FRANKFURT, Germany -- Whoever wins the World Cup, one definite loser will be soccer's battered image of fair play.
A record number of red cards, including four in one game and three in the first 46 minutes of another, suggests there is something fundamentally wrong with the world's most popular sport, although FIFA president Sepp Blatter has ripped the referees for mistakes and inconsistencies.
"I've noted that instructions aren't being followed consistently from one match to another," he said Wednesday. "When a coach complains to me that shirt-pulling earned his player a yellow card one night and nothing for his team's group rivals the next, how am I supposed to respond?
"And then there are the tackles from behind I've seen go unpunished and the violent conduct that has escaped sanction, not to mention the serious errors made in applying the rules."
Referees will again be in the spotlight at the World Cup quarterfinals -- Germany-Argentina and Italy-Ukraine on Friday, England-Portugal and Brazil-France on Saturday.
It's not just the scything tackles, deliberate handballs, flying elbows, players feigning injury or diving to get penalties or opponents sent off.
There are all the other ugly components of foul play: shirt tugging, sly trips, ankle taps, body checks made to look like accidental collisions. A sinister recent trend is a player going down, apparently injured, while his opponents are attacking. The attacking team is honor bound to kick the ball out of play while the downed player gets treatment.
The pushing and shoving that happens at free kicks and corners also suggests the game is getting out of control. Usually, such tactics don't warrant a yellow card. But they still happen and many critics say they are poisoning the game.
Maybe there's a way of weeding them out.
One suggestion is for a team to automatically lose a player when it reaches 20 fouls in a game. It would be up to the coach to decide who goes. At 30 fouls, another player would leave the field.
While that may seem unfair to a player who has been scrupulously clean and has not made a single foul, how about this for making up the coach's mind: If an individual player has made five fouls, he gets a yellow card. That puts him on warning that the next time he commits a serious foul, he will be off anyway. If the coach has to make up his mind who should be ejected, he might be more likely to choose his dirtiest player.
FIFA says such an idea has been considered and rejected, never getting as far as the international board, soccer's rulesmaking panel.
"We have had proposals of this type, but they just don't add up," said spokesman Andreas Herren.