Home advantage is known to play an important role in football performance, but this month's edition of FIFA World shows that experts have come up with a number of different conclusions when it comes to explaining the phenomenon.

Johannesburg, 11 July 2010, 22.30. The final whistle of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ has sounded. South Africa have just beaten England 3-2 in the final. Soccer City stadium goes wild: the pitch is covered in confetti, the vuvuzelas are blaring and the South Africans strike up a rousing rendition of Nkosi Sikelel’ i Afrika.

This is just an idea of what the upcoming FIFA World Cup final could look like and not perhaps such an unlikely scenario given the role that home advantage has seemed to play in previous tournaments. But while many football fans blindly accept that home advantage exists, they are often unaware of the numerous studies that have been carried out to discover why it exists.

According to some research, it is primarily the unstinting support of the home crowd which gives the home side the upper hand psychologically and plays a crucial role in their performance. Knowing that they have the support of the spectators, the team’s motivation is boosted. The crowd’s encouragement pushes the host team to develop offensive and attractive play that will impress the fans.

In addition, the hostile behaviour of the stands full of home supporters towards the away team often triggers a negative response in the visiting players and inhibits them. Match analysis has shown that in some cases home advantage is not only down to the local team’s brilliant display, but also to the visiting team’s drop in performance. Having said that, the influence of the home crowd can have a paradoxical effect: the unconditional support can put the local players under pressure, and in their eagerness to succeed they can slip up, causing irritation among the impatient fans. A study conducted by Prof. Sandy Wolfson of the University of Northumbria in Newcastle revealed that 59 per cent of the fans questioned believed that their support for their favourite team was the key element in explaining home advantage.

Tiredness, travel and a change in environment are also important factors contributing to home advantage. That said, they play a lesser role in international competitions where the teams are able to arrive in the host country several weeks before the start of the tournament to acclimatise. As regards adapting to different pitches, the teams can often be helped at such events when they have the chance to train on the pitch ahead of the matches.

Another less obvious factor may involve a team’s sense of defending its territory. According to ethnologist Konrad Lorenz, this phenomenon leads to increased aggressiveness in the host team, which creates a unity among the players, who are all working towards the same aim. This results in increased commitment and combativeness and leads them to win more one-on-one situations and ultimately emerge victorious. In two of his studies, Prof. Nick Neave of the University of Northumbria has observed that players have much higher testosterone levels before a home match than before an away match. Another remarkable finding is that the player with the highest level of testosterone before kick-off is the goalkeeper.

“Rather than the goalkeeper surreptitiously leaving his personal scent around his goal to mark his territory, the home team should decorate the away changing rooms with territorial markers such as their team colours and logos,” suggests Prof. Neave.

Uruguay in 1930, Italy in 1934, England in 1966, Germany in 1974, Argentina in 1978 and France in 1998 – they all capitalised on their position as hosts of the World Cup to claim the prestigious trophy. Five-time world champions Brazil are notably the only World Cup-winning nation not to have won at least one of their titles on home soil, having fallen just short when they hosted the tournament in 1950.

Although not all host countries go on to win the tournament, even those with lower rankings generally make it past the group stage at least. For example, the USA in 1994, and Japan and surprise package Korea Republic, who reached the semi-finals in 2002, all put in impressive performances.

Looking at the wider picture beyond the World Cup finals, home advantage clearly plays a role in international football in general. Of the 849 international matches played in 2009, 335 were won by the home team as opposed to just 172 by the visiting team. Of the 9,075 matches played between 2000 and 2009, 3,534 were won at home and 1,755 away. These convincing figures could offer hope to South Africa, currently 85th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, that they could capitalise on their home advantage to match the standard of the great footballing nations and, who knows, even be crowned the best team in the world next July.

Home help
To find out how host nations have fared at major international tournaments, click on the PDF on the right hand side.