Last Thursday, UEFA announced that the away goals rule would no longer apply to the Champions League and the Europa League.
It’s about time. It’s an anachronistic rule, the product of an era long since past that no longer makes sense in the modern game.
And no, I’m not just treading on sour grapes after Juventus has been on the wrong end of the rule each of the last two years in the Champions League. I’ve had my knives out for the away goals rule for a long time, and, as you can probably see by my choice of language, I’m utterly thrilled.
The away goals rule had its genesis in 1965, with a twofold purpose. The main purpose was to finally insert a tie-breaking mechanism into two-legged ties to alleviate any potential logistical issues in an era where the only real way to separate teams that were level was a replay. The second was to encourage away teams to be more aggressive. In a time where most any travel was a significant haul and before the globalization of the game, when each country had a distinct style that a team would need to adapt to in-game, it wasn’t hard to see why a visiting team would set themselves defensively and try to conserve energy with the hope of making a dent when they were at home. Incentivizing away teams to attack wasn’t particularly a bad thing.
But none of the conditions that led to the rule’s adoption actually apply anymore — to say nothing of the fact that the rule is patently unfair.
In terms of incentivizing attacking play from the away side, that simply isn’t needed anymore. In the modern game, the best managers don’t need a carrot dangled in front of them in order to attack. They’re going to do it anyway. If you think coaches like Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp need to be give an incentive to attack, you’re living in another time. Conversely, if an inferior team is going up against the Manchester Cities and Barcelonas of the world, they’re going to park the bus and hope for a counter regardless, as the alternative of playing toe-to-toe with their opponent would be suicide. Frankly, over the decades the rule has turned in on itself. How often now do you hear that the home team’s first objective in the first leg of a tie is to ensure they don’t allow an away goal, and see the home team clam up to ensure they avoid just that.
As for tiebreaking, there isn’t a need for that, either. The existence of the penalty shootout, which was first introduced five years after the away goals rule, has made replays obsolete in every context except the FA Cup, because tradition, or something — and even now extra time and penalties are in play if the second game also ends in a draw.
It should have made away goals similarly obsolete from the moment it came into being. Extra time and penalties are an inherently more fair way to decide a drawn tie. It ensures that a team that has earned parity with their opponent actually gets the opportunity to determine the winner on the field, as opposed to crashing out of a competition because of the arbitrary decision that some goals are worth more than others because of what building they are scored in — a premise that is patently absurd if you talk about it in a vacuum.
Goals are goals. Scoring them is the ultimate objective of all soccer teams everywhere. It doesn’t matter where they’re scored, they should all weigh the same. Ridding continental competition of the away goals rule will not somehow ruin things or suck the excitement out of the game—extra time and the potential of a penalty shootout are plenty exciting in their own right, and teams will generally want to avoid that eventuality given the fact that they’ll be staring a league game in the face within three or four days.
The away goals rule was a solution to problems that either no longer exist or have seen better solutions arrive since it was implemented. Its removal ensures a truer, more fair result to drawn ties and won’t detract from the excitement or the spectacle of European ties. Its death was a long time coming, and should have happened far earlier than it has. I, for one, eagerly look forward to watching a tournament without it.