Reactions to the decision to repeal the away goals rule have been mixed, but should African football’s governing body follow suit?
On Thursday, Europe’s football governing body Uefa announced the repealing of the away goals rule for all of its club competitions starting from the 2021/22 season.
The decision, which eliminates the use of away goals as a tie-breaker in knockout competition, also dictates it will not be used in head-to-head situations to separate two or more sides on equal points during round robin competition.
It is a decision that has met with mixed reactions, predictably.
This is a particularly fraught time in football, where the floor seems to be moving underneath the feet of the paying fan: tournaments are being expanded willy-nilly, formats are getting wonkier, and new competitions, driven by capitalistic avarice, are being mooted daily.
Against this backdrop, it is easy to understand why any fundamental change to the product can be considered with cynicism.
However, it is a decision that, according to Uefa, “follows broad consultation process across football”. This is manifestly true for anyone who has followed discourse in European football over the last decade and half.
As far back as 2012, former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was pleading the case against the away goals rule at the annual coaching conferences in Geneva, and it is perhaps no coincidence that, being Fifa’s Chief of Global Football Development, his opinion on the subject has gained even more gravitas.
His argument – and that of those who have been of the same mind – was that the rule was arbitrary and counterproductive.
Having been created to encourage an attacking approach away from home, it had instead begun to encourage a defensive stance at home. These are valid concerns, and with nothing in the research to indicate the rule had accomplished its purpose in any meaningful way, it is easy to see why Uefa reached its resolution.
It does raise the question, however: in much the same way as the rest of the world followed Uefa’s lead in adopting the rule in the first place, should they join in and adopt its abrogation? More specifically, should Caf do likewise?
In order to answer this question, it is worth understanding the circumstances in which the rule was created in the first place.
The world was a different place in the 1950s.
In particular, traveling across Europe was a more perilous operation than it is today, with less advanced road networks and the elements posing significant dangers. Added to the unfamiliarity of the terrain were volatile crowds, blatant and overt intimidation, and underdeveloped playing surfaces.
All of these factors combined often meant exhausted visitors were, in many cases, content to merely avoid a thrashing. This made for a lousy spectacle; incentivizing a measure of ambition, therefore, made some sense.
These concerns have all been addressed in the 21st century both by modernization and the raising of competition standards. It is now inconceivable for pitches below a certain aesthetic and horticultural standard to be accepted by Uefa, terraces are a lot more sanitized, and trans-continental rail networks make travel around Europe a whole lot easier. Every barrier to performing at optimal levels away from home has been largely removed.
For Europe, then, it is an obsolete rule. For Africa, however, the same cannot be said.
For one thing, Africa is three times the size of Europe, with greater differential extremes in terms of climate and topography (from North to South).
As such, travel is expensive and logistical bottlenecks are commonplace – sometimes, trips to away matches are split across multiple days, and clubs have been known to arrive on the day of matches.
Then there is the issue of a lack of direct flights, which forces teams to take connecting flights routed through Europe in order to honour matches.
A recent example came in this year’s Caf Champions League, when Kenyan club Gor Mahia could not get any flights to Algiers to face CR Belouizdad and had written Caf requesting a postponement, only to be granted special authorization at the last minute from the Algerian embassy in Nairobi.
Nigerian side Enyimba similarly could only honour their engagement with Tunisian side ES Setif in April by connecting through Doha, Qatar.
The matchday experience for away clubs is also a difficult one.
The quality of playing surfaces is a concern, with few pitches meeting global standards of excellence. There is the common practice of selecting kick-off times with a view to using harsh weather conditions as an added edge: teams from sub-Saharan Africa will often select the early afternoon when facing North African opposition, for example.
There have also been various incidents of stadium violence down the years, with the likes of Ismaily, Zamalek, Club Africain and TP Mazembe having faced sanctions within the last decade.
All these considered, away trips in Africa clearly retain the sense of existential dread that European football has now mostly shed. As such, the concerns the away goals rule was created to address are valid still, and require careful consideration in any discussion around its abolition.
In Africa, an away goal remains an asset to be prized not just for those reasons alone, but also for the fact it can act to forestall yet more violence. Imagine a scenario in which it is repealed, and an away side that would have gone through on away goals inside 90 minutes is forced to face an extra 30 minutes and possibly penalties under threat of greater hostility.
At the heart of this discussion is one inescapable truth: the realities of both continents is vastly different and, as such, solutions cannot and should not be ‘one size fits all’. It is entirely possible to agree with the spirit of the change, while at the same time understanding it might not work in every environment.