Football goals have barely changed in shape
or size in over 150 years. In a smoky London tavern in 1863, the newly-formed
Football Association dictated the distance between posts should be eight yards Crossbars, marked eight foot above ground,
didn’t become mandatory until 1882 with both Sheffield FC and Queens Park simultaneously
boasting to be the first club to install them. They were controversial from the start. In 1888, Kensington Swifts were disqualified
for erecting two different sized goals in an FA Cup tie with Crewe Alexandra. And a year later, Sheffield United’s 24
stone goalkeeper William ‘Fatty’ Foulke broke his bar by over-zealously swinging on
it. The first net was used at The Kennington Oval
in 1891 as Blackburn Rovers beat Notts County [3-1] to win the FA Cup. And football has since seen goal frames evolve
from wood to aluminium, but the dimensions between the sticks have never
altered or even been significantly scrutinised. This is surprising considering there was little
or no science behind the goal’s size. Goals most likely originated from those found
in the Chinese sport of kickball. Zuqui, as it’s known today, hit its peak
during the Song Dynasty [960-1279] and was played with 33-foot
high goals with a one-foot hole in the centre and coloured rope nets. Scorers were rewarded with drum rolls and
sometimes wine .
The first written reference to goals came from Cornish hurling in 1602. Historian Richard Carew described them as
the space between two bushes about 10 feet apart. Both these formative frames, in sports similar
to football, were bigger than our modern ones. Yet it took until 1996 to seriously question
the size of goals. Now disgraced ex-FIFA president Sepp Blatter
called for their diameter to be widened by 50cm – or as he put it, “two footballs”
– and for their height to be increased by 25cm. But uproar ensued
and the plan was shelved prior to any serious debate. But were bigger goals really such a bad idea? The average height of a man in 1863 was 5
foot 5 inches. Today it’s 5’9. Of course, goalkeepers have, and always will,
tower above these numbers. Based on available data, the average keeper
height in English top-flight football in 1863 was 5’10. By 1980, keepers had crept up to six-foot
and they now stand around 6’3. .
The Bundesliga and Ligue 1 also field tall keepers, but intriguingly Serie A and LaLiga
prefer their shot-stoppers slightly shorter. José René Higuita – famous for his sensational
scorpion-kick save against England in 1995 – Sergio Alvarez, David Ospina, Claudio
Bravo, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen are just some examples of keepers with stints in Spain
or Italy who are well below 6’3. Superficially, the rise of colossal keepers
does correlate with a decline in goals. Between 1863 and 1980 – when 6ft keepers
first became commonplace – the average number of goals per game in the English top flight
was 3.42. That number has since dropped to
2.65. The pattern is the same in Europe’s other
big leagues. Once the average keeper height surpassed six
foot in France [1984], Germany [1984], Italy [1982] and Spain [1981] – all at slightly
different times – average goals per game also declined. So (at face value) it seems the days of Everton’s
Dixie Dean scoring 60 league goals in single season are over. And we will probably never see another tournament
like the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, where there was an average of over five goals per
game , including a 7-5 thriller as the hosts lost to Austria in the quarter-finals. The goalkeepers present had an average height
of 5,11, with England’s (No.2) Ted Burgin just
5’7. In contrast, there was a record-low 115 goals
at Italia ’90 and the average keeper there was closer to 6’2. These stats suggest bigger keepers must be
housed in bigger goals or the decline in scoring will continue. But here’s the twist. By digging a little deeper, it actually reveals
short keepers aren’t at a disadvantage and in fact concede less than very tall ones. Last season, across Europe’s big five leagues,
goalkeepers saved around seven out of 10 shots on target. But keepers 6’1 and under performed above-average],
while those over 6’4 had a strikingly poorer record. Bournemouth’s Asmir Begovic conceded a goal
for almost every save he made, while Dijon’s Bobby Allain saved an average of nearly four
shots [before being beaten. Other short keepers who outperformed taller
ones include Deportivo Alaves’ Fernando Pacheco and Atletico Madrid’s Jan
Oblak. Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois and Bayern
Munich’s Manuel Neuer had below-par seasons, with the German shipping 22 goals in just
26 appearances. Of course, there are lots of variables that
warp these stats. After all, goalies might be the last gatekeeper,
but they are still reliant on the defenders in front of them. They are not at fault for every goal, nor
is every save is equal. The stats may count each save as so, but a
full-stretch fingertip around the post to prevent a sure fire goal is clearly more valuable
than countless simple stops. But the plot nonetheless thickens when different
areas of the goal are isolated. Since the inception of the Premier League
in 1992, 61 percent of the 26,786 goals scored occurred in the bottom corners with a far
smaller percentage in the top ones. Keepers 6’4 and over – presumably struggling
to get down in time despite their longer reach – conceded 2,414 more goals than ones 6’1
and under in the bottom corners. And, as you might expect, smaller goalies
struggled up high, conceding 696 more times. The Premier League’s worst keepers (with
more than 20 appearances) at defending the bottom corners are ex-Arsenal, Aston Villa
and Reading goalie Stuart Taylor [and former Wolves and current Crystal Palace No.1 Wayne
Hennessey .
The truth is, you could just as easily argue that if keepers continue to rise, but can’t
get down low quick enough, then goals should actually be smaller
. Women’s football further backs up that shorter
goalkeepers are not at a disadvantage. The average keeper height at this summer’s
Women’s World Cup was 5’7. England’s Karen Bardsley was the tallest
and Brazil’s Aline Villares Reis the shortest . The 52 games in France averaged 2.81 goals
[146 goals scored], the same tally as in Canada four years earlier. 13 came in one gameas Megan Rapinoe’s USA
thrashed Thailand. The other 51 games
saw 2.61 goals, a figure in keeping with the men at Russia 2018. So if size doesn’t really matter, what,
other than better defending,is actually causing this scoring decline? Firstly, it’s important to note that goal
tallies have always fluctuated, so the averages should not be taken out of context. Using England’s top-flight as a case study,
the average currently sits well below three, which is historically quite low, but the most
popular scorelines since 1863 are still 1-0 and 1-1. They account for over 20 percent of all results. 2-1 and 0-0 are also very common. Temporary goal spikes – or more recently
lulls – which distort the overall average are often triggered by rule changes. In 1925, FIFA amended the offside rule allowing
two not three players to be between an attacker and the
goal. There was an instant and dramatic increase
in scoring from over two to almost four goals per game. By 1958, substitutions were introduced, originally
for injured players only, and goals started drying up in the decade that followed, perhaps
because there were eleven fit players on the field. Ever-changing tactics also affect scoring. In 1981 wins were rewarded with three points
instead of two. There was suddenly more incentive to attack
and this led to a temporary surge in goals. Since then it’s possible the opposite has
happened and top teams who score first park the bus a bit more. Elite defenders are trusted more than ever
and winning is simply more important than entertaining. Of course, there are obvious exceptions. Manchester City won the 2013-2014 and 2017-2018
Premier League titles scoring a combined total of 208 goals. Chelsea also hit a century of goals in 2009-2010. But Manchester United won the inaugural Premier
League crown with just 67 goals, Arsenal’s Invincibles may have gone unbeaten but scored
only 73 times and Leicester City’s miracle title win was masterminded by defenders Wes
Morgan and Robert Huth and a counter-attacking style, with only 68 goals at the other end. Going forwards, it will be intriguing to see
whether the use of video assistant referees (VAR) changers the scoring equilibrium. Either way technology, other rules changes
and ever-evolving tactics are clearly affecting scoring. But as for our goal frames, whether through
luck or judgement, they have remained the perfect size for both sexes since the very
start. Making them bigger would obviously restore
the original intended ratio between goal size and keeper height, but it wouldn’t necessarily
lead to an increase in scoring.