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In sports such as ice hockey and association football, goal difference (that is, goals scored minus goals conceded) is often the first tiebreaker used to rank teams which finish a league competition with an equal number of points.

If a team's points and goal difference are equal, then often goals scored is used as a second tiebreaker, with the team scoring the most goals winning. Alternative tiebreakers that may be used include looking at the head-to-head results between sides, playing a playoff, or the drawing of lots.

Goal average is a different scheme that predated goal difference. Using the goal average scheme the number of goals scored is divided by the number of goals conceded. Goal difference replaced goal average in the 1970 World Cup finals and from 1976-1977 season in the English Football League. Goal average is also used as the tiebreaker in Australian rules football where it is referred to as "percentage". It is calculated as points scored for divided by points scored against multiplied by 100.

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Goal difference v. goal average

The different schemes can lead to strikingly different results. Consider the result of the following matches:

 
Team A 3–0 Team B  
   

 
Team B 6–0 Team C  
   

 
Team A 0–1 Team C  
   

Under goal average, Team A would triumph:

Team Pts Pld W D L F A GA
Team A 3 2 1 0 1 3 1 3
Team B 3 2 1 0 1 6 3 2
Team C 3 2 1 0 1 1 6 0.1667

However, under goal difference, Team B would triumph:

Team Pts Pld W D L F A GD
Team B 3 2 1 0 1 6 3 +3
Team A 3 2 1 0 1 3 1 +2
Team C 3 2 1 0 1 1 6 -5

Goal average was replaced by goal difference due to the former's encouragement of lower-scoring games. For example, a team that scores 70 while allowing 40 would have a lesser goal average (1.750) versus another team that scores 69 while allowing 39 (1.769).

Real Examples

England 1950

An event that was much talked about in the city of Sheffield for many years was the way the promotion race from the Second Division was won. Going into the last game of the season, Sheffield Wednesday needed to beat Tottenham Hotspur to clinch promotion at the expense of their local rivals Sheffield United. The resulting 0-0 draw meant Wednesday won promotion by a goal average difference of just 0.008 - a 1-1 draw would have left the two great rivals level on points and goal average, and a unique play-off match would have had to be played.

England 1989

Arsenal famously won the League Championship on goals scored in 1989, thanks to a 2-0 victory over Liverpool on the last day of the season at Anfield. The second and decisive goal in the match was scored by Michael Thomas in injury time at the end of the match. Arsenal and Liverpool finished equal on points and goal difference, but Arsenal were ahead by 73 to 65 on goals scored. Had the league still been decided on goal average, Liverpool would have won by 2.321 to 2.028.

Scotland 1965, 1986 & 2003

In Scottish football, Hearts have more reason than most to curse these rules. In 1965, Hearts lost 2–0 at home on the final day of the season to Kilmarnock, which meant that Kilmarnock won the League Championship on goal average, 1.88 to 1.84. Had the first tie-breaker been goal difference, Hearts would have won the Championship (41 to 29).

In 1986, Hearts lost 2–0 at Dundee on the final day of the season, which allowed Celtic to win the Championship on goal difference. Had the first tie-breaker been goal average, Hearts would have won the Championship. Due to these two near misses and the rule change, Hearts have not been Scottish League Champions since 1960.

Rangers won the Scottish Premier League in 2003 on goal difference. In the final round of matches, Rangers played Dunfermline, while second-placed Celtic were simultaneously playing at Kilmarnock. With Celtic and Rangers level on 94 points going into these matches, the Championship would be decided by which team, Celtic or Rangers, performed best during the final round of matches. If both teams won they would each finish on 97 points, and the League would be decided on goal difference. Rangers won 6–1 and Celtic won 0–4, which left Rangers with a goal difference of 73 (101 for and 28 against), and Celtic a goal difference of 72 (98 scored and 26 against) giving Rangers the title.

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