The case for a ‘home goals rule’

The away goals rule

Virtually all football fans have heard of the away goals rule. As you would know, knockout matches in the UEFA Champions League (apart from the final) take place as two-legged ties. In the case of a draw after 180 minutes, the team which has scored the most goals away from home progresses to the next round: this the ‘away goals rule’.[1]

Countless UCL knockout matches have been settled by the away goals rule (sorry City fans, no salt intended). It is absolutely central to the thinking of players and managers alike during a knockout match. A goal scored away can be worth almost twice its weight in gold, and a goal conceded at home can be almost twice as painful. Managers set their teams up to be able to score away from home and take more risks, and be more defensive at home.

The rule has been described as being “unfair…illogical, and often achiev(ing) the opposite of what it’s supposed to do”. But this piece does not seek to weigh the away goals rule against all the proposed alternatives such as penalty shootouts. It seeks to establish that there is no decisive a priori reason why there should be an away goals rule instead of a home goals rule: in fact, there is a strong case that a home goals rule should be preferred.

The away goals rule seems to reflect a historical preference towards encouraging offensive play away from home. It was originally introduced in order to mitigate the difficulty of obtaining an away win. A goal scored away from home is objectively more difficult, and has especially been the case in the past. Players need to play on an unfamiliar pitch, often in an unfamiliar country. Transport is cumbersome. The crowd will boo you non-stop. Thus, it seems intuitive for the more objectively difficult task to be rewarded: if you have scored more goals away from home, the better a feat you have achieved, and so this means you deserve to prevail in the case of the scores being level.

Turning logic on its head?

However, this logic ignores the fact that we can reach the opposite conclusion, viewed from a defensive perspective. Just as it is objectively more difficult to score away from home, it is also more difficult to concede fewer goals away from home. If we decide to reward the more difficult task from a defensive perspective in the case of a tie, we can say that the team which concedes the fewest goals away from home prevails.

Rewarding the team with the fewest goals conceded away from home is the precise polar opposite to the away goals rule: it is a ‘home goals rule’. Let’s take the Champions League quarter-final tie between Spurs and City. Spurs won 1-0 at home, and lost 4-3 at the Etihad. The scores were level at 4-4 at the end of the tie, and Spurs went through because they managed to score 3 goals away from home, while City scored 0. On the logic of the away goals rule, Spurs deserved to go through because it is objectively more difficult to score an away goal, and Spurs scored 3 away from home in contrast with City’s 0. But can’t it also be said that it is objectively more difficult to concede 1 goal away from home (as City did), as opposed to 4 (as Spurs did)? If we reward the objectively harder task, City should have progressed. This is a ‘home goals rule’ because if the scores are level, conceding fewer goals away from home necessarily means scoring more goals at home.

One may take issue with the fact that the comparators involved in ascertaining the ‘objectively harder task’ (goals scored away v goals scored at home; goals conceded away v goals conceded at home) are internalised within the metrics of ‘goals scored’ and ‘goals conceded’. It is more difficult to score away from home than it is to score at home. Likewise, it is more difficult to concede fewer goals away from home than it is to concede fewer goals at home. Each comparison is hermetically sealed within its respective silo of ‘offensive performance’ and ‘defensive performance’ respectively: they do not interact with each other.

Yet, does this mean that the away goals rule is privileging offensive football, at the expense of defensive football? No, as will be seen below.

Rewarding attacking and defending in equal measure

It is only one part of the picture to say that ‘given that an away goal is worth more, the incentive is to attack away from home’: it only privileges offensive football to this extent. The other side of the coin cannot be ignored: because it is more costly to concede an away goal at home, the away goals rule also privileges defensive football by rewarding the team which concedes fewer goals at home. It rewards offensive and defensive performances in equal measure.

The same principle applies if the ‘home goals rule’ were to be adopted. If it is worth more to score at home, this rule privileges offensive football at home. The corollary of this is that it privileges defensive football away from home since the rule rewards the team that concedes fewer goals away from home.

Practical differences

Is there any practical difference if one rule is adopted over the other? Yes, but only one. This has only one consequence in terms of the incentive that the rule creates for the offensive and defensive players respectively. If the away goals rule is retained, this means that offensive players are encouraged to be more familiar with different types of pitches (since away goals are worth more), while defensive players are encouraged to know their own pitch like the back of their hand (since it is more damaging to concede a home goal). Conversely if the home goals rule is adopted, the positions are reversed: it is the offensive players who are encouraged to be familiar with their own pitch (since home goals are worth more), and it is the defensive players who are encouraged to be familiar with other pitches (since away goals conceded are more damaging). One may think that ‘familiarity with pitches’ is a negligible concern, but (as an extreme example) Klopp has shown otherwise in his remonstrations against Cardiff’s ‘dry pitch’.

The ‘home goals’ rule and attacking football

Which incentive structure is more desirable? This depends on what you value in football. The general public seems to want to see displays of attacking football: one needs to look no further than the comparison between the Manchester United in the Sir Alex Ferguson days as opposed to the Manchester United in the Jose Mourinho days.

If attacking football is thought of as being at the core of an entertaining display, there is a strong case for the home goals rule to be adopted. With the current away goals rule, it does not fare as well in terms of promoting attacking football. Teams are more wary of conceding at home, and thus become more defensive. This is in addition to the fact that it is comparatively easier to defend on one’s own pitch, generally leading to better defensive performances. At the same time, it is harder for the away team to score, given the different conditions: all these factors point towards players and coaches being very defensively-minded, fostering the occurrence of dull games. However, if the home goals rule were to be adopted, the incentives would be reversed. Teams would be incentivised to score more at home, and it would be easier for them to score given the home advantage, especially with a familiar pitch. Aligning the incentives (to attack at home) with the easier task (attacking at home) will conduce to more attacking performances. On the defensive side, teams would be wary of conceding goals away from home, but it is objectively harder to defend well on an unfamiliar pitch. These factors point towards there being more offensive football.

Furthermore, although Champions League matches are now broadcasted, football needs to reward fans who go to the stadium live by increasing the likelihood of them enjoying the spectacle of attacking football, especially the local fan who decides to go to his home stadium when he can very plausibly watch the match on TV from the comforts of his couch. If a home goals rule were to be adopted, fans would be able to witness more attacking football, live: having more intense emotions as a result of the rule, and having those emotions amplified by being there in real life.


If attacking football is what you want to see, you would benefit more from a home goals rule than you would from an away goals rule.

There is one exception, however: all of this becomes moot if AC Milan and Inter Milan end up playing a knockout tie at the San Siro.

[1] If there is still a tie, the game is to be decided by a penalty shootout, but shootouts have been rare as compared to draws settled by the away goals rule


On Suarez and Life


Many of the hidden gemstones containing crucial life lessons can be discovered through sport. This note is for all the football fans out there, in particular those embroiled in their love-hate relationship with Luis Suarez.

On Suarez and Life

Luis Suarez is a football genius. One silky touch takes him away from two defenders, and with a swing of his right boot he rockets the ball in from thirty yards out, rattling the net as he revels in his ecstatic celebrations.

The Good and The Bad

Love him or hate him, the moments of magic he produces on the pitch are taken straight from the top drawer. But before we drool over his runs, flicks and spectacular goals, let us take a moment and refresh our memory of his not-so-glorious moments. Countless unnoticed dives and dirty fouls, a World Cup handball, a World Cup bite, an Ivanovic bite, and uncontrolled losses of temper…

“Beep”. The referee’s whistle blows and it’s a Liverpool free kick. What the hell happened? I’m sure Carrick didn’t even touch Suarez let alone foul him!

“Oh, not again”, I’m thinking as the replay shows up on the big screen. Suarez diving for the umpteenth time and getting away with it again.

I’m sure the vast majority of football fans have witnessed this situation. Why do referees keep falling for these tricks? Because they have to judge by their naked eye, and if they aren’t paying attention, they are susceptible to being duped by class-A tricksters like Suarez. He may say, feigning the highest degree of innocence:

“Michael, what the f**k? You touched me first! Look, ref, Michael’s trying to pretend like nothing happened, right Steven?” (I will refer to this as “line 1”)

I can foresee with great confidence that a referee may well fall for that.

Does it really matter that line 1 represents unscrupulousness in its highest form?

Getting Away Every Time?

The incentive to deceive referees is always strong given that a ref’s final decision is not based on the truth, but what appears most convincing in the absence of real-time technology. It’s always your story against my story. I can make whatever crap up and you won’t know whether I’m telling the truth or not. And not to mention – I won’t get punished in the majority of instances because you probably can’t prove my guilt within the five-second window that you have before you have to make your call.

But there comes a point where everything accumulates and you get caught out a few times. Sanctions start piling up, and your reputation plummets. You get banned from football for a few months.

Next time you don’t dive but actually get fouled by Carrick. Say line 1 again – this time the ref won’t buy your explanation. Why? Because your name is Luis Suarez. Because you’ve been such a lying b****rd who’s barely ever owned up, and the ref can’t trust you anymore. It’s not because the ref doesn’t want to believe you, but simply because he cannot afford to. With his job on the line, he doesn’t want to muck up again, and would rather be safe than sorry.

This is what’s preventing Suarez from reaching the highest echelon.

And if this is happening to Suarez, how much more so does this apply to aggressive tricksters without Suarez’s footballing genius?

Trust, Dishonesty and Self-Protection

Now imagine that Suarez never dived, never lost his temper and played his football honestly without those dirty tactics. Refs would want to believe him, and will most definitely lend a great deal of credibility to anything coming out of his mouth. Say line 1 again, and the ref is very likely to buy your explanation. You’re an honest Suarez, and because of your skill, the ref would want to reward you by doing justice to you.

In any event, referees simply can’t afford to repose trust in serial liars who don’t admit their dishonesty until they run out of cover-ups. They can’t afford to trust those who’ve already deceived them on many occasions. Indeed, Suarez might be telling the truth this time. Of course the ref wants to trust him again and restore things to how they were before knowing of his antics. But at the end of the day, the ref just can’t get himself to trust Suarez again – it’s only fair for Suarez not to have another “bite” at the cherry.

Concluding note

Our friends and family will be our real-life refs – stay true to ourselves, and our refs will stay true to us too. Lose their trust and there’s potentially no way back, not because they don’t want to, but simply because they can’t afford to.

Categorising complaints against referees

Every proper football fan has criticised referees for their dubious decision-making skills and momentary lapses of judgment: one just needs to look to ArsenalFanTV, or to comments on Twitter and Facebook. There are many motivations behind such comments – cathartic release, attempted humour, and instigating meaningful debate to name a few.

If the motivation is to instigate meaningful debate, it would be useful to classify the type of criticism – for this would clarify whether people are arguing on the same wavelength, or whether they are actually agreeing but merely misunderstanding each other’s point.

Broadly speaking, there are five types of complaints about refereeing decisions, and the final one is particularly egregious and not commonly seen. Here are the five categories:

  1. Pure expression of emotion
  2. Inconsistent exercise of discretion
  3. Misapplication of rule based on error of fact
  4. Misinterpretation of rule
  5. Misinterpretation plus misapplication


  1. Pure expression of emotion

Emotional comments pervade social media websites like Twitter – for example “Mike Dean is an [insert expletive]”. No reason or justification is provided for these emotional comments.

One may be led to think that the motivation for such comments is cathartic release. However, the expressed emotion might just be the tip of the iceberg – a person might actually wish to discuss the merits of the refereeing decision in question. In such a case, the reasons may well merely be unarticulated, and enumerating said reasons would be highly constructive.

Logical reasoning is the cornerstone to meaningful debate, and it would make sense if each substantive complaint about the referee’s decision could be categorised according to the four types below (categories 2-5):


  1. Inconsistent exercise of discretion

On the spectrum of ‘refereeing complaints’, an inconsistent exercise of discretion is the least culpable (but can nonetheless be quite impactful).

An inconsistent exercise of discretion involves a situation where the rule permits the referee to make a decision on the satisfaction of particular conditions, but the subjectivity of such conditions means that the referee is given interpretive discretion in relation to such condition(s).

The complaint is that the referee’s interpretation, while technically valid, deviates significantly from how the rule is interpreted in the majority of cases. To give a concrete example, the ‘denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity’ is a ground for issuing a red card. Yet, one may say as follows:

“I can see in a way that that’s a denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity, but come on, in 90% of cases that’s not a red card!!”.

This person’s complaint is that his own interpretation of ‘denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity’ is at odds with the referee’s interpretation of the same phrase. Fundamentally however, he can see how the referee may arrive at the (alternative) interpretation – and this is the characteristic that distinguishes the current category of wrong from categories 3-5.

At this juncture, we can further subdivide ‘inconsistency’ into (i) inconsistency across games, and (ii) inconsistency within games.

Inconsistency across games

Nani’s sending off in the 2nd leg of the 2013 Round of 16 tie with Real Madrid in the Champions League provoked a lot of intense criticism towards the referee. The complaint was that the referee exercised his discretion inconsistently when sending Nani off, in a manner which deviates significantly from the normal threshold for a sending-off in other matches.

That is to say, that in the vast majority of cases there wouldn’t be a sending off, even though the referee had the right to send him off given the waist-high challenge – and so this decision would result in unfairness to Manchester United.

Inconsistency within games

Inconsistent exercises of discretion within a game can be seen most obviously through referees’ decisions as to whether to award free kicks for fouls. The fouls rule provides that:

  • “A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offences:
    • handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within their penalty area)
    • holds an opponent
    • impedes an opponent with contact
    • bites or spits at someone
    • throws an object at the ball, opponent or match official, or makes contact with the ball with a held object”


  • In the 10th minute, a foul was awarded against A, because the referee believed that A ‘impeded B with contact’.
  • In the 80th minute, no foul was awarded against A despite there being contact of greater severity between A and B.

In this instance, the referee believed that the 80th minute incident did not warrant a foul because A did not ‘impede’ B. On the other hand, the 10th minute incident did.

Nonetheless, a fan could complain on the basis that the referee interpreted “impede” in an overly restrictive, albeit technically legitimate, way. For example, while the referee may have interpreted “impede” in a way which required an intention to impede, the fan may have interpreted “impede” in a more factual way which did not require intention. Yet, neither interpretation is excluded on a textual reading of the rule.

If the fact of the matter was that the 80th minute incident involved a factual obstruction of B by A, then the fan could very well say that the referee treated the 10th minute incident and the 80th minute incident inconsistently: the calls were different despite A having impeded B on both occasions.


  1. Misapplication of rule based on error of fact

In line with the previous category, we say that a rule is misapplied on the assumption that there is no misunderstanding of the rule itself. A misunderstanding of the rule itself is a misinterpretation.

A rule is misapplied when there is an incorrect understanding of the facts, leading to a questionable or erroneous conclusion (as the conclusion is reached on the basis of certain fact(s) being omitted or incompletely understood).

This would be a complaint based on error of fact: “He clipped him in the box! How did the ref not see?

Errors of fact are extremely common, and this is why VAR was introduced. The utility, jurisdiction and proper boundaries of the VAR mechanism will be the subject of another blog post.


  1. Misinterpretation of rule

In contrast with the previous two categories, misinterpretation involves misunderstanding the (procedural and/or substantive) meaning of the rule itself, instead of merely misperceiving the facts.

It goes without saying that referees who misunderstand the relevant rule(s) are prone to reach erroneous conclusions. Even if the correct conclusion is reached, this may well be due to fluke.

An example would be the offside rule, which is commonly misunderstood. The offside rule provides that:

  • “A player in an offside position at the moment the ball is played or touched by a team-mate is only penalised on becoming involved in active play by:
    • interfering with play by playing or touching a ball passed or touched by a team-mate or
    • interfering with an opponent by:
      • preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or
      • challenging an opponent for the ball or
      • clearly attempting to play a ball which is close when this action impacts on an opponent or
      • making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball
    • Or gaining an advantage by playing the ball or interfering with an opponent when…”

Thus, if a referee proceeds not to call for offside, on the erroneous assumption that he did not ‘becom(e) involved in active play’ merely because he did not ‘gain an advantage’, this would be a misinterpretation of the offside rule. This is because there are many ways of ‘becoming involved in active play’ – and ‘gaining an advantage’ is only one. There are other ways too (e.g. ‘interfering with an opponent’). Without ruling out the other methods, it would be too hasty to come to the snap judgment of an offside call.


  1. Misinterpretation plus misapplication

This is the most egregious of wrongs, as it denotes a single refereeing decision which contains the previous two categories of wrongs – i.e. a misinterpretation of a particular rule, and misapplying the rule based on said misinterpretation.

Let us apply the two elements to a hypothetical scenario involving the offside rule:

a) Misinterpretation of rule

  • In the context of the offside rule, a misinterpretation would occur in the case that the referee believes that being in an offside position constitutes the offside offence.

b) Misapplication of rule based on existing misinterpretation

  • On the belief that being in an offside position is already an offence, the referee calls an offside despite the player being an onside position. The misapplication here involves an error of fact, as the referee is labouring under the misapprehension that the player is factually offside.


The value of identifying the level of disagreement

Now that the five categories have been elucidated, it is apposite to turn to the purpose of the five-fold categorisation. The purpose is to clarify exactly what is being argued, so as to focus the discussion on the useful and constructive points (and to identify the ‘level’ of disagreement within the 5 ‘levels’).

In fact, not identifying the level of disagreement may lead to people arguing past each other with no meaningful result – just frustration. For instance:

  • P1: No that’s wrong! The referee shouldn’t have sent Nani off – that was never a red card!
  • P2: No, he was actually allowed to because I see why it is a goalscoring opportunity – but yes his decision was harsh.
  • P1: How was he allowed to? I completely disagree.


On the surface, these two people seem to be disagreeing – P2 claims that the referee was allowed to do something, but P1 claims he was not. However, they may not be disagreeing – both may be saying that there was an inconsistent exercise of discretion. In this case, P2 may have misunderstood P1’s argument – P1 may not be saying that the decision was wrong (in the sense of a misinterpretation or misapplication), but instead that the exercise of discretion was improper.

In such a case, P1 should clear up the ambiguity by referring to whether he thinks there was an inconsistent exercise of discretion, or a misapplication/misinterpretation.

  • If P1 is saying there was an inconsistent exercise of discretion but not misapplication/misinterpretation (and vice versa for P2) then there can be meaningful debate.
  • Conversely, if [after separating the ‘levels’ of disagreement] they find that they are actually in agreement, they don’t need to waste any more time!


Clarifying the ‘level’ or ‘wavelength’ of disagreement is conducive to meaningful debate. Ronald Dworkin brings this out in his famous work of ‘Law’s Empire’ – distinguishing between semantic disagreements and theoretical disagreements. When two people disagree as to the location of a ‘bank’, it may be the case that one is referring to a river bank whereas the other is referring to a financial institution. They may in fact be agreeing as to the location of the financial institution, and so the divergences in their definitional starting points render the debate merely semantic. Dworkin calls this the ‘semantic sting’, to which we must not fall prey.

In our case of the ‘P1 v P2’ argument, the semantic sting revolves around the word ‘wrong’ – P2 perceived the word ‘wrong’ as denoting contrary to the FA’s Rules of the Game, whereas P1 may have perceived the word ‘wrong’ as denoting questionable, even if technically legitimate. Identifying these differences would aid in understanding each other’s perspectives.



Meaningful debate involves a constructive exchange of views, and we should test and refine our current views through critical reflection (in the Rawslian sense of reflective equilibrium – a process of deliberative mutual adjustment between general precepts and specific judgments). Indeed, focusing the discussion on meaningful elements and identifying semantic debates/disguised agreement will lead to a lot less anger and frustration.

We hope that the ‘categorisation’ of complaints about referees in this post would go towards achieving the aim of encouraging useful debate.


Hi, welcome to Hew Football!

As co-authors of this blog, we aim to ensure that everyone in the footballing community derives maximum enjoyment out of the sport.

In doing this, we hope to raise awareness of the issues and problems facing the sport, by providing academic analysis of the Laws of the Game, footballing decisions, and other football-related matters meriting serious discussion.

We believe that the best way to identify and resolve the core issues faced by the sport is through intense, detailed analysis of its underlying rules and policies.

As childhood friends, we believe that we can contribute in a meaningful fashion to topical debates in the footballing community – especially since one of us (Wan) has played at the best football clubs in Hong Kong for over a decade.

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Hin (Founder)

  • Allegiance: Manchester United
  • Occupation: Non-Stipendiary Lecturer in Law and Undergraduate Admissions Tutor in Law at University of Oxford
  • Education: Postgraduate law (BCL, MPhil) at Oxford, undergraduate law at HKU and Cambridge
  • Other interests: Formula 1, Racing, English pool, Classical and choral music, Fintech


  • Allegiance: Manchester City
  • Occupation: Trainee Solicitor (Litigation), Hong Kong
  • Education: Law (JD, PCLL) at City University of HK, Accounting (BBA) at HKUST
  • Other interests: Scuba-diving, Basketball, Cars, Travelling, Fintech


  • Allegiance: Arsenal
  • Occupation: Doctor at Tseung Kwan O Hospital, Hong Kong
  • Education: Medicine (MBBS) at HKU
  • Experience:
    • Played club football for South China Athletics Association and Hong Kong Football Club
    • Captain of the West Island School football team.
  • Other interests: Technology, Baseball, Travelling, Science fiction