Goals, the rare beauty of football. No other sport has such a low scoring frequency as football. But isn't that exactly what makes the sport so intriguing? A small moment of carelessness can make all the difference and a whole season goes down the drain. Just ask the "Meister der Herzen" of Schalke 04 in 2001 about a guy named Patrick Andersson and how he ruined a full season by a freekick. In this article, we examine how rare goals actually are and how the average number of goals per game has developed over the years. Also, we are going to look at the most frequent results in football history.
Global goal and result distribution
How rare are goals in football? Using our data set of more than 1 million games played in 206 top-tier leagues, we can quantify the average number of goals per game on a global scale. This is how the average has evolved since 1888.
The average number of goals per game fluctuated quite severely over time, especially the two spikes and following decline in post-war times. The sudden increase in goals in 1925 can be explained with a change in the offside rule. Before 1925, at least three opposing players had to be closer to the goal the moment the ball is passed forward, which was changed to two players then. This rule change boosted the number of goals from an average of almost 1.5 to 3.8. The large drop around the end of the 50's could be explained with the introduction of substitutions for injured players in 1958. Since the late 60's, the average has remained comparatively stable between 2.5 and 3 goals per game. As in the case of home-field advantage, football might have reached a sort of a global equilibrium state for the number of goals per game.
The rarity of goals becomes even more evident when we look at the results of games. The chart below shows the 20 most frequent outcomes of football matches since 1888.
1:1 is the most frequent result which occurred in over 100,000 matches. A very close second is 1:0. The utterly boring 0:0 comes in third. Only the eighth most frequent result has more than three goals in total. The complete share of all results shows the prevalence of low scoring even better.
50% of all games have seen two or less goals. In again 50% of all games either the home or the away team did not score at all. Many goals in a match on the other hand are a real rarity. Only a mere 0.3% of all games have seen more than ten goals. Does this mean that football is a dull sports? Well, people who oppose it certainly would argue this way, but the sheer fact that a single goal can make all the difference is what makes the game so fascinating. Or as Chris Anderson and David Sally put it in their book The Numbers Game: "The goal is football. Its rarity is magic."
Goal distribution on continental level
How do the average number of goals change if we go from a global to continental level? The below chart reveals that there are actually some significant differences in scoring between continents.
While Asia, (North/South) America and Europe comfortably fall into the 2.5-3 goals per game area, Africa and Oceania deviate remarkably from the "equilibrium zone". From the 10 countries with the lowest average goals per game, 9 are from the continent of Africa. The lowest average can be found in Senegal with 1.63 followed by 1.70 in Gambia. Oceania's enormous average of 4 goals per game is mostly driven by Guam with an astonishing average of 6.69 goals per game. Double digit results are absolutely no rarity there. Almost 20% of all games end with more than 10 goals in total. Just look at the following results:
Doosan Fc - Rovers FC 1:24
No Ka Oi - Guam Shipyard 0:24
Espada FC - Doosan FC 23:0
Rovers FC - Paradise Sidekicks 21:0
How can we explain the extreme averages in Africa and Oceania? The high average in Oceania might be due to tremendous performance differences among teams. Every season features one or two clubs that just do not meet the league standards. They are merely cannon fodder for the better teams. Doosan FC is one of those clubs, averaging almost 9 goals against per game.
But what makes Africa such a low scoring continent? This is a question, I do not have an answer for, although one could speculate about many things, like the style of African football or cultural idiosyncrasies. It is certainly no secret that African football is lacking behind the standards of European football, but if a lack of professionalism equates to low scoring is certainly up to debate.
If you are interested in the specific values for countries, check out the chart below. It shows all average goals per game for 206 countries. The gray area marks the supposed "equilibrium state" of 2.5-3 goals per game. Click on the chart to view a high resolution version. More details can also be found in our stats centre.