For decades, away goals have had added weight and importance in knockout tournaments. That may soon change.
At an annual UEFA gathering, several of Europe’s top coaches discussed different aspects of the game. A change that seemed to be universally agreed upon was that the “away goals” rule in knockout tournaments needed to be looked at.
Under the current system, in the knockout rounds of European competitions, teams play an away leg and a home leg. The team with the most combined goals is the winner of the round and moves on in the tournament. That sounds simple enough on the surface, but there’s another, more complicated wrinkle.
Away goals take precedence over goals a team scores at home. This means that in the event of a tie, the team with more away goals will move on into the next round. If Team A and Team B are tied at 1-1 after both legs, but Team B scored at Team A’s ground and Team A scored at home in the same game, Team B would move on.
The current system is unfair, because it assumes that it’s more difficult to score away than it is to score at home. It promotes an unnatural way of playing the game. Teams are incentivized to play an attacking style when away and to defend at home. The results of these dramatically different philosophies could be disastrous, especially when one considers how a team is built. A weaker team that draws with a stronger side after the second leg could be penalized for what would normally be considered a good result.
The away goals rule as we know it today was first introduced at the European Cup Winners’ Cup (known today as the Europa League) in 1965. UEFA introduced the rule in an effort to avoid coin flips or replays of a game in the event of a draw. Coin flips were seen as an unfair way to decide who won and lost, and they looked to avoid replays due to the difficulty of travel at the time.
Teams now have the ability to travel around the entire continent (and in some cases the world) at the drop of a hat. Getting to another team’s ground is as easy as ordering a chartered flight these days, so there’s no excuse for wanting to avoid a replay.
Individual countries use the replay system in their own domestic cups. England, for example, utilizes replays in the FA Cup. Smaller teams aren’t penalized for fighting to a draw against a bigger club. In addition, they also get the added benefit of potentially bringing that bigger club to their ground for a marquee game they wouldn’t get to play under normal circumstances.
Introducing replays into competitions like the Champions League and Europa League could create logistical problems, especially in the later stages of the competition. Teams are already playing a tight schedule, often with two or more games in the same week. The games would also need to be played on a fairly tight schedule, as the date for the Champions League final is already set.
For these two competitions, the solution is simply to get rid of the away goals rule. If two teams are tied after both legs, the game should go into extra time and then penalties, regardless of where the goals are scored. This ensures that the outcome is decided fairly, by the players on the pitch — and not by geography.