Germany’s “Brave Little Tailor”

Rudolf Kreitlein - FIFA WC 1966 quarter-final England - Argentina
Referee Rudolf Kreitlein facing Argentinian players at the 1966 FIFA World Cup quarter-final. © Getty

How German referee Rudolf Kreitlein played a vital role in the invention of the yellow and red cards during the 1966 FIFA World Cup in England.

It was the 35th minute of the quarter-final between hosts England and Argentina at the 1966 FIFA World Cup. German referee Rudolf Kreitlein verbally sent off Argentinian captain Antonio Rattín from the pitch, as at the time, cards did not yet exist. But Rattín refused to leave the pitch. Instead, he positioned himself directly opposite of Kreidlein, who is a head length shorter, and they argued, with their points lost in translation. But Kreitlein, a tailor by profession, remained steadfast and was later nicknamed the “Brave Little Tailor’, like the Brothers Grimm story of the same name. This situation set off a process that led to the introduction of the yellow and red cards a few years later.

A passionate referee on his way to the top

Kreitlein, born in 1919 in Fürth, Bavaria, was a passionate referee from an early age. Restricted by the Second World War, he did not make his national debut until 1954. Nine years later Kreitlein made his international debut at the 1963 UEFA Youth Championship in England. In the Final between the hosts England and Northern Ireland, he was so convincing that he was nominated to referee the FIFA World Cup, which was also held in England three years later in 1966.

Cautions in the paper

At the World Cup Finals, Kreitlein then led the game that would go down in history: the infamous quarter-final between England and Argentina. From the very first minute, the game was marked by fighting. Even before the famous scene in the 35th minute, three Argentinians and the English brothers Bobby and Jack Charlton had already been cautioned. Legend has it that the Charlton brothers only learned of their cautions the next day - from the newspaper. These warnings, but also expulsions, were only given orally and the brothers had simply not heard theirs. The fact that bookings were only given verbally would have a major impact later in this game

The match ball of the 1966 FIFA World Cup quarter-final between England and Argentina
The match ball of the 1966 FIFA World Cup quarter-final between England and Argentina, signed and labelled with game stats by referee Rudolf Kreitlein. It is on display at the FIFA Museum. © FIFA World Football Museum

Communication difficulties on the pitch

In the 35th minute it came to the incident between the German referee and the Argentine captain. Rattín had come running from behind and shouted aggressively at the referee. For Kreitlein this was a clear offense, a point he made after the game. However, he also admitted that he did not understand a word of Spanish. Rattín’s side of the story was that he simply wanted to speak to the referee and that he did not understand that he was being sent off due to the language barrier. So he refused to leave the pitch. The game was interrupted for almost ten minutes until police officers led Rattín off the pitch. After the game, which England won 1-0, Kreitlein was accompanied into the dressing room for his own protection.

Verbal bookings fail again

This game was not the first in which verbal bookings failed to have their intended effect. Already in the infamous 'Battle of Santiago' between Chile and Italy at the 1962 FIFA World Cup, players had to be led off the field by the police. The referee at the time was the Englishman Ken Aston. Four years later, Aston, now FIFA's chief refereeing instructor, watched the England-Argentina match from the sidelines. The incident involving Rattín and Kreitlein convinced him that verbal bookings were no longer sufficient and had to be replaced by a visible penalty.

Inspired by traffic lights

The next day, Aston told Kreitlein how he was stopped by a few traffic lights after the match. Thus, he was inspired to transfer this system to football. 'Yellow, take it easy; red, stop, you're off' was how Aston described the formula, which he then presented to the FIFA Executive Committee. The idea was quickly met with approval.

The first red card in World Cup history

The first official red and yellow cards, which were intended to avoid any linguistic misunderstandings between players and referees, were used at the 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico. But, the first red card was not drawn until the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, when the Chilean Carlos Caszely was sent off the pitch in a match against the hosts.

Wembley sees the end of a career

By this time Kreitlein had long since retired. His last international match was in December 1967 between England and the Soviet Union. It ended in a 2-2 draw, and most importantly, took him back to the same spot that had put him on the map: London's Wembley Stadium.