Some things in football seem to just breed excitement: Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi getting on the ball in their prime; An El Clasico match-up or when Liverpool take on Manchester City with Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola at the helm; A World Cup final, packed to the rafters with fans and with the two best teams from the tournament coming together. There is so much to love about football, but we sadly lost one of the great rules of the game in recent years.
For those that are only just getting into football or are yet to turn to the beauty of the most popular game on the planet, they will likely only hear about away goals from reminiscing fans and match reports from some of the greatest matches ever played. While the away goals rule was accused of making games needlessly confusing or denying deserving teams of their place in the next round, it managed to create some truly astounding footballing moments in time. In this article, we will take a look at the away goals rule, why it was removed and what has taken its place since.
What Was the Away Goals Rule?
The away goals rule was a rule used in many major cup competitions that sought to reward teams for playing attacking football on the road. An away goal was seen as more important than a regular goal. For example, if Chelsea were playing Real Madrid in the Champions League at the Santiago Bernabeu and they drew 1-1 in that game, the one away goal they scored was seen as more valuable than the one home goal Real Madrid scored.
On the flip side of this, when Real Madrid visited Chelsea for the second leg, any goal they scored in their away fixture would be seen as an away goal, with Chelsea now scoring normal goals in their home leg.
What made the away goals rule confusing was that the scoreboard did not detail away goals that had been scored. For example, if Chelsea drew 1-1 in Spain and then the match at Stamford Bridge ended in a 2-2 draw, under the away goals rule, Real Madrid would go through. This was because they had scored two away goals to Chelsea’s one after the game had ended 3-3. At the end of the second leg, the scoreline for this would have looked like this: Chelsea 2 Real Madrid 2 (3-3).
From this, most football fans would work out that the aggregate score was 3-3 (the aggregate score being the combined score from both legs). They would work out that the first leg had ended 1-1 (3-3 – 2-2), and so Chelsea had scored one away goal, while Real had scored two. Therefore, with the scoreline locked at 3-3 after 180 minutes of football, Real Madrid progressed on away goals.
Once it has been explained, it is not overly complicated. However, for the casual football fan, it made things very complicated. After all, there never seemed to be an explanation for away goals when a team was playing, while some would question whether regular league games used the away goals rule to find a winner.
What Is the Current Rule?
In the UEFA Champions League, which was one of the most high-profile exponents of the away goals rule, the rule is now far simpler. If the score is level at the end of 180 minutes, then the game goes into extra-time. If extra-time also ends with the scores level, then the game will go into a penalty shootout.
This makes things far easier for football fans new and old to work out which side is on top. There is no need for fans to work out which side has scored more away goals. All goals now count for the same amount.
When & Why Did UEFA Remove the Away Goals Rule?
The away goals rule was abolished by UEFA for the start of the 2021/22 Champions League season. This saw all teams that played two-legged knockout matches now unable to profit from away goals. Instead, all goals are now weighted evenly.
The confusion the away goals rule caused was probably enough to warrant removing the rule. Ultimately, it was one of those rules that could be regarded as blocking entry to the game for some new fans. After all, a new supporter will struggle to understand what is going on in a game if the two sides appear to be level on aggregate, but one is pushing incredibly hard for a goal.
While we will go into more detail about the reasons why UEFA implemented the rule in the first place, the basic idea behind using it was to push away sides into attacking more. However, as we will mention later, while the away side attacked more as they searched for an invaluable away goal, the home team went the other way, defending more and trying to stop the away side from scoring.
Why Was the Away Goals Rule Used?
The away goals rule had been around since the 1965/66 season, and it was meant to act as an incentive for teams to attack. The old mantra for teams playing on the road in Europe was that they would set up to defend their own goal, with a draw seen as an excellent result. While a stalemate on the road is still regarded as a good result, the away goals rule saw it taken to new heights, especially if it was a scored draw. This was even more true of an away win.
However, by trying to incentivise away sides into attacking, it disincentivised the home side. If you are going to give the away team a major advantage by scoring on the road, the team that is hosting will want to deny them that chance. Therefore, we went from a situation where the home team would attack and the away team would show little attacking intent, to the away team now attacking and the home team often showing little intent.
It stands to reason that the team hosting the first leg would benefit from a 0-0 draw as they then knew any and all goals they scored on the road in the away leg would be worth more than what their hosts would get. The idea of the away goal was to force the away team out of their shells in search of a goal. By providing it, the powers that be had hoped it would create a more open and entertaining game, with both teams looking for goals. In some circumstances, it had entirely the opposite effect.
Some argued that the away goals rule favoured the side that was playing at home first. The thought was that conceding a goal in the opening game for the home side gave them a significant disadvantage in the tie as a whole.
Of course, many of the best teams in Europe over the past decades have not let this rule affect them. The team and players have known that they are the better side and looked to beat their opponents over the course of the 180 minutes. For the smaller sides that were outmatched, the rule provided a glimmer of hope for them. However, while the idea behind it was the right one, it could cause the better team in the tie to get eliminated unfairly.
Why Did the Away Goals Rule Make Football More Exciting?
This is something of a subjective question as there will be some out there that argue that the rule ruined some ties. However, for those that remember how good Barcelona were in the early stages of the 2000s, the away goals rule could change a tie completely. If Arsenal visited Barca in the semi-finals of the Champions League, they would go to the Camp Nou knowing victory was unlikely, but taking an away goal back to London could prove to be the difference. After all, if the Gunners lost 2-1 in Spain, they knew that a 1-0 win in front of their own fans would be enough to send them through on away goals.
For Barca, this means that they would go about their business as normal, such was the talent in their ranks. For the minnow of the tie, an away goal was like gold dust. In the same way, if Arsenal had won 1-0 in Spain, Barca would know they were not out of the game by any stretch. Indeed, if they could net twice in the clash, they would have a major advantage. It would mean that if they were 2-1 up on the night (2-2 on aggregate), then they would be going through on the away goal. Similarly, if they were 2-0 up on the night, the aggregate score may read 2-1 to Barca, but Arsenal knew that a single goal would not be enough due to the away goals rule.
While there were times when the rule made things more confusing and gave teams a small advantage if they played first, it helped to shape some of the most entertaining matches in the history of the game.