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There's Plenty of Good Reason to Do Away With Away Goals

UEFA is abolishing the away-goals rule for its club competitions starting this coming season, a change that is long overdue.

What is football? Does it exist to entertain people? Does it exist to make money? Or is it primarily a sport? Those are fundamental questions, and how you respond to them will condition your response to a wide range of other questions.

UEFA announced Thursday that the away-goals rule is to be abolished in its club competitions starting this coming season. There has been a predictable outcry. Football is an essentially conservative entity. Fans hate change. And the tendency, with good reason, is to be suspicious of anything UEFA does.

The debate over away goals—where in the event of an aggregate draw after a two-game series, the team with more goals scored away from home goes through—has been rumbling for years. Those who dislike it consider it arbitrary: Why would it matter where or when you score a goal? Are not all goals equal? Arguments in favor fall broadly into two categories: It can offer drama, and by incentivizing away teams to attack, it makes football more open and entertaining, and prevents them from bedding in and trying to run down the clock.

It is true that the away-goals rule can create passages of extreme tension, when a goal can transform a win directly into a defeat without passing through the intermediate phase of draw. Perhaps that is attractive—although just as many second legs are ruined by an early away goal making the home team’s job essentially impossible—but is it fair? In the 2019 Champions League semifinals, Ajax, leading 1–0 from the away leg, was drawing 2–2 in the second leg and going through to the final. Then, suddenly, Tottenham's Lucas Moura scored in the sixth minute of injury time, and Ajax was headed out, despite having scored just as many goals as its opponent. Dramatic and fun, yes. But fair? Probably not.

Lucas Moura scores for Tottenham vs. Ajax

If you believe football is there to entertain, then you’re probably quite happy with that. But there is no way Tottenham could be said to have beaten Ajax over the course of two legs by any kind of sporting merit. And there are plenty of daft things that could be done to liven up the game if entertainment is the only criterion.

Then there are the claims that this will inevitably lead to more defensive football, that disincentivized away teams will now inevitably set out to try to defend. To that there are two responses. First, have you seen elite teams trying to defend these days? Dominating their domestic leagues, law changes and the tactical preference for a high press have made it all but impossible for elite sides to sit back and absorb pressure.

And second, what evidence is there that the away-goals rule ever made away sides more attack-minded? The European Cup ran for 12 seasons before the away-goals law was introduced, in which the away side failed to score in 33% of games. In the 12 seasons after it was introduced, the away side failed to score in 45% of games. Now it is true there are other factors at play. Football became generally more defensive in the late 1960s and '70s. But there is nothing at all to suggest the away-goals rule checked that tactical development. In fact, might it not be that away teams found it harder to score because home teams were incentivized to defend?

Admittedly, this is football between 1955 and '79 that we’re discussing, as we have to, given that’s the only data we have for football before the away-goals rule. Football has changed since then. But there is a more recent example: MLS introduced away goals for its playoffs in 2014. There is no evidence it has made any difference.

But why would it? Football is not the same as it was in the early days of European competition when a trip abroad meant an uncomfortable voyage into an unfamiliar and often hostile world. Travel is much easier now, conditions more standardized and the environment sanitized. When the away-goals rule was first trialed in the Cup Winners' Cup in 1965–66, only 16% of away games were won by the away team. By the final couple of seasons before COVID-19, that figure had doubled.

A study in The Times of London showed that, until 1980, home teams in UEFA competition had an advantage of 1.06 goals per game. By 2000 that had fallen to 0.77. By '18 it was 0.51. Playing away just isn’t that big of a deal anymore.

The circumstances that led to the introduction of the away-goals rule no longer exist. It’s unfair and arbitrary, privileging some goals over others. And it never actually achieved what it set out to do, anyway—in fact, it was possibly even counterproductive. The question really is not whether UEFA is right to have done away with the regulation, but why it didn’t do so sooner.

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