Should the away goals rule be scrapped? FourFourTwo investigates

Introduced over 50 years ago to encourage away sides to attack, it’s now more likely to have home teams shutting up shop. As Manchester City rue a Champions League exit courtesy of the rule, we discover why

Joan Maria Pou doesn’t have a clue what he’s thinking the moment Andres Iniesta’s right-foot rocket careers into Chelsea’s net. Frankly, he couldn’t care less. It’s the last minute of the Champions League semi-final second leg in 2009 and Barcelona are on the precipice of being accepted as one of the greatest club sides in football history.

But they are also on the brink of elimination. After drawing the first leg 0-0 at the Nou Camp against Guus Hiddink’s Blues, they are a Michael Essien goal down with seconds remaining. The dream is fading. All looks lost. Suddenly, Iniesta strikes. Chaos.

Commentating for RAC1 in Spain, Pou explodes in a fit of raving hysteria. “Kaiserslautern!” he screams amid the studio’s wild cries, in reference to a last-gasp away goal against the Germans en route to Barça’s first European Cup in 1992. Once may be enough, but Pou can’t stop. “Kaiserslautern! Kaiserslautern! Kaiserslautern!” Eight times he screams.

Meanwhile, Chelsea are furious. They’ve had four penalty appeals turned down but are out on away goals. Michael Ballack yells maniacally in the face of Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo. An apoplectic Didier Drogba storms onto the pitch and screams into the camera: “It’s a fucking disgrace!” 

Andres Iniesta sends Chelsea packing in 2009

It wasn’t the only pivotal tie settled on away goals. The next year, Louis van Gaal’s Bayern Munich reached the Champions League final, sneaking through the backdoor via away goals in both the last 16 and the quarter-finals. “It’s hard to digest something like that,” Sir Alex Ferguson lamented post-match (while ranting about Bayern surrounding the referee like “typical Germans”). Six Champions League ties since have been settled on away goals, including Bayern again in 2013, the Bavarians lifting the trophy only after eliminating Arsenal thanks to the rule. 

A growing perception that the away goals rule now tips the balance too heavily in favour of the away side has led to calls for its abandonment. The idea of scrapping the rule completely was consequently debated last September at a two-day UEFA conference of elite coaches in Nyon.

“The weight of the away goal is too heavy, too big and not justifiable anymore,” Arsene Wenger has argued, while Ferguson, who chaired the meeting in his capacity as UEFA coaching ambassador, revealed that some coaches “think it’s not as important as it used to be... the attacking emphasis on the game today means more teams go away from home and win.”

Since the turn of the century, 26 Champions League knockout games have been decided on away goals, and statistics show the average number of second-leg away goals scored in European competition has steadily increased in every decade since the 1980s. Additionally, while the average number of goals per game was about evenly spread between first and second legs during the 1960s – the decade in which the rule was introduced (3.18 in the first leg vs 3.17 in the second) – in every decade since, the average number of goals scored in the second leg has been significantly higher. 

AWAY-GOAL WINNERS

  • PSV Eindhoven, 1987/88 Squeezed past Bordeaux in quarters and Real Madrid in semis. Two decades later, away goals cost Guus Hiddink as Chelsea boss.
  • Milan, 1989/90 Arrigo Sacchi's cup-winning team had Stefano Borgonovo to thank for semi-final extra-time goal against Bayern Munich that sent them through to final.
  • Barcelona, 1991/92 'Kaiserslautern', and 'Jose Mari Bakero' – enough to make Barça fans go weak at the knees. Bakero's 90th-minute away goal in a 3-1 defeat was crucial in round two en route to Euro glory.

The number of teams winning away from home in Europe now compared to the 1960s has also more than doubled. “Maybe the defenders are earning less money,” Rafael Benitez put it. “Teams aren’t so negative away.”

All of which begs the question: is it time to scrap the away goals rule?

Fairer than 50-50

In a football era that has sprinted so quickly towards modernisation, it seems strange to think that the pinnacle of the European game continues to rely on a rule that is beyond its 50th anniversary. Before 1965, European ties ending all square were decided by play-offs, often hosted on neutral grounds. If the play-off ended in a tie after extra-time, a coin toss would decide the winner – an unsatisfactory and cruel way of settling things after 300 minutes of football. 

The catalyst for change came in 1964/65, when Liverpool advanced to the European Cup semi-finals after beating Cologne in a coin toss. “The ref produced a plastic counter twice the thickness of half a crown, red on one side, white on the other,” wrote Horace Yates in the Liverpool Echo. Liverpool captain Ron Yeats won the toss and the Reds were through, the sense of farce compounded when the coin landed sideways in the soft turf at Feyenoord’s De Kuip and had to be tossed a second time. “What a most unsatisfactory way to separate two gallant and closely matched sides,” mused Yates.

The away goals rule was introduced the following season. Honved were the first beneficiaries, advancing in the Cup Winners’ Cup at the expense of Dukla Prague after a 4-4 draw on aggregate.

Tricky travel: Effectively, Benfica were the away side in 1968's Wembley final

Its implementation made sense. European travel was long and costly, and playing away from home created a significant disadvantage. Manchester United, the first English team to win the European Cup, didn’t win a single away game in that successful 1967/68 campaign, an example of the difficulties posed by European away games. The conditions teams would face when playing away in Europe were demonstrated when Everton became the first English side to lose on away goals, in the 1970/71 European Cup, after their quarter-final with Panathinaikos ended 1-1 on aggregate.

After drawing 1-1 at Goodison Park, the Toffees travelled to Athens knowing they needed at least one goal to have any chance of making the semi-finals. What awaited them, however, was like nothing they’d experienced – “a nightmare atmosphere which revealed all the worst features of European football,” reported the Echo’s Michael Charters. 

“In the latter stages of the game [at Goodison] they were poking and prodding at us, pulling our hair and saying 'Athens, we will see you in Athens',” Joe Royle later remarked. “When we went over there, their fans were outside the hotel, driving around on motorcycles to keep us awake.” 

Everton were the first side to face the (really loud) music

“We were subjected to a torrent of Greek phlegm,” substitute Roger Kenyon recalled in Gwladys Street’s Holy Trinity. “From my experience Panathinaikos supporters were all heavy smokers who suffered from catarrh.” “Athens,” as Everton’s promotions manager David Exall put it, “was an absolute nightmare.”

Dodgy pitches, hostile crowds, wearying hours of travel and trepidation aroused by journeying into the unknown were just some of the factors that made playing away in Europe so daunting.

“Bricks came through the front window and one of the side windows,” Maurice Malpas recalled of Dundee United’s 1984 European Cup semi-final second leg defeat away to Roma. “It was a proper fight. The police were nowhere to be seen.”