Thankfully UEFA has decided to take the last 16 of the Champions League straight into a knockout format from the 2003/04 season onwards but why have they elected to do away with the Golden Goal rule?
18 Nov 2002 - 12:13 PM  UPDATED 28 Feb 2014 - 5:12 PM

As the UEFA Champions League enters its second round-robin stanza, the nostalgic yearning for the good old days of pure knockouts and sudden deaths increases.

Don't know about you, but I find myself in full agreement with UEFA's brave decision to do away with the second phase altogether, and take the last 16 straight into a knockout format, from the 2003/04 season onwards.

Indeed the old knockout days are hard to put behind, having left a lasting vestige that even plays tricks on the mind.

So much so that when one checks the results these days, one finds momentary solace in his team's tally of away goals, only to realise that they matter not for it's a league system now and, in fact, it's only the points tally that counts.

Oh for the days when the great Real Madrid could only draw 0-0 at Wiener Sportklub in Vienna (with Puskas sent off) and have the world sit on a knife's edge until it could turn round the deficit at Chamartin two weeks later.

Madrid did, of course, walloping the uppity Viennese 7-1 in the second leg and Sportklub were gone. These days it would be four points to Real and one to Sportklub.

Football and sporting purists generally have a compelling argument in favour of knockouts formats over league formats.

The flaw of league formats, from a romantic viewpoint, is that there is plenty of time to compensate for the loss of points.

It is not whether or not you win or lose a game, but how often you win or avoid defeat over a long span of games that counts.

In a league format you can calculate for the number of points, and therefore the number of wins or drawn games, that will get you to your target.

You can afford, therefore, to play cautiously, defensively, and aim for a draw or even a narrow defeat, in a percentage of your outings.

In knockouts you cannot do that. In such ties you have to calculate to win.

If it is a two-legged affair you have to win at least one of them to survive. Or you have to attack your opponents on their own turf in order to get that vital away goal.

In short, league systems can accommodate dreary defensive football. Knockout formats do the opposite, encouraging you to pounce, take risks and kill off the adversary in an instant.

That is what makes cup contests, like the FA Cup, and the old version of the European Cup, so fascinating and gripping.

Materialism, and the need of the rich clubs to last longer in the competition, is what has led to the transformation of the European Cup into a partial league system.

AC Milan, Bayern or Arsenal cannot afford the risk of early elimination if they are to make ends meet and generate the revenue that will equate costs.

Hence the transition by the European Champions Cup to a Champions League in the 1990s.

It was not so much about expanding the competition but about expanding the riches of the rich clubs.

But what was at risk was the integrity of the European Cup and its unique magic, which set it aside from other competitions and made it so rich in the first place.

So the penny dropped at UEFA and the body made the ruling that, at least partially, the tournament should re-assume its old magic and uniqueness. Namely, revert to knockouts.

If only UEFA had a re-think also about the Golden Goal, which it has decided to scrap having chosen to follow the recommendations of a curious technical advisory group.

What a load of trollop that was.

I return to sudden death and its beauties. Because the beauty, or one of the beauties, of the Golden Goal is that it brings an unpredictable, sudden-death end to the game.

We don't know how or exactly when the game will end. It's magic, and sporting drama at its most vibrant.

Not at all like its dreadful alternative, the penalty shootout, which brings an end to the game simply because there needs to be one.

Examples abound, probably the best of them the 30 minutes of extra time in the Euro 96 semi final between England and Germany.

Although there was no goal, it had everything else: end to end waves, a disallowed goal, the woodwork, everything. It was riveting stuff. In the end it went to the penalties anyway, but that is not the point.

Sure, penalty shootouts have their own drama. But what are they, these one man against one man contests, compared to the Golden Goal scenario, in which all players of both teams are involved in a high-tense, often chaotic, end to end combat between defence and attack?

There is, surely, no comparison.

To begin with penalty kicks were invented as tools of punishment for offences. It is inherently abhorrent that tools of punishment should be used to decide games.

Proponents of shootouts make the case that penalties are part of football. Yes. But only when someone has committed a foul inside the penalty area.

As genuine, intended arbiters of a game's outcome, they are not part of the game and never have been.

The men who drew up the Laws of the Game at London's Freemasons Arms all those years ago would be spinning in their graves at the thought that penalties, pre-conceived, are now deciding World Cup finals.

The group that advised UEFA on the Golden Goal is a circle of coaches, among them Liverpool's Gerard Houllier, the former Internazionale boss Roy Hodgson and the former Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh.

Why, one could ask, was this task assigned to coaches?

Why coaches, given that the debate is not about the technical merits of the Golden Goal option, but about the core spirit of the sport and about the game's entertainment value?

Since when did coaches give a rats about the spirit of sport or its entertainment value?

One of the arguments the coaches put against the Golden Goal is that it doesn't give the losing team a chance to come back and redeem the deficit.

Duh? Hello? Isn't that the point?

The game is at an end. There is no comeback for the loser. Just like there isn't when the final whistle goes in a 90 minute game.

Or when the last kick is taken in a penalty shootout. What is the difference?

Of course, the real reason for the advice is that the coaches prefer shootouts because they like to have control.

They like the option of instructing their team to defend for the 30 minutes of extra time and take their chances in the 50/50 shootout.

The Golden Goal scenario, where everything is left to the whim of the players, is poison to coaches.

Mathematically, it is like this.

Because penalty shootouts are not contests of skill but essentially a lottery, each team has a 50 percent chance of winning it.

So if a coach feels his team is a less than 50 percent match for the opposition in normal team play, he will instruct his team to defend and hold out for the penalties where his inferior team's chances of winning is increased to an even 50 per cent.

Red Star Belgrade did just that in the 1991 European Cup final against Olympique Marseille, spawning the dreariest extra time period ever seen, and won the shootout.

After the game Red Star's coach Lubomir Petrovic admitted that he instructed his team to defend and play for the penalties from the beginning of the game because, he felt, Marseille was a far better team.

With the Golden Goal, that cannot happen. It's all systems normal. Each team has to have a go because if either concedes a goal, it is dead.

And the decider comes out of normal team play, actual football, not some football version of an OK Corral shootout.

That is why the Golden Goal is better and, despite UEFA and its silly surrender to a panel of coaches, FIFA has to dig in and ensure it stays for the World Cup.