Football fans have grown accustomed to the rule that dictates that a goal conceded on your home turf means your team should probably take some hiking gear to the second leg, where a mountain awaits to be climbed. Does this make sense? Should the place where the goals are scored be more important than who scores more goals in each game?
You think of Arjen Robben and I bet the first thing that comes to your mind is not the away goals rule. Right? You might think of speed, of a left foot playing on the right flank, of curled shots into the far corner, of injuries, of that Iker Casillas save (if you are Spanish) in the World Cup Final. You think of a lot of things.
Call me crazy but I think of the away goals rule.
On March 9th 2010, Robben was playing in the second leg of the Champions League round of 16, at Stadio Artemio Franchi, in Florence. Fiorentina had lost the first leg, in Munich, with a late goal inevitably coming from Miroslav Klose after Per Krøldrup had cancelled out our friend Arjen’s opener. 2-1.
On this night, in Florence, the Viola were determined to give the Bavarians a run for their (in this case UEFA’s) money. Juan Manuel Vargas scored the first, Steven Jovetic the second, Mark van Bommel made it 2-1, right before Jovetic scored again, making it 3-1 in favor of the purple Italians, putting them on course for the quarter finals. That’s when our friend Arjen showed his away goal special talent and scored what would be the winning goal (even if the opposing team had scored more goals in that game).
His goal meant that Bayern had lost by one, like Fiorentina in Munich, but they had managed to score two goals in Florence. Fiorentina scored a total of four goals against the almighty Bayern, conceded the same number and they were out. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for them. Why should they be penalized for conceding two goals at home if they scored three? I know the rule, and am used to it after more than twenty years watching football, but on that day it felt like it didn’t make sense.
So then came the quarter finals. The opponent was Manchester United, who started the first leg with a statement. The second minute goal by Wayne Rooney in Munich, meant Bayern would have to work a lot if they were to reach the semis. They managed to win that game, 2-1, with goals from Franck Ribéry and Ivica Olic (a late goal, again).
Off to Old Trafford.
You can probably guess what happened in Manchester, but I will tell you anyway. United grabbed a 3 goal lead by the fortieth minute, with the goals coming from Gibson (yes, Gibson!), and a brace from Nani. Bayern managed to score one (Olic) before halftime and, in the second half… well, you know what happened. Robben happened! Again! Bayern Munich were now in the Champions League semi finals having scored the same amount of goals that they conceded. Again.
They eventually reached the final, which they lost to Mourinho’s Inter, but the question remained for me (and, in my case, whenever I see Robben). Why do we value away goals so highly? Is this fair?
In the last ten editions of the Champions League there were seventeen matches decided by the away goal rule. Seventeen! Think about that for a moment. There were seventeen matches that were decided by the most arbitrary of reasons. Imagine if Bayern Munich had won the final in 2010 against Inter. Would they be the legitimate European Champions after failing to actually beat Fiorentina and Manchester United?
Football is not like baseball where the limits of the field vary enormously from one stadium to another. This is the same game, played in the same conditions. The only difference is what happens around the field, but is the environment so important that it determines who is the best team? Not to me.
So here’s my solution: let’s import the American way. Let’s bring the playoffs to Europe! Why not decide the knock out stages on a best out of three format? The team that wins two games wins it. If the first game ends in a draw, the team that wins the next one advances to the next stage. If they draw the first two games, they play a third one. And if they draw all of them, so be it: let’s have a penalty shootout.