Picture the scene. 70,000 fans screaming your name, chanting your team’s anthems. They are quick to applaud everything you do and and equally rapid to vilify the slightest indiscretion of your opponent.
The crowd roars behind you as you chase down the ball, wait with bated breath as you line up a shot. They will you to success at every possible moment and do their best to provide you with more motivation than you could ever need. An overwhelming advantage, right?
Well, maybe not. The French football team, of course, had all the advantages above at their disposal for all of their games at Euro 2016. Even the final. One would naturally expect their vociferous home support to push them that extra yard, to make that extra tackle perhaps even score the crucial goal. Interestingly however, the statistics suggest that this is far from the case.
Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, authors of the excellent ‘Scorecasting,’ point to the case of a series of matches played in Italy in 2007. Following several clashes between hooligans and police, clubs were ordered to play matches behind closed doors if they could not provide adequate security. This resulted in 21 matches being played with no crowd at all for the rest of the season. The results were fascinating.
Despite the absence of a crowd cheering them on, players performed much the same. They had the same shots on target percentages, the same passing accuracy and even the same amount of tackles were made as they normally would. No difference. Nada. And thanks to the proliferation of statistics in football these days, websites such as ‘Whoscored.com‘ show that we see the same thing with France’s national team.
Whether they were playing in front of a partisan home crowd at Euro 2016, or in a different country for a qualifying game, statistically significant differences in their performance are hard to come by.
But how could this be true? Home advantage is a very real thing and especially so in soccer. In fact in USA’s Major League Soccer, 53% of matches ended in a win for the home team in 2015, and just just 24% ended in an away win. Interestingly, it would appear that this is a phenomenon driven not by the players themselves, but by the man in the middle.
Yes that’s right. Remember all those matches you’ve attended and cheered your team on with unbridled passion, shouted encourages words and advice? Well if you want to see some results from your lung-busting next time, it’s better to focus on the referee.
Now before I go any further, it’s worth pointing out that I’m not actually advocating the hurling of abuse at officials from here on in. Referees do a thankless job and deserve the highest levels of respect for the job they do. Anyone can referee a game from the stands but it’s the man at the centre of the action that has dedicated himself to actually doing it, and doing it to typically a very high standard.
In fact, if referees made half as many mistakes as the players they referee, the term ‘organised sports’ would be an oxymoron.
But allow me to return to the series of matches in Italy I mentioned earlier. What do you suspect happened to the pattern of refereeing decisions once they were not subjected to the torrent of abuse and pressure typical at the homes of elite soccer clubs? Home team advantage drops. Drastically. The away team was penalised for fouls 23% less than they usually would be, were awarded 26% fewer yellow cards and a scarcely believable 70% fewer red cards.
The findings are nicely complemented by the work of Thomas Dohmen in the German Bundesliga. Dohmen found that home field advantage was smaller in stadiums with a running track surrounding the pitch than those without a running track. As he puts it;
“The social atmosphere in the stadium leads referees into favoritism although being impartial is optimal for them to maximize their re-appointment probability.”
So what can France learn from all this? Many commentators have castigated the team’s lack of passion for the French tri-colour, and feel they surely would have triumphed if they showed the patriotism of previous generations. Maybe, but maybe not. This writer would suggest that holding the final at Parc des Princes instead may have had the desired result.
After all, there’s no running track there.
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