Soccer ‘sin bin’ trial OK’d, opening door to major rule change in world’s most popular sport

The organization governing the rules of professional soccer gave the go-ahead Tuesday to begin experimenting with rules allowing referees to temporarily send players off the field, echoing similar penalties in ice hockey and rugby.

Implementing so-called sin bins would be one of the biggest rule changes in the sport’s history, and it would provide referees with more flexibility to punish players for offenses that are deemed more severe than the usual yellow card warnings.

Soccer referees currently have the power to call fouls and dish out yellows for egregious offenses or red cards for the worst behavior that warrants immediate expulsion and shorthanded play for the offender’s team for the rest of the game. Two yellow cards equal a red, though especially egregious offenses can warrant direct reds.

But with a “sin bin” option, officials could adjudicate a foul as worse than yellow but less severe than red, and the offender’s team could be forced to play one player down for a set number of minutes.

While the International Football Association Board, or IFAB, stopped short of spelling out exact offenses that would temporarily sideline players, it unequivocally said the future rule — and instances of 11-on-10 play — would become reality at the sport’s highest levels.

It also wasn’t clear which of the world’s top leagues or levels within those national organizations would be first to implement the third level of offense.

“In addition, it was agreed that temporary dismissals (sin bins) for dissent and specific tactical offences should be trialled at higher levels, following their successful implementation in grassroots football,” IFAB said in a statement announcing the change. “Protocols and a system for trialling will now be developed.”

In one particularly well-known incident, Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini blatantly dragged down England’s Bukayo Saka in the 2020 European Championship final (played in 2021 because of a Covid pandemic-induced postponement) but drew only a yellow in a famous contest the Azzurri won o n penalties.

“I think frustration for fans watching games when they see a promising counterattack that’s ruined by that and the question of whether a yellow card is sufficient for that has led to us looking at whether that should be involved in the protocol, as well,” said IFAB member Mark Bullingham, the CEO of England’s Football Association, according to Sky Sports.

“The starting point was looking at player behavior and dissent — we’re then looking at whether we should extend it into other areas, such as tactical fouls, as well,” he continued.

The “sin bin” is also being implemented as part of a greater effort to curb aggressive behavior by players against referees. IFAB approved the eventual implementation of a rule under which “only the team captain may approach the referee in certain major game situations.”

It would be the biggest soccer rule change since 1992, when goalkeepers were first banned from picking up the ball following backward passes from their teammates. That was implemented to make wasting time more difficult.

The change to soccer would rival other major rule changes that have jarred sports familiar to North American spectators:

The forward pass came to American football in 1906, forever altering the game from a bloody, rugbylike battle of attrition to today’s sport of strong-armed quarterbacks and speedy receivers. The American League adopted the designated hitter in 1973, and the rule, allowing a permanent batter in place of the light-hitting pitcher, became MLB-wide last year. The short-lived American Basketball League used a 3-point shot in 1961-62 before the American Basketball Association made it popular six years later. The advent revolutionized basketball by allowing highly skilled players, no matter their height, to score from spots far from the hoop. The NHL allowed passes to cross the blue and red lines starting in 2005, opening huge swaths of ice for highly skilled offensive players. The governing body of world volleyball in late 1998 instituted “rally scoring,” meaning a point could be scored no matter which side served. Under previous “side out” rules, only the team serving could score. David K. Li

David K. Li is a senior breaking news reporter for NBC News Digital.

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