Away from home, a goal gets you home: the big debate on the away goal rule in European competition

Today (Wednesday) UEFA are set to meet to discuss a potential abolition of the away goal rule in European competition. This debate is set to be one, like VAR, to divide football fans. On the one hand, it can make ties interesting. On the other, it could ‘ruin’ games a bit premature. Here, Adagunodo Olumuyiwa looks at the debate, and gives his view… 

European competitions are famed for lots of goals and a constant swing in dynamics right throughout the knockout stages, up until the final minute of the grand final – Manchester United fans would agree with me. A reason for there being a great deal of goals may be attributed partly to the quality of players and football on show on the night. Yet, another reason may be the presence of UEFA’s away goal rule.

The latter reason may be a pseudo-fictional reason but at the end of this piece, you may agree with me that it’s not totally out of place to think along this line. I feel I should let you understand that this piece is somewhat shapeshifting in nature and will continually undulate between an exposé and a debate. As per the exposé characteristic of this write up, I shall be presenting both sides of the argument but in regards of a debate outlook; I will be tending towards the argument for the away goal rule. A precursor to this piece is the UEFA Executive committee having a meeting today where the away goals rule is expected to be abolished. Personally, I like the rule, but I don’t matter to the decision. Facts do…

Fundamentally, the away goals rule dictates that the team that scores more goals away from home will win the tie if the scores are level after the two legs. It is fairly simple in writing. This is the first tie breaker in a two-legged knockout game, before the use of penalties as the alternative tie breaker.

This rule was introduced by UEFA for the 1965/66 European Cup Winners’ Cup and over the years and decades, it has proved to be a form of ingenuity that should be praised rather than put down. It not only changed the dynamics of the game for viewers and enthusiasts alone, it has also changed how managers approach these two legged knockout ties in European club competitions.

The away goals rule isn’t exclusive to European club competitions, but is also found in South American competitions as well as some domestic cup competitions such as the Carabao Cup in England and the Copa Del Rey in Spain.

In my discussion with fellow football enthusiasts, there has been mixed feelings about the proposed abolishment of the away goals rule and has been compared with the head to head rule in some quarters. This rue is where a league will not be decided in the traditional goal difference method, but via the means of head to head (i.e. the scores between those two sides over the season). The argument remains that most football lovers want the head to head rule scrapped and that while we want that rule gone, it could be double standards to want to keep the away goals rule.

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While the head to head rule has been done away with in most competitions in football, it very much is the leading tie breaker in the UEFA Champions League group stages, La Liga, Serie A and some other international competitions. I think in context, the rules differ a little bit and should be judged very separately. The head to head rule can only work in a league format but the away goals rule is very much for knockout games.

This means a lot because if you consider La Liga for instance, if Barcelona and Real Madrid are tied on points and the head to head rule is needed to break the tie. You would need to consider that the periods between these two games would have been significantly sparse from one another and we might be talking about a couple of months if not more. Form is never permanent so what if both teams were on different patches of form in these two games? Injuries to key players also needs to be considered and the overall lack of knowledge that this particular stat would matter come the end of the season.

I think the head to head rule is archaic and needs scrapping, as opposed to the away goals rule which when we go by the aforementioned criteria, the away goal comes to importance in a matter of days and barring ill luck, form and injury statuses are pretty much the same. This gives you a fair chance as against the head to head, so putting them together under the same umbrella is not exactly ideal.

The away goals rule, being more modern and full of life, gives European knockout football a different feel to it. The assigning of greater value to goals scored by away teams or the goal and a half in breaking a tie essentially helps to shorten the amount of time players will be playing for in a key period of the season. For instance, if Bayern Munich are in the semi finals of the Champions league and also in a title race with Dortmund – who in this hypothetical sense are not in the Champions League – I’m sure Bayern Munich will be happy to not play an extra 30 minutes if they can end the tie by virtue of away goals.

The away goals rule opens both the 1st and 2nd leg games up and no team feels at a disadvantage either at home or away from home because the away goals rule has leveled the scenarios for the away teams in both legs. The intention is to make the away team more aggressive by giving them an incentive to attack away from home.

If that was not the case, we know there are managers who would sit deep away from home while banking on their team doing the job in the return leg. All the games will look similar which would make managers think lazily. It has been argued that this then swings the advantage to the team playing away first because of the nerves that accompany the home team in not wanting to concede an away goal but on the flip side, if the tie goes into extra time in the second leg, that team has an extra 30 minutes to get an away goal so it balances up in my own opinion.

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Further argument for the away goals rule says that even if the away side is beaten by a wide margin in the first leg, in the same game, they can keep going, knowing the value of away goals and if they manage to get a couple, this keeps the tie alive into the second leg. Prime instances here are Barcelona v Roma in 2017/18 season where Barcelona led 4-1 into the second leg at the Stadio Olimpico where they lost 3-0 and Roma progressed as a result of the away goal after the tie was level at 4-4. Other examples are Liverpool vs Roma in the same 17/18 season and back in 2007 between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. The result of a tie is never set in stone as long as the away goals rule is still in existence and leaves managers on their toes in terms of tactics and in-game personnel throughout the 180 minutes of the tie

The perspective of football purists is that a goal is a goal and should equal the one goal regardless of wherever such goal is scored whether at the Vitality stadium or at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Ultimately, the end justifies the means and if the end goal is to get through a knockout tie in Europe, how it is achieved doesn’t really matter and the away team has an equal chance of scoring an away goal and conceding an away goal. The game of football is at the end of the day about doing enough in the game or in the tie to win.

Football enthusiasts need to rise past the inevitable hurt that being on the sharp end of the away goal will bring and realize what it does for the game in general while accepting that the game is the game and there really is no point in the competition being two legged if it’s abolished.

The conclusion of this is that, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

By Adagunodo Olumuyiwa 

WHILE YOU’RE HERE: Please consider reading our story on footballer turned political prisoner Hakeem Al-Araibi, and helping to #SaveHakeem 

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