The away goals rule is a method of breaking ties in association football and other sports when teams play each other twice, once at each team's home ground. By the away goals rule, the team that has scored more goals "away from home" will win if scores are otherwise equal.
The away goals rule is most often invoked in two-leg fixtures, where the initial result is determined by the aggregate score — i.e. the scores of both games are added together. In many competitions, the away goals rule is the first tie-breaker in such cases, with a penalty shootout as the second tie-breaker if each team has scored the same number of away goals. Rules vary as to whether the away goals rule applies only to the end of normal time of the second leg, or applies in extra time as well. It was first introduced by UEFA in 1965.
Originally, the away goal rule was introduced in football as an expedited way of doing away with playoffs or tie breakers on neutral grounds to resolve a logistical, physical and calendar problem when two teams were so closely matched the final score over the two legs remained in absolute parity, which could remain even after a third game tie breaker. Now, the away goals rule is intended to encourage the away team to be more aggressive. In football, at least, it sometimes leads to a nervous first leg: the home team is unwilling to commit large numbers of players to attack lest they concede a goal, whilst the away team attempts to defend and snatch an away goal to aid them in the second leg. Such tactics arguably make the second leg more exciting, after a low-scoring first leg leaves both sides with a chance to win. There are sometimes debates over whether the away goals rule gives an unfair advantage to the team playing away first — with the other team squandering their home advantage in the first leg due to away goal fears — and this may be a factor in its somewhat patchy adoption for competitions.
There is also the issue that if extra time is played in the second leg, the away team gets an extra 30 minutes to take advantage of the away goals rule. This can be countered by the fact that in extra time, the home team has the advantage of playing the extra 30 minutes at home.
Anecdotal evidence certainly suggests that most teams feel an away goal puts them in the driving seat, such as Liverpool being able to draw 1–1 at Arsenal in the 2008 UEFA Champions League quarterfinals; Liverpool did eliminate Arsenal to advance to the semifinals.
Many commentators have described the importance of a team being away to score an away goal, even when losing that leg of the tie, as it mathematically does give that team a chance to redeem itself on home soil by leveling the tie on aggregate while using the away goal as a tiebreaker. For example, in the 2007 UEFA Champions League round of 16, while Bayern Munich lost the first leg 3–2 at Real Madrid, Bayern later won 2-1 at home to level the tie on aggregate, but it was Bayern's away goals scored during their first leg loss that let them advance. In a recent instance, at the 2013 UEFA Champions League semifinals, despite falling 4–1 in the first leg at Dortmund, Real Madrid would be able to advance if at home it managed to hold Dortmund to 3–0. (Real Madrid scored two goals in the last ten minutes to win the second leg 2–0 but were unable to score the third goal that would have sent them through to the finals.) In the other semifinal, however, as Barcelona was shut out at Bayern Munich, 4–0, commentators have considered Barcelona essentially eliminated as Bayern could seal the tie by scoring one away goal even if Barcelona managed to score five goals.
The away goals rule results in the "lead" of the two-legged tie swinging back and forth. For instance in the 2005 UEFA Champions League round of 16 between Barcelona and Chelsea, Barcelona was ahead on aggregate after a 2–1 win in the first leg at home. During the second leg held in London, Chelsea first scored three straight goals to take the lead on aggregate (4–2), but Barcelona responded with two goals to level the aggregate score at 4–4 while taking the lead on away goals (2–1). Chelsea scored again, though, to advance on aggregate, 5–4.
The away goals rule is applied in many football competitions that involve two-leg fixtures, including the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League, CAF Champions League, CAF Confederation Cup and any two-legged playoffs in qualification for the FIFA World Cup or European Championships. Major League Soccer in the U.S. and Canada introduced the away goals rule in the MLS Cup Playoffs, in which the conference semifinals and finals (the quarterfinals and semifinals of the overall tournament) are two-legged, for the first time in 2014. The rule was first applied in this competition when the Seattle Sounders defeated FC Dallas in the 2014 Western Conference Semifinals.
In CONMEBOL competitions before 2005, for example the Copa Libertadores, CONMEBOL used neither the away goals rule nor extra time in any of its competitions. Ties that were level on aggregate went to an immediate penalty shootout. Since 2005, two-legged ties have been decided on points, followed by goal difference and the away goals rule, if the result is still tied, the penalty shootout is used. The Copa Libertadores finals became the only exception to the away goals rule and also only in the finals is employed extra time. In Latin America, an example of a tournament that always has used this rule is Copa do Brasil (Brazil Cup).
The away goals rule is sometimes used in round robin competitions (that is, leagues or qualifying groups), where it may be used to break ties involving more than two teams. For example, away goals are the third tiebreaker in the group stage of both the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Cup. In Group C of the UEFA Champions League 2000–01, Olympique Lyonnais took the second qualifying spot ahead of Olympiacos on away goals. Because other tiebreakers take precedence, the away goals rule is rarely invoked in such tournaments. In many group tournaments, the away goals rule is never applicable; for example, in World Cup qualification.
The away goals rule was first applied in the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup when Budapest Honvéd beat Dukla Prague in the second round in 1965–66. It was introduced in the Fairs Cup in 1966–67, and in the European Cup in 1967–68 for the first round, 1968–69 for the second round, and 1970–71 for later rounds. Previously, ties level on aggregate had gone to a playoff on neutral ground.
If the two clubs contesting a two-legged fixture share the same stadium, each club may be the home club in one leg, and the rule may still apply. For example, the 2003 UEFA Champions League Semi-Finals drew Inter Milan and AC Milan together. Both legs were played at the San Siro, their shared stadium in Milan:
With an aggregate of 1–1, AC Milan was declared the winner because they were the "away" side in the second game. In this example, as in many such cases, most tickets for each leg will be reserved for the "home" side's fans, so the designation was not totally arbitrary.
Not all competitions with the away goals rule suffer from this anomaly, however: the Copa do Brasil has developed its rules to avoid some anomalies, such as the above. In that Cup, if two teams share either the same stadium or the same home town, neither is considered the home club and thus the away goals rule does not apply. This exception was seen, for example, in the 2006 final between Flamengo and Vasco, when both legs were played at the Maracanã Stadium.
More anomalous was a qualification play-off for the 1991 World Youth Championship between Australia and Israel: Australia won on away goals even though, due to security concerns arising from the First Intifada, Israel's "home" leg was played in Australia. The same situation occurred in the 2010 FIFA World Cup qualification tie between the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands, when the Bahamas advanced on the away goals rule even though both legs were played in the Bahamas.
There has been at least one case of a wrong application of the away goals rule by a referee in an international club tournament. It happened in a second-round tie in the 1971–72 European Cup Winners' Cup between Rangers and Sporting Clube de Portugal. This fixture had the following scorelines:
Since the teams were now level 6–6 on aggregate, the Dutch referee Laurens van Raavens ordered a penalty shootout, which Sporting won 3–0. Rangers appealed the loss, however, on the grounds that Van Raavens should not have ordered the shootout, since the Rangers goal in extra time in Lisbon gave them a lead of three away goals to two. Rangers won the appeal and went on to win the Cup Winners' Cup that season.
CONCACAF has a different rule for its CONCACAF Champions League, employing away goals at the end of full-time of the second leg, but not applying the rule at the end of extra time. MLS adopted this version of the rule for its playoffs in 2014. For example, the semifinal of the 2008–09 CONCACAF Champions League between Cruz Azul and the Puerto Rico Islanders had the following scorelines:
Since CONCACAF does not apply the away goals rule for goals scored after extra time, the game went to a penalty shootout, which Cruz Azul won 4–2.
The away goals rule can also apply to forfeited matches. Celtic lost their away tie to Legia Warsaw 4–1 in the 2014–15 UEFA Champions League third qualifying round. In their home leg, Legia brought on an ineligible player which automatically gave Celtic a 3–0 win. The forfeiture meant that the tie ended 4–4, meaning Celtic qualified to the next round on away goals.
Below is a summary of the variations of rules used in different competitions. In most examples in the table below, a penalty shootout is used to determine the winner if all criteria used remain tied. The exception is Primera División de México play-offs, where the higher seed, which has the better regular season record, wins the tie if the aggregate score is level.