The bookmaker’s odds on Brazil winning the 2014 FIFA World Cup are a staggeringly short 3:1. The next favourites, Argentina, are 9:2 to win the tournament. What this means is that betting companies believe Brazil have a 33 per cent chance of winning a tournament that has 31 other teams participating in it. Brazil are, according to the odds, at least one and a half times as likely to win the tournament as any other team, and twice as likely to win as Spain, who, despite being defending champions, are 6:1 to win the tournament. Why are Brazil considered the clear favourites? Not because they are the best side in the world — they are ranked fourth in FIFA’s rankings. Not because they have been dominating World Cups — they did not make it past the quarter-finals in either of the last two editions. It is for a singular reason: they are the hosts.
Home advantage exists in almost all sports. In some sports, it is clear why. In a sport such as cricket, for example, the pitch and weather significantly impact the game, and, therefore, the home team, who are more accustomed to the conditions, have a distinctive advantage. It is less explainable why teams tend to have dramatically better results at home than away in football, a sport less affected by conditions than cricket. Several studies have been conducted on the subject, but there is no consensus on what exactly affords a team playing in their home city or country a clear edge.
In general, it is accepted that the key benefit of playing at home is having the fans on your side. Neymar, Brazil’s most well-known footballer, recently revealed that he had told his Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi to forget about Argentina winning the World Cup. “I told him: ‘There’s no way you’re going to do that in Brazil,’” Neymar said. “Our fans alone make it 1-0 to us.” Home fans influence the game in several ways. Their raucous support lifts the performance of the home team, while the virulent abuse, whistling or heckling they sometimes heap upon opposing teams demoralises them. Home fans also raise the decibel levels to distract the opposition at crucial times — when an opponent is taking a penalty against the home side, for example.
Perhaps the biggest role home fans play is in influencing referees. Several studies have confirmed that referees are affected by crowd noise and decisions often go in favour of the home side. A referee may be unbiased, but he is human, and, when thousands of people are screaming for a penalty, it is bound to have a subconscious effect on him.
At several World Cups, the host team has benefitted from key decisions going in their favour. At the 1966 World Cup in England, South American teams bitterly complained about biased officiating by European referees. England’s eventual victory came after a contentious decision in the final, when a Geoff Hurst shot that appeared to land on the goal line was adjudged a goal. England had also been helped by a decision in the quarter-final, when German official Rudolf Kreitlein sent off Argentine captain Antonio Rattin for arguing with him despite not knowing Spanish, the language Rattin used. In 1982, hosts Spain were facing a humiliating first-round exit. They needed to beat Yugoslavia in their final group game, but went 1-0 behind. They were then awarded a penalty for a foul that occurred outside the box, and when they missed it, the referee ordered a retake, which was duly converted. As recently as 2002, South Korea’s progress to the semi-finals was mired in complaints from Portugal, Spain and Italy that the co-hosts had received favourable treatment from referees. And, who knows whether crowd pressure (Mexico is Spanish speaking, like Argentina) clouded Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser’s vision when he allowed Digeo Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ goal against England in 1986?
In 19 editions of the World Cup, six teams have won the title on home soil and two have been runners-up. Uruguay (1930), Italy (1934), England (1966), West Germany (1974), Argentina (1978) and France (1998) all won at home, while Brazil reached the final in Rio in 1950 and Sweden took second place in 1958. In three editions so far, the host nation did not have a realistic chance of winning — USA 1994, Japan and South Korea 2002 and South Africa 2010. If you exclude those, the hosts have reached the final in every second edition of the World Cup. So, does Brazil have a 50 percent chance of reaching the final in 2014?
It is not simple as that. One has to consider that in the early years of the World Cup, the host nation was decided based largely on which country had the dominant team of the time. That has, of course, skewed the statistics in favour of the hosts. Uruguay’s triumph in the first edition was almost pre-ordained. They were by far the best team in the world during that period, having won successive Olympic golds, at Paris 1924 and Amsterdam 1928, with a style that was ahead of its time. Italy’s World Cup success at home, in 1934, was followed by one in France four years later. They also won an Olympic gold, at Berlin in 1936, and two Central European International Cups (the precursor to the European championship) in 1930 and 1935. This makes it evident that the Azzurri were far ahead of the pack.
Still, in more recent editions of the tournament, home advantage had a lot to do with the success of teams such as France, Germany and Argentina. And, this summer, it will play a role in Brazil’s bid to win the World Cup for the sixth time. That much was made clear when they lifted the Confederations Cup 2013 after thrashing world champions Spain by a convincing 3-0 margin in the final, in Rio de Janeiro.
Apart from the fans, another factor that helps home teams is being used to the climate. Weather conditions have a direct affect on a player’s stamina, and teams more used to a particular climate are at an advantage. You will find that teams struggle when they go to extremely cold countries, such as Russia. In South Africa, during the 2010 World Cup, some teams struggled with the high-altitude venues of some of the games. England defender John Terry spoke about how “your mouth is really dry and it’s hard to breathe” in those conditions. In fact, altitude had begun to play such a major role in the excellent home records of Bolivia, Ecuador and Columbia, all of who played their home matches at very high altitudes, that, in 2007, FIFA banned international matches at locations over 2500 metres (8200 feet).
In Brazil, it is the humidity that may hinder some of the home team’s opponents. Although the 2014 World Cup will be held in the Brazilian winter, it will still be humid, and hotter than most European countries. The north and north-eastern venues — Manaus, Fortaleza, Natal and Recife — will be particularly muggy, and European players may find themselves feeling drained by the end of games. In all the four World Cups held in South America so far, a South American team has won. The Europeans team — though better planned schedules mean they no longer have to struggle with jet lag — will find it hard to adjust to the conditions. During the Confederations Cup in Brazil last year, after Italy’s 4-3 win against Japan, their manager, Cesare Prandelli, said, “We struggled like crazy tonight. The humidity is something we have to deal with, as it is really difficult.” England goalkeeper Joe Hart has said ahead of the World Cup, “It’s going to be hot out there. We’re just going to have to deal with it.”
Brazil, with Neymar leading their attack, World Cup-winning manager Luiz Felipe Scolari calling the shots and their football-crazy public, have plenty of reasons to be optimistic this year. However, they must also be aware that home-team advantage can soon turn into debilitating pressure. There have been teams before them that have found the weight of expectations that accompany being the hosts too much. In 1990, the talented Italian squad choked at the semi-final stage, and, in 2006, the Germans found an inspiring run come to an end against Italy. Neymar and Co. will know the world’s eyes will be on them. They have to make sure they see that as an aid rather than a burden.