By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 20, 2015) US Soccer Players - It's a FIFA presidential election cycle, so the big issues facing the sport are up for discussion. The 2022 World Cup. The untenable finances at the top of the club game. Club vs country when it comes to international release windows. The fixture calendar and player exhaustion. For at least one FIFA presidential candidate, we can add another topic to the list.
Ok, Blatter's original phrase that the away goals rule has "fallen behind the times" came in October and there's no pressing agenda to change the tiebreaker in a two-leg series. What we got his week was soccer managers who should know better reviving Blatter's complaint. As scenarios go, the losing manager complaining about the away goals rule is almost a requirement. Whether or not the rule is outdated or even fair is a different version of that discussion.
In the moment, the away goals rule seems almost arbitrary. It doesn't matter if the away goal is a carryover from the first-leg or happens in the second-leg. The takeaway is that something artificial is now part of the game, making it about more than winning by beating the opponent.
Last night, I was at Amsterdam ArenA for the second-leg of the Dnipro vs Ajax series in the Europa League Round of 16. Dnipro led 1-0 to start the game, with Ajax equalizing on aggregate to force extra time. Then came the dreaded away goal, with Dnipro responding accordingly and trying to stall the game to its conclusion. While Ajax fans headed to the exits, the home team scored. Jubilation mixed with dread, since everybody knew it wasn't going to be enough.
Every sport needs drama, and the away goals rule actively works against that. It's easy to look at the scoreboard and see the obvious. 2-1 on the night for Ajax, 2-2 on aggregate, but game over due to the tiebreaker. It's a feeling shared by Chelsea and Arsenal in the Champions League, balanced against not wanting to make excuses for failure.
That's the big picture problem with the away goals rule. It has a tendency to mask failure. Under the rules of the competition, away goals determines a winner and a loser the same way goals themselves do. However arbitrary the rule might seem, it's not a surprise. Limiting it to full time in the second-leg is a tweak, not a reinvention. The complaints about deciding a game on penalties aren't the same as what managers who know better direct at the away goals rule. There's a simple reason for that. The away goals rule really does dictate tactics over 180 minutes plus extra time.
Dnipro might be guilty of living a soccer cliché with how they tried to manage time against Ajax, but that decision was tactically sound. Get the game to extra time, get that away goal, and force the home team into a position where they need to score twice to win. It's limiting the late opportunities. Even though it might not look like it, it's also fair play.
For anybody trying to defend the away goals rule, that's the biggest obstacle. There's no question that the away goals rule can create a pragmatic style of soccer that's frustrating to watch. It's the team that can't score an away goal that normally feels the bulk of that frustration. It turns the knockout rounds of both of Europe's club competitions into limited versions of the game rather than expressions of the best European soccer can offer. That doesn't make it unfair or unsporting.
Altering the away goals rule either by only applying it in regular time or only using it after the completion of extra time might not be an improvement. The complaints will still happen not only every time it's the difference, but every time a team plays to its strengths. That means any team hosting the first-leg and carrying a slight lead into the second.
It's gamesmanship soccer. The appeal for the neutral might be questionable, but it's fully within the rules of the competition. It's up to one team to take it out of play.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson: