Home advantage makes Brazil the favourite to win World Cup

Crowd pleasers. Agência Brasil, CC BY-SA

The “home advantage” is a well known phenomenon in sporting circles with home teams consistently winning more than 50% of sporting contests. But how exactly does playing at home help Brazil and disadvantage England and the other nations at the World Cup? Only eight teams have ever won the World Cup – six of them did so on home soil (Argentina, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Uruguay) and out of the other winners, Brazil were also runners-up when they hosted it previously.

The home advantage also seems to reap rewards for less prolific teams who have hosted the World Cup. All of the other World Cup host nations have performed best when they’ve hosted. Just look at the evidence: Sweden (runners-up), Chile (third place), Korea (fourth), Mexico (quarter-finalist) and Japan (second round). To date, only one host nation (South Africa) has been knocked out in the first round, but then they did rank well below a number of teams at the tournament, having automatically qualified for being the hosts. So what are the critical factors involved in the home advantage?

A major academic review published last year by Spanish academics in the journal Universitas Psychologica examined the home sporting advantage and reported that the five most likely factors for this were crowd influence, knowledge of local playing conditions, territoriality, distance travelled by the opposing teams, and potential influence on refereeing decisions.

Sway of the crowd

Unsurprisingly, by far the most important single factor in home advantage was crowd influence. Many studies have shown strong evidence that as crowd size gets bigger, home advantage grows. There are thought to be two main reasons for why this might be: the home crowd may help raise the game of their team relative to the away team, and the home crowd may influence referees and linesmen to subconsciously give decisions in favour of the home team.

Some scientific literature tends to support the idea that crowds can affect refereeing decisions – especially as a couple of important decisions going against the away team can help home sides win. For instance, a 2007 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, examined the decisions of 50 referees in 5,244 English Premier League matches and concluded that referee bias did indeed contribute to home advantage in Premiership football matches.

However, more recent evidence published last year in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise reported that the bigger the crowd, the greater effect it had on refereeing decisions. They also noted that home advantage is in decline, particularly in lower football leagues where the crowds are smaller and are less likely to influence the referee. While the authors also asserted that increased training among referees accounted for this decline, they said referees were not immune to large crowd influence.

A 2006 study published in the Journal of Sports Science examined the regional variations in home advantage in football. The study calculated reliable estimates of home advantage for the domestic leagues of 72 countries over six seasons (including all European and South American countries). Home advantage was found to be particularly prevalent among European countries with three factors accounting for the majority of a team’s success: geographical location, crowd influence and travel.

Home advantage has also been studied in direct relation to the World Cup. A 2002 paper published in the Journal of Sport Behavior analysed home advantage of all 32 teams who appeared in the 1998 World Cup. Their findings revealed that all teams, bar one, had a home advantage. The importance of the game didn’t affect the home result but teams performed worse the greater the distance a team travelled to a game and the fewer days’ teams had between playing games.

With large crowds to cheer them on and more familiarity with their surroundings, the evidence strongly suggests that Brazil will benefit from a home advantage. Based on the way that weaker teams have fared in recent years, however, this advantage may only be slight. When it comes to an England win, let’s just hope the team have a lot of supporters there.