari. In our Serie A-only graph, referee Andrea De Marco has been the most openly biased – against Udinese.
Numbers Don’t Lie
Generally, our data shows that refereeing in La Liga is harsher than in other leagues – their officials hand out yellow and red cards more often than in any other top European football league. Consequently, many of the world’s most carded clubs were also from the Spanish top division.
Quantifying referee bias is tricky because it’s nearly impossible to prove if a club is genuinely being treated unfairly. Luckily, data and statistics can always, at the very least, shed some light on the issue and highlight key points. The people over at FootyStats understand this, which is why they provide comprehensive, thorough data for all things football. Whether it be player, club, or league-related information, you can use it all to make more informed and accurate predictions on football games and events. Head over now to experience the FootyStats difference.
Methodology and Limitations
For this study, we gathered game data from the five largest leagues in European football (English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, and Ligue 1) from the last 10 years using the FootyStats API. As a result, we acquired match data for 18,227 matches. We filtered out matches for which card data and referee name wasn’t reported, leaving us with 9,960 matches. For each match, we recorded the home and away clubs, the number of yellow and red cards given to both clubs, and the referee in charge of the match. Using this information, we were able to analyze referee behavior individually, toward each club, and against each club.
No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory and is presented for informational purposes only. The API pull took place during August 2021.
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