Most football fans know what the offside rule is but only a few can really explain it in only a few words to a non fan without the use of some props to represent the play. We have all seen it in bars, pubs and dinner tables across the world as the salt shaker becomes the central striker with the ketchup and pepper as the last line of defence. Regardless of how clear they are, rules like the offside rule are there to make the game fair and to create stability to a game that is often temperamental and lacking clarity. But some rules, like the Away goal rule still confuse many in the game, both on the pitch and off it. The Away goal rule was first introduced by FIFA back in 1965 in an effort to decide the outcome of closely fought double-headed knockout competitions. In essence, the rule is as such, the team that has scored more goals away from home in an otherwise tied game wins. For instance if team A draws 1-1 with team B away from home, then ties the home leg 0-0, they progress because of the away goal. Ridiculous.
The rule was brought into effect by FIFA to encourage the away team to attack but what it in fact has done has encouraged the home team to defend and defend in numbers. Jose Mourinho once called it “parking the bus” after his then Chelsea side were unable to break down Tottenham’s defence in a 2004 Premiership match and left angry and empty-handed. Deemed unattractive to watch by fans and opposition managers, it can be vital for progression in a tournament to keep a clean sheet. Having stopped the opposition from scoring in the first leg at home, the balance of the tie is then dramatically swung in their favour as they know that the now home team will need to be extra careful to not concede or they face the uphill task of scoring twice to win the tie.
There is no better example of this than Glasgow Rangers 2007 UEFA cup run when they managed to reach the final of the competition only to fall at the last hurdle to an impressive Zenit St Petersburg. What made their run incredible was that on route to the final they scored only five goals in five games (they dropped into the competition at the last 32 after an unsuccessful Champions League campaign). But it was the way they protected home advantage and “parked the bus” that helped Walter Smith guide his team to the final. Clever tactics by a very smart coach, despite the objections from his opposite numbers in the Panathinaikos, Sporting and Fiorentina dugouts. Smith’s squad lacked the star names of yester year and employed 38-year-old David Weir at centre back and on one occasion with 34-year-old Christian Dailly for company. What he lacked in flair, they made up for it grit and determination and worked out a strategy to frustrate and then punish teams along the way.
In the first game against Panathinaikos kept the clean sheet at home before snatching a late goal in the return leg to tie the game but progress on the away goal rule. The next game against Werder Bremen, Rangers broke from their strategy as they were gifted two clear chances which they converted to seal a 2-0 first leg lead. The match in Germany would be tighter but this time Smith decided to hold what they had and managed to escape after conceding only a single goal despite numerous chances by Bremen. Sporting Lisbon were up next and a return to their trusted formula, holding the Portuguese club to a 0-0 draw at Ibrox. As the second leg started as the first had ended, Sporting began to lose their patience, which let Rangers French striker Jean-Claude Darcheville snatch a valuable away goal. Now chasing the game, Sporting had to score twice so pushed forward in numbers only to leave too much space at the back, which let Steven Whitaker score a late second and send Rangers into the semi finals to play Italian side Fiorentina. Rangers once again defended in numbers but this time in both legs against a very skillful and talented Fiorentina side. Eventually the game went to penalties and Rangers snuck away with the win, disgusting head coach Cesare Prandelli, who was quoted after the game as saying that Rangers killed the beautiful game with the way they played. Smith didn’t care as he plotted one final victory that would lift them the cup but their luck ran out in Manchester as Rangers were beaten 2-0 by an Andrey Arshavin inspired Zenit team.
Without the away goal rule and its tactical implications, its doubtful Rangers would have progressed as far as they did. Granted the tactics employed worked to their advantage and they took their chances when needed, but if they were out to attack from the first kick of the first leg, then the story may have been very different. We have seen this week in the UEFA cup and the Champions league, great teams like Inter Milan and Arsenal knocked out on the away goal rule which in modern-day football seems harsh. Critics will argue that they didn’t do enough in the first leg to merit going through but like most jobs, occasionally teams have off days. Tottenham thrashed Inter 3-0 at home but struggled to beat them in Italy, losing 4-1 after extra time with only an Adebeyor goal in the second leg enough to put them through. Yes they lacked the explosive Gareth Bale on the wing but Inter looked like a different team than the one that lost so convincingly only two weeks prior. In the Champions league, Arsenal did what was needed by winning 2-0 in Germany against Pep Guardiola’s next pet project, Bayern Munich. But the 3-1 score line in the Emirates stadium meant that their efforts were in vain, despite the scores being level after 180 minutes of wonderful football.
To suggest there is any real advantage or disadvantage of playing at home vs. away, especially in modern football is somewhat archaic. But what must be looked at is the reasoning behind keeping such a strange rule as the away goal rule. Nobody really feels that it is of benefit and most would rather that if a match is indeed tied after 180 minutes then the game should go into extra time in an effort to resolve it. Better still don’t play it over two legs and instead choose an independent ground for the teams to play in and contest the match. If this isn’t feasible then the extra time and penalties will have to do. After all, no one has a problem with a team being eliminated by penalties right?