It’s just about messed everything up, but the viral pandemic has proven that in football, the home team advantage is very real — and it is nothing without the fans.
So here we are, living in what will probably be known for years to come as the most surreal weeks of our lives. Everyone is mandated to stay at home, toilet paper is now a currency, and among many other things, top-flight football around the world has either been temporarily suspended or moved behind closed doors.
While right now is perhaps still too early for the multitude of long-term effects to be fully understood, this viral pandemic has caused matches to be played in eerie silence when they would ordinarily be well-attended by hordes of fans — which provides people like us an opportunity to measure the effects of the home field advantage on the outcome of a football match.
The case in point
The Mestalla stadium in Spain, home to Valencia CF, has been described as an especially “uncomfortable” (read: intimidating) environment for visiting teams. Which might be an understatement since this one-time Spanish Civil War concentration camp so happens to have all the right ingredients to terrify visitors retrofitted into its grounds over the course of a century.
The Mestalla has tightly-packed stands inclined to a vertigo-inducing 40 degrees, maximising seating and noise. Its curved stands in the corners help sound travel further and create the illusion of a seamless sea of spectators. The super-Kop on the west side enables home fans to see each other and be emboldened by the mass of their mob, with a partial roof installed apparently just to amplify their chants.
Coupled with a famously vocal and loyal fanbase, Valencia CF tends to win its home games to such an extent that they have a reputation as a bastion of home support in the lore of La Liga. However, after getting trounced by Atalanta 4-1 during the first leg of the UEFA Champions League playoffs back in February, Valencia could have really used their home team advantage to put them back on the road towards the quarter finals. But then the pandemic happened.
What if the fans were removed?
With the roar of the crowd disconcertingly absent from the stadium, Valencia was likely missing its famous edge, and despite putting up a fight, Els Taronges lost 3-4 to Atalanta during the second leg of the play-offs for the now indefinitely postponed 2019-2020 UEFA Champions League.
Like a punchline delivered on a late-night comedy show without a live studio audience, the hustling about the pitch and exuberant goal celebrations seem strange without a sea of thrilled fans in the background. Under these surreal circumstances, we can’t help but wonder if football, like so many other things touched by the pandemic, relies more heavily on social involvement than we realized.
Is the home team advantage real?
To figure out how exactly Valencia could suffer their recent disappointing defeat at home, we wondered how real the home team advantage is. Fortunately, there’s some research out there.
Back in 1984, Richard Pollard, from the California Polytechnic State University, dove into match data on various team sports (baseball, American football, ice hockey, and basketball), in addition to a century of first-division English football matches, to discover — as we’ve always known — that fans have a profound effect on the outcome of a match.
There are some reasons why a home team might have an edge even without including the effects of the fans; there’s the familiarity with the grounds for the home team and the fatigue of travel (plus the discombobulation of unfamiliar surroundings) working against the visiting team. But throw a crowd into the mix and the home team advantage gets magnified in terms of things like referee bias and other obscure psychological factors that affect everyone from managers to individual players.
According to Pollard’s research, the size and volume of local crowd support by itself exerts a less than negligible influence on the outcome. Although less pronounced in other team sports, the home team advantage, whatever it is, affects the outcomes of football matches to such a degree that the away goal rule has to be a thing. The home team advantage is also the reason why the finals of prestigious championships like the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League are typically played on neutral ground.
In case you were curious about the numbers: for other sports, the rate at which any home team was more likely to win peaked at only 53% with baseball, which is still only slightly better than the flip of a coin. In England, football teams playing with the home field advantage on their side won at least 60% of the time. In European championships, home wins are even more certain, with home teams garnering 64% of wins in the first rounds and up to 76% of wins in the semi-finals.
So we know it’s real, and although we still can’t say for certain what exactly makes for a home field advantage, perhaps after reading this, anyone from casual fans to bookmakers will gain a greater appreciation for the statistical weight of a home game. At the very least, through this adverse period, we will better understand the importance of social involvement in football.
Kevin Eichenberger usually roots for the underdogs, but out of fear of looking silly, he will be rooting for whatever team has the home advantage after the MCO ends.