Professor Alan Nevill, Professor in Research
In the past, countries hosting the world cup finals have had a high probability of winning or at least being runners up in their ‘home’ competition. England’s one and only success in the World Cup came on home soil in 1966, and more recently France in 1998 and Argentina in 1978 were both victorious as hosts. In eight out of the 19 World Cup finals, the hosting nation has either won or was runner-up in the competition they were hosting. Indeed before 1982, the majority of hosting teams had succeeded in reaching the final and/or winning the competition (in seven out of the first 11 World Cups).
Of course, this phenomenon is well known and is referred to as home advantage. But the causes of home advantage are less well understood. Previous research suggests that there are three possible causes of home advantage: 1) travel fatigue 2) familiarity with playing surroundings and 3) crowd effects on players, officials or both. However the evidence associated with each is somewhat ambiguous.
What is not so well known is that, certainly in Association Football, there has been a dramatic decline in home advantage since World War Two. A similar decline in home advantage has been observed in basketball and ice hockey, however there appears no obvious cause or explanation for these declines. My research has observed a systematic decline in home advantage in professional English and Scottish leagues post-WW2, but with the steepest decline observed in lower divisions which have smaller crowds - suggesting the size of crowd might influence the rate of decline.
Of the factors thought to influence home advantage, I would argue that crowd support appears the most consistent with these rates of decline. Crowds are known to influence referees’ decisions to favour the home side. However our research argues that improved training of referees since WW2 has contributed to an improved ability to make objective decisions and a greater resilience to crowd influence, which explains the decline in home advantage but also accounts for the steeper decline observed with smaller crowds.
In stark contrast with referees in the past, the modern-day elite referees in the UK are not only provided with a physical training programme aligned with the increasing demands of the game, they also have the opportunity to review matches using DVD and Prozone® technology, a structured coaching system, and access to a sports psychologist providing training to help them manage psychological pressures associated with decision making. Furthermore, the referees’ decisions are carefully monitored by an assessor at each game and by a panel of assessors retrospectively using video analysis. It is clear that the demand for the referees to be fair and unbiased is paramount and has never been more carefully monitored by the games official governing bodies.
So in summary, by observing the frequency in which hosting nations reach the World-Cup finals and go on to win the cup, only France has been successful since 1978. This would support the assertion that home advantage in World Cups is in decline. If we assume that all referees likely to be invited to take part in the finals are undergoing the same level of training as those working in the UK, it is likely that Brazil will need to be at their very best and not to rely on favourable decisions that might provide them, as hosts, with a degree of home advantage that might have occurred in earlier World-Cup tournaments.
Professor Alan Nevill is a specialist in biostatistics applied to health, sport and exercise sciences. His main research interests involve investigating, analysing and modelling data recorded in sport (in particular association football), exercise and health sciences