When Own Goals Don't Really Count

Own goals have always been a feature of football. But do they really exist? And if so, what exactly is an own goal?

FIFA Magazine, April 1997
By Keith Cooper
Illustrations © by Olé Andersen


The only goal at World Cup USA 1994 registered as an own goal as the USA beat Colombia. Photo POPPERFOTO
Law 10 of the current text of the Laws of the Game is entitled Method of Scoring, and is quite clear. It says:

"...a goal is scored when the whole of the ball has passed over the goal-line, between the goal-posts and under the cross-bar, provided it has not been thrown, carried or intentionally propelled by hand or arm, by a player of the attacking side, except in the case of the goalkeeper, who is within his own penalty area."

"By the attacking side"! What about the defending team? Does this mean that own goals do not exist? Even if this reference has been removed in the revised text of the Laws, due to come into force in July this year, the current text has applied for all the "own goals" scored for over a century...

Figure 1
If there is a candidate for the title of undisputed "own goal", then this must be it. The Blues defender, Jones, without outside interference from any Red opponent, plays the ball with a permitted part of his body into his own net. It could be that he has miskicked a pass-back, maybe aware of the proximity of opponents - but the mistake is entirely his. Maybe this error occurs directly after Jones has received the ball outside the penalty-area from a goal-kick from his goalkeeper or other team-mate, and thus no Red player has even touched it in this sequence. It can only be recorded as an own goal. Not even Jones could dispute that.

Verdict : Own Goal.

Take away the notion of own goal and you take away part of the drama of football. The hapless defender who steers the ball past his own goalkeeper into the net to concede the decisive goal in a cup-tie is part of the romance of the game (even if the disconsolate defender might not see it as such).

Admittedly, own goals are relatively few and far between. The World Cup finals since 1930 have produced less than twenty (see box on page 10). And maybe some of them would not be classified as own goals if we could look at them again on video today.

But if the Laws of the Game make no reference to own goals, and there is no official definition, who decides whether a goal is an own goal or not?

Anonymity or reality?

Recording the scorer of any goal is not essential, according to the Laws. As long as the goal is valid, the identity of the individual responsible for propelling the ball over the line is, strictly speaking, immaterial.No doubt that anonymity was born of the self-effacing spirit of the original enthusiasts of the game, who would put the interests of the team before those of the individual. This selfless philosophy still widely exists today, of course, but it ignores the modern-day reality.

Statisticians have long since recorded the names and feats of goalscorers, and these records go back decades, well before the advent of modern technology. Understandably, the game's historians want to maintain accurate records.

In the current era, there is another consideration, somewhat more materialistic. Ever greater prizes are offered for top goalscorers, in tournaments and league championships, and the ranking can sometimes depend upon one goal attributed to an attacker or as an own goal. Objective definitions should certainly not depend upon the interests of individual awards or commercial promotions - but this, too, is part of the reality of the game today.

Figure 2
In this situation, a Reds attacker has aimed a pass at Smith who is moving into a promising goalscoring position in the goal area. Smith's presence and challenge clearly distracts defender Jones, and under pressure he turns the ball into his own net, in the attempt to prevent it reaching Smith. Smith claims the goal because of his influence on Jones's action - but Smith has not actually touched the ball. Clearly, a goal cannot be scored by a player who does not touch the ball himself. And Jones has been deliberately actively involved in the incident.

Verdict : Own Goal.

Referee decides

How often has a commentator said, or a reporter wrote, "The shot from striker Smith was probably not going in until defender Jones turned it past his own goalkeeper. Jones will feel responsible, but no doubt Smith will claim it as his goal."

So who is right, Smith or Jones? And who decides who the scorer should be?

FIFA Referees Committee chairman David Will is adamant : the referee should decide. Maybe he would need to check with the teams to ascertain exactly who got the decisive touch in some unclear situations, but the name that goes down on the referee's report is the one that should enter the record books.

In any case, teams and players have a way of deciding these things among themselves. But as far as own goals are concerned, they currently have no universal criteria on which to make their decisions. Jones the defender may be just as willing to accept responsibility as he may be to refuse it, while Smith the striker may be equally anxious to claim the goal as he may be modestly ready to admit it was not really of his making.

Moreover, different continents - and even different countries within them - interpret "own goal" differently, ranging from blaming a defender for the slightest unintentional intervention to the point of sometimes virtually dismissing the concept altogether. Here too, it is not a question of the validity of the goal, but of the identity of the scorer.

On these pages there are some common "own goal" situations, to try to clarify the confusion. In our diagrams, the Reds are attacking and the Blues defending.

Figure 3


Now things start to become controversial. Smith has shot at goal and the ball may be on target or may be going just past, when Jones gets in the way and deflects the ball past his own goalkeeper. The referee - and anyone else, for that matter - is quite unable to say with certainty whether the ball would have gone into the goal or not without Jones's intervention. But if the referee feels it was on target, then the situation is as Figure 4 above.
We must also consider more closely the notion of deliberate or unintentional intervention on Jones's part, and consider whether he was actively attempting to block Smith's shot or if he was merely struck by the ball without attempting to play it. If Jones's intervention and deflection were clearly unintentional, the goal must be attributed to Smith.
It could be that Jones was deliberately going for the ball when he decisively diverted it into the net and the referee decides that the ball was not on target; this is the classic type of situation which gives rise to the most heated debates whether it was an own goal or not. But the decisive factor is that as the situation has arisen from a genuine goal attempt, even if it is off target, the goal must be attributed to the striker.

Verdict : Goal by Smith.

Figure 4


Here, Smith has shot at goal and the ball is clearly on target. Then it hits Jones, deceives the goalkeeper and goes into the net. Regardless of Jones's intervention, which may be deliberate or not (that is, Jones may have tried to play the ball or it may merely have hit him accidentally), there is no proof that the goalkeeper would have stopped the shot. So it must count as a goal.

Verdict : Goal by Smith.

Figure 5


Here we have the situation where Smith's shot is so inaccurate that it was blatantly more on course for the corner-flag than the back of the net when Jones intervened, deliberately or unintentionally, to divert the ball into the net. But the same considerations apply as for Figure 3. All actions by attackers are to be considered as having been taken with the intent of directly or indirectly putting the ball into the opponents' net.

Verdict : Goal by Smith.

Vogts hits Wrong Target

Of the 1,584 goals scored in the 15 World Cup final tournaments since 1930, only 18 have been recorded as own goals. And no less than five of these occurred in the high-scoring tournament in Switzerland in 1954.

The most recent, the only own goal recorded at the 1994 World Cup, was that of the Colombian defender Andres Escobar against the United States.

Argentina 1978: Berti Vogts (2) turns the ball past Sepp Maier.
PICTURE: PRESSEFOTO BAUMANN

In 1978, German defender Berti Vogts turned the ball past his goalkeeper Sepp Maier in a historic defeat for the reigning World Champions, West Germany, against Austria in Cordoba. Vogts remembers the incident well : "I only scored two goals in all my 96 games for Germany - one in an 8-0 win over Malta, and the other in my very last game, when Austria beat us 3-2.

"I can still remember the incident clearly : Sepp Maier missed a strong cross and the ball hit me on the knee and flew into the net. I didn't have the slightest chance to react otherwise. Maybe it wasn't an own goal in the classical sense, because that needs the player to be completely responsible for his own action. But I still can't complain that this one went down in all the records as an own goal.

"It made me mad at the time, but as time has gone by I've come to laugh it off and console myself with the thought that at least I did the Austrians a good turn - after all, it was the first time they had beaten Germany for 47 years."

Outside the World Cup, the English FA Cup Final (and Tottenham Hotspur in particular) developed a reputation for own goals especially in the 1980s and early 90s. Tommy Hutchinson of Manchester City scored not only for his own team but also for their Tottenham opponents in the 1-1 draw in 1981 and Des Walker fooled his own Nottingham Forest goalkeeper against Spurs in 1991 - but most dramatic of all was when Spurs captain Gary Mabbut turned the ball into his own net in the final minutes of the 1987 Final to give Coventry City a 3-2 victory, after Coventry's own captain Brian Kilcline had himself put the ball into his own net...

Conclusions

Football is such a creative sport that such a list of possible own goal situations could certainly be much longer. But most of these would be variations on these basic themes.

To sum up the main conclusions :

  • An "own goal" does exist
  • The referee should decide whether a goal is an own goal or not, even if it is not among his official duties, on the basis of these notes and consulting the teams if necessary; when a match commissioner is present, he should decide
  • A defender's intervention must be deliberate in order for an own goal to be registered against him
  • An attacking player must be the last player on his side to touch the ball over the goal-line in order to be registered as the goalscorer.

    OWN GOALS IN WORLD CUP HISTORY
    Year Own Goal Game Scorer Final score
    1994 1 USA - Colombia Escobar, COL 2:1
    1990 -      
    1986 1 Korea Republic - Italy Cho Kwang-Rae, KOR 2:3
    1982 1 England - Czechoslovakia Barmos, TCH 2:0
    1978 3 Austria - West Germany
    Netherlands - Italy
    Scotland - Iran
    Vogts, FRG
    Brandts, HOL
    Eskandarian, IRN
    3:2
    2:1
    2:0
    1974 3 Argentina - Italy
    Netherlands - Bulgaria
    East Germany - Australia
    Perfumo, ARG
    Krol, HOL
    Curran, AUS
    1:1
    4:1
    2:0
    1970 -      
    1966 2 Hungary - Bulgaria
    Portugal - Bulgaria
    Davidov, BUL
    Vutzov, BUL
    3:1
    3:0
    1962 -      
    1958 1 Hungary - Mexico Gonzualez, MEX 4:0
    1954 5 Austria - Uruguay
    Austria - Switzerland
    Germany - Yugoslavia
    England - Belgium
    France - Mexico
    Cruz, URU
    Hanappi, AUT
    Horvat, GER
    Dickinson, ENG
    Cardenas, MEX
    3:1
    7:5
    2:0
    4:4 a.e.t.
    3:2
    1950 -      
    1938 1 Switzerland - Germany Lörtscher, SUI 4:2
    1934 -      
    1930 -      
    Total 18 out of 1584 goals (total number of goals 1930-1994) = 1.1%

    Figure 6


    Unlikely as it may appear, situations such as this certainly exist. Smith shoots and the ball hits the post (or, alternatively, it is kicked off the line by a Blues defender). The ball clearly changes direction and is heading towards the field, away from the goal, when it strikes the goalkeeper or another Blues defender and goes into the net.Here, too, the decisive issue is whether the ball is played deliberately or not. In the case of the goalkeeper, he may have dived for the ball, failed to reach it and when it hit the post it ricocheted off his back into the net. Nevertheless, it was a deliberate intervention.

    Verdict : Own goal.

    Or Jones, on the line, may have tried to clear the ball as it came to him unexpectedly from the post, only to slice it over the line.

    Verdict : Own goal.

    But if the ball came back off the post only to hit Jones accidentally and rebound over the line, then he cannot be held responsible.

    Verdict : Goal by Smith.

    Figure 7


    Here, Jones has tried to clear, but the ball strikes attacker Smith. Although Smith's intervention is not intentional, it must be assumed once again that any intervention by a striker in a defender's action has the intention of scoring a goal.

    Verdit : Goal by Smith.

    Figure 8


    Defender Jones tries to clear the ball from his penalty-area, only for the ball to hit another defender and go back into the net. Clearly, the intervention of the second defender is unintentional, but no striker has been involved.

    Verdict : Own goal by Jones.