The rise and fall of the golden goal: how it defined tournaments and created legends

The rise and fall of the golden goal: how it defined tournaments and created legends

From the sublime to the ridiculous, the 1990s were unquestionably a period of great transition for the game. Between the unpolished, blood-and-thunder spectacle of the 1970s and 80s and the monolithic commercial entity we see today, the decade that brought us the Premier League now resembles a sporting chrysalis, managing to look boldly pioneering when compared to previous eras yet charmingly archaic in the face of he modern game.

While the acceleration in revenue brought with it everything from Adidas Predators to cream Armani suits, there were also some equally significant changes happening on the pitch, particularly within the rulebook. Although some of the amendments – from the relaxation of the offside law to the introduction of the backpass rule – were revolutionary decisions that changed the face of the game, there was another notable rule that would be confined to history within a decade, but not before providing the sport with some of it’s most iconic, dramatic and bizarre moments. This is the story of the golden goal.

Like the backpass rule, the golden goal was borne out of a desire to arrest the trend of cynical, risk-averse tactics thought to be diluting the sport’s appeal and encourage ambitious, attack-minded drama. While Italia 90 is best remembered for a series of sport transcending moments – from Paul Gascoigne’s tears to Roger Milla’s snake hips – in reality, the tournament was a hotbed for the dark arts, with numerous games sullied by agricultural challenges and negative tactics. 

Never was the tactical conservatism more pronounced than in the extra-time periods where four nervy knockout stage duels, including both semi-finals, required the lottery of a penalty shootout to decide proceedings. The indecisive nature of these matches proved instrumental in convincing both FIFA the IFAB that the traditional extra-time format needed spicing up to encourage more definitive conclusions in future competitions. 

Originally burdened with the far less marketable name of ‘sudden death’, the golden goal rule was a bold departure from the traditional extra-time. Whereas previously teams were guaranteed 30 minutes of additional football to decide the tie, the new rule stated that the first team to score in extra time would immediately win the match.

From the ever-evolving interpretations of the offside rule to the modern-day grumblings over the merits of VAR, nothing has the capacity to provoke impassioned debate across pubs, clubs and stadiums quite like the introduction of a new rule, and golden goal was no exception. With a concept stolen straight from the school playground rulebook, the new law’s ‘next goal wins’ ethos was steeped in romance and idealism.

While many applauded the positive intent shown by FIFA, other fans were sceptical over the rule’s ability to enhance attacking frivolity, with some believing that the higher stakes would actually further accentuate the tactical caution.

After years of debate, golden goal was tentatively introduced in 1993. While at this point there was no obligation for major tournaments to implement the law, FIFA went down the familiar route of roadtesting the rule in youth tournaments and ‘lesser’ competitions. Although the first golden goal was scored at the 1993 World Youth Cup in Australia by the hosts’ midfielder Anthony Carbone, it would take a couple more years before the rule would be used in the upper echelons of the professional game.

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Over the next few years, the golden goal would be responsible for deciding some of football’s most glamorous prizes. The rule’s first notable foray on British shores would occur in the more humble setting of the Auto Windscreens Shield final – one of the many ridiculous sponsorship names for the Football League Trophy – at Wembley. The hero of the day was Birmingham midfielder Paul Tait, his glancing 103rd minute header flying into the Carlisle net and prompting commentator Alan Parry to excitedly declare: “For the first time in Wembley history, we can say with absolute certainty that that’s the winner!”

It would take little over a year for Wembley to be reacquainted with the golden goal, with the next instance occurring amidst the hedonistic setting of Euro 96. This time, fans would be treated to a moment befitting of the old ground’s iconic status, as Germany defeated the Czech Republic to win the tournament.

The protagonist was Oliver Bierhoff. The previously unheralded striker announced his arrival on the world stage as he came off the bench to save the day with die Mannschaft trailing 1-0. Following his headed equaliser in normal time, the future AC Milan hero would etch his name into German folklore as his speculative strike was mishandled by Petr Kouba, landing in the bottom left corner to conclude the match and the championship.

With everyone still getting used to the finality of the new rule, the Czech players stood still in a state of momentary confusion before slumping to the floor as the famous old ground was flooded with a cacophony of noise from the ecstatic German fans.

While the final undoubtedly showed the new rule in the best of lights, the rest of the tournament told a different story. In reality, FIFA bosses must have been praying that fans had enough distractions in the form of Badiel, Skinner, booze and Britpop not to notice the banquet of tepid, terrified, goalless extra-time periods en route to the final. 

Over the next few years, the ascendancy of the golden goal would coincide with the French national team’s rise to dominance, and it would be Les Bleus, more than any other side, who would come to prosper from the short-lived law. France 98 would be the first time the format was used in a World Cup, and it would be the hosts – via a Laurent Blanc strike against Paraguay in the last 16 – who would score the first and only golden goal of the tournament on their way to lifting the iconic gold trophy for the first time.

As important as Blanc’s winner in Lens had been, France’s exploits against Paraguay proved a mere dress rehearsal for the avalanche of extra-time drama they’d unleash on the European Championship in Holland and Belgium two years later. Having reached the semi-finals, the world champions were given all they could handle by an ultra-talented Portugal side featuring the likes of Luís Figo, Rui Costa, and Nuno Gomes.

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With the score level at 1-1, the game looked destined for a penalty shootout when, in the dying minutes of extra-time, France were awarded a penalty following a desperate goal-preventing handball from Abel Xavier, causing furious protests from the entire Portuguese team. Enter Zinedine Zidane.

Zidane had been at his majestic best across both tournaments, and such was the sense of inevitability as the Juventus playmaker stepped up to take the penalty that future teammate Figo was already departing the pitch with his shirt in his hand. The decision proved to be a wise one as the Frenchman fired the ball convincingly into the top right corner sending Les Bleus to the final in Rotterdam. It was there that they would produce perhaps the most iconic moment in the decade long history of the golden goal.

Facing a star-studded Italy side, the tournament favourites approached the 90-minute mark of the match trailing 1-0 thanks to a second-half Marco Delvecchio strike. As the four minutes of stoppage time slowly wound down, Italian fans at De Kuip were in a buoyant mood with the Azzurri poised to lift the European Championship for the first time since 1968. On the other side, a sea of fans in darker blue wore masks of dejection as they began to accept the inevitable.

However, with less than a minute of stoppage time left, Sylvan Wiltord’s diagonal low strike was enough to finally beat an inspired Francesco Toldo in the Italian goal. With the atmosphere turned on its head and the golden goal looming for the second consecutive Euros final, there was only ever going to be one winner. 

With the Italian’s reeling, France made their move 13 minutes into extra time when Robert Pires followed a jinking run with a clever cutback for David Trezeguet. In a moment that seemed to occur in slow motion, the recently signed Juventus striker watched the ball bounce in front of him before hammering past Toldo and etching his name into history. Like Bierhoff before him, the golden goal served as a coronation for Trezeguet whose best career years would follow that magical night in Rotterdam.

For every moment of Trezeguet-esque glory, the golden goal was equally adept in its ability to serve up something farcical. Never was this more apparent than in 1994 when Barbados and Grenada provided us with one of the most ridiculous, confusing and outright hilarious moments in football history.

Taking place in the qualification stages of the Carribean Cup, the two nations faced each other in the final game of a three-team group consisting of the two aforementioned sides and Puerto Rico. In what would usually be a straightforward situation, Barbados entered the game at the bottom of the group and needed to beat Grenada by at least two goals to overhaul the other teams and qualify for the tournament proper. Here’s where the fun starts.

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Departing from the universally accepted norms, the organisers of the Caribbean Cup implemented a rule stating that any group stage matches ending in a draw would result in the golden goal. To compound the bizarreness, it was decided that any golden goal scored would count as double. It was a decision that would blow up spectacularly in the faces of the lawmakers. 

With seven minutes left of normal time, Barbados were leading 2-1 and in desperate need of another goal to avoid elimination. With the clock running down, the disheartened Barbadians became resigned to the unlikelihood of finding a third goal and decided that their best chance of qualification was to exploit the gaping loophole in the bizarre rule. In the 87th minute, Barbados defender Terry Sealey and goalkeeper Horace Stoute began to pass the ball back and forth before Sealey deliberately put the ball in his own goal to take the game into extra-time.

With tournament officials already resigned to collecting their P45s, the last few minutes of normal time would serve to further compound the utter stupidity of the rule, as Barbados valiantly defended both goals while Grenada tried in vain to score at either end. In a fitting conclusion, Barbados would get the golden goal and advance at Granada’s expense, but by this point the result seemed neither here nor there as journalists around the world had a field day.

Unsurprisingly, the rule was given an unfavourable view from Grenada manager James Clarkson who echoed what everyone else was thinking when he said: “I feel cheated. The person who came up with these rules must be a candidate for a madhouse. The game should never be played with so many players running around the field confused. Our players did not even know which direction to attack: our goal or their goal. I have never seen this happen before. In football, you are supposed to score against the opponents to win, not for them.”

From France’s golden hat-trick to the shambles in Barbados, there’s no doubt that international football was responsible for the majority of the golden goal’s most iconic moments. Despite being in regular use throughout the decade, the occurrence of a golden goal in club football proved to be relatively rare, with the law never once deciding the outcome of a Champions League match. While the scarcity of impact within the club game provided naysayers with credible evidence against the law’s merits, there were nevertheless a few historic moments that left the rule with a legacy at club level.

The first of these would occur in the 2000 UEFA Super Cup as Galatasaray upset Real Madrid thanks to an extra-time strike from Mário Jardel. Having been responsible for the outcome of one of the European calendar’s opening fixtures, the golden goal would have an even more profound effect at the season’s close, amping up the theatrics of a pulsating UEFA Cup final in Dortmund.

In a battle for the ages, favourites Liverpool were taken to the wire by a game Alavés side who had eliminated the likes of Inter and Kaiserslautern en route to the final. With the scores level at 3-3, the Merseysiders must have thought they’d done enough to add to their expansive collection of European silverware when, in the 72nd minute, deified local hero Robbie Fowler produced a trademark cultured finish to put Liverpool back in the ascendancy. 

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In a moment befitting of the game’s craziness, former Manchester United player Jordi Cruyff came back to haunt his old club’s bitter rivals with an 88th-minute header that ensured the 48,000 fans at the Westfalenstadion would be treated to the carnage of sudden-death. 

Anyone predicting that extra-time would bring with it a more cautious approach was quickly made to eat their word, by 16 frantic minutes that featured two Alavés red cards and a disallowed goal for each side. Finally, in the 117th-minute, Alavés were put to the sword in the cruellest way imaginable: wing-back Delfí Geli headed a Gary McAllister free-kick into his own net, scoring a ‘golden’ own goal and ensuring the famous silver vase would be going back to Anfield.

The 2002 World Cup would be the final time that the golden goal would feature on football’s grandest stage, and in a fitting send-off, the rule would be responsible for deciding no fewer than three games at the Korea and Japan hosted finals. While Senegal would be both beneficiaries and victims of the rule – Henri Camera’s 104th-minute strike seeing off Sweden in the last-16 before the Africans fell in the quarter-finals against Turkey thanks to a goal from Ilhan- the tournament’s most notorious golden goal occurred in South Korea’s match against Italy.

In a game dogged by controversy and conspiracy, the hosts benefited from a raft of questionable refereeing decisions – from disallowed goals to soft penalties and controversial red cards – before shocking their heavily favoured opponents with an 88th-minute equaliser, courtesy of Seol Ki-Hyeon. With three minutes of extra-time remaining, the Italians were stunned as Ahn Jung-Hwan – a striker who plied his trade at Perugia – rose above Paolo Maldini to head a winner that sent the Daejeon crowd into ecstasy.

Sadly for Ahn, the controversy around the game ensured that the goal would prove to be anything but golden for the Serie A striker. As the perceived refereeing scandal caused national outrage, Perugia chairman Luciano Gaucci did little to dampen down the hysteria. In perhaps the greatest ever example of a chairman throwing their toys out the pram, an embittered Gaucci terminated Jung-Hwan’s contract, claiming: “That gentleman will never set foot in Perugia again. I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who ruined calcio.”

While criticism from South Korea coach Guus Hiddink, not to mention Perugia’s own manager Sersi Cosmi, saw Gaucci publicly relent on his initial stance, the damage had been done and Ahn would, in footballing terms at least, never set foot in Perugia again.

While the golden goal feast in Korea and Japan provided one of the stronger cases for the merits of the rule, it wasn’t enough to quieten the large swathes of the footballing community who felt that, in the main, it had failed to live up to its promise of increased drama. While many in the game anticipated that the law was living on borrowed time, it was thought that the rule’s retirement would coincide with the return of the traditional extra-time format. Surprisingly, UEFA had other ideas, introducing a law so detested that it made its predecessor look like a rip-roaring success.

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Debuted in the autumn of 2002 for the European club competitions, the silver goal achieved the unlikely feat of uniting both sides of the extra-time debate. Unfortunately for UEFA, the union was born out of a unanimous hatred for their baffling new idea.

An attempted compromise between the golden goal and extra-time rules, the silver soal stipulated that a goal scored in extra-time would not immediately win the match, but if it was scored in the first half of extra-time and the opposition didn’t equalise, then the match would end at the halfway point. It was hoped that the silver goal would inspire the same sense of urgency as the golden goal while offering teams who conceded a fairer opportunity to get themselves back into the game.

In practice, the rule provided the worst of both worlds: the conservative tactics were as prominent as ever but were now joined by a completely new set of problems. Whereas the previous rules, flawed as they were, were simple concepts that were easy to follow, the silver goal caused complete bafflement with the scoring of a goal guaranteed to be followed by a debate in the stands about exactly what happens next. 

The most memorable instance of the silver goal would occur in the semi-finals of Euro 2004 in Portugal. The semi in Porto would see a talented, in-form Czech Republic side struggle to break down their organised but unfancied Greek counterparts with the deadlock still unbroken after 90 minutes. With seconds remaining in the first half of extra-time, Greek centre-half Traianos Dellas lost his marker from a corner and headed past Petr Čech to send the 80/1 outsiders to the final.

With the goal occurring so late in the first half, the game was immediately halted, giving the Czechs no time at all to equalise. Although the rulebook may have called it a silver goal, Dellas’ winner at the Estádio do Dragão was golden in everything but name.

That goal would mark the end of an era. In the build-up to Euro 2004, the IFAB announced that, after the tournament, both the golden goal and silver goal rule would be removed from the laws of the game in favour of a return to the traditional extra-time format. After a decade in the limelight, the rule that had weaved itself into the narrative of some of the era’s most iconic moments was now consigned to the history books. 

A real symbol of the times, the golden goal leaves behind a complex legacy. After a near-decade at the heart of the game, the rule could neither be considered an unmitigated success or a total failure. While critics claim that its uncompromising nature further stifled attacking play, on many occasions, the law simply accentuated the approach teams would have taken anyway had extra time been contested in the standard format.

For every attack-minded outfit emboldened by the opportunity to immediately kill off their opponents, there was a slew of cautious sides paralysed by the fear of making that fatal, tournament-ending error. What seemed like a seismic shift in the extra-time format ultimately changed very little. While it may not have provided the revolutionary change its creators promised, the golden goal was an intriguing experiment that decided tournaments, created legends and left an indelible mark on a glorious era. 

By James Sweeney @James_Sweeney92

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