Soccer player

Why Do Teams Get Three Points for a Win in Football?

Every sport and league on the planet sets its own rules on how many points a team wins for a victory, draw and – in the case of cricket – even when they lose. Two, three or five points for a triumph are not uncommon, while in some sports that are most-popular in the United States – including American football and basketball – it’s simply the number of wins generated, rather than the points column, that determines success and failure.

In football, two points were awarded for a win in most leagues around the world for the best part of a century, before a trailblazer came along in England who proposed the three-point system – that, he argued, would encourage more attacking play as the ratio between a win and a draw was now more skewed in the favour of victory. Whether that’s proven to be true or not over the years remains to be seen, but you can’t fault the logic behind Jimmy Hill’s three-point theory.

When Was Three Points for a Win Introduced?

When the Football League was founded in 1888, a handful of senior officials sat down and thrashed out how the league pyramid would look, as well as setting in stone the rules by which each division would abide by. That first season in 1888/89 saw two points awarded for a win and one for a draw – a more radical proposal was to have just one point for a victory and none for a stalemate, and it would remain that way for almost 100 years.

No thought was ever put to changing the point system – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – but Jimmy Hill, who was something of a progressive thinker in the English game back in the 170s and eighties, was not satisfied with it. Hill, you may recall, was the one-time chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), and it was he who managed to get the maximum wage rule – capped at £20 per week – scrapped.

But that wasn’t the only time that Hill would blaze a trail in the English game. In 1981, he campaigned to have the point system changed, so that three points were awarded for a win instead of two. Although sceptical, the Football League eventually acquiesced, and so the 1981/82 season would be the first in which teams earned three points for a victory.

How Many Points for a Win at the World Cup?

World Cup trophy
World Cup trophy (fifg /

While English football adapted to the new three-points-for-a-win regime in the early 1980s, few other leagues around the globe followed them in implementing the new system. It wasn’t until the World Cup in 1994 that three points for a victory in football became a globally recognised truism. Tired of stale group games in which teams would be happy to play for a draw, FIFA wanted to encourage sides to take a more attacking approach – thus improving the spectacle for TV audiences.

The governing body took a stand, introducing the back-pass rule – which prevented teams from keeping possession in mind-numbing fashion by passing the ball to their goalkeeper, who would then pick it up – and three points for a win.

That became the accepted standard from 1994 onwards, with all FIFA-sanctioned tournaments awarding three points for a win to this day. UEFA also jumped on board, designating their Euro ’96 qualifying campaign (which got underway in 1995) as the start of their three-point era, with the Champions League also introducing the change. By the end of 1996, every major domestic and international league on the planet issued three points for a win and one for a draw.

Has Three Points For a Win Made Football Better?

Everyone’s definition of ‘better’ is different. But if we consider the generally-accepted version of better as more attacking football, which should in theory result in more goals, then the answer is yes – up to a point. For context, the 1980/81 First Division season – the last in which two points were awarded for a win – saw an incredible 16 out of 22 teams score 50 or more goals during the campaign. In 1981/82 (the first three-point season), that figure had dropped to 12/22.

By 2022/23, albeit in a 20-team division, the number of teams scoring 50 or more goals in the Premier League (the old First Division) had shrunk further to eleven. There’s a number of reasons as to why that might be so, but one is almost paradoxical and completely counter to Hill’s belief all those years ago: because wins are so much more valuable in the three-point era, teams that go a goal to the good are more inclined to shut up shop and hold on to their lead – as opposed to throwing caution to the wind and trying to score more goals.

In its own unexpected way, awarding three points for a win instead of two has actually helped to make football more defensive and risk-averse, creating a ‘win at all costs’ mentality as opposed to breeding entertainment.

The Butterfly Effect

Here is a question to muse over: if two points for a win had remained in place, rather than three, how would the history of football changed? In England, at least, there wouldn’t have been much in the way of major change – apart from one significant anomaly. During the 1994/95 Premier League season, Manchester United were expected to steam roller their way to the title as normal – as they had done in the first two years since the First Division had been rebranded to the EPL.

But plucky upstarts Blackburn Rovers had something to say about that, and powered by the goals of lethal strike duo Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton, they pulled off the unlikeliest of Premier League title wins – until 5000/1 shots Leicester City did the unthinkable in 2016. The league table from 1994/95 makes for fascinating reading. Here’s how it finished under the three-point rule:

  • 1 – Blackburn Rovers W27 D8 L7 GD +41 PTS 89
  • 2 – Manchester United W26 D10 L6 GD +49 PTS 88

Now here’s what the revised Premier League table would have looked like had it remained two points for a win:

  • 1 – Manchester United W26 D10 L6 GD +49 PTS 62
  • 2 – Blackburn Rovers W27 D8 L7 GD +41 PTS 62

By virtue of drawing two more games than Blackburn, Manchester United would have amassed 62 points as well – but would have been crowned champions by virtue of their better goal difference. Unbeknownst to him, Jimmy Hill helped to create one of the most incredible title battles in Premier League history – a true butterfly effect moment in English football.