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Home is where the victory is

Statistics say the tournament hosts have a powerful weapon up their sleeve - the home advantage.

india Updated: May 17, 2006 13:37 IST

German supporters are grimly pessimistic about their nation's chances in the World Cup, but statistics and scientists say the tournament hosts have a powerful weapon up their sleeve - home advantage.

Of the 17 World Cup finals so far, six have been won by the host nation - Uruguay in 1930, Italy in 1934, England in 1966, Germany in 1974, Argentina in 1978 and France in 1998.

Two hosts (Brazil in 1950 and Sweden in 1958) finished runner-up, and three made it to the semi-final stage - Chile in 1962, Italy in 1990 and South Korea, co-organiser with Japan, in 2002.

But this extraordinary home success is not exclusive to the World Cup.

According to a FIFA study of more than 6,500 top-level international matches, almost exactly half were won by the home side, and only a quarter were won by the away side. The rest were draws.

But what creates the home-side benefit?

Psychologists and sociologists agree that the big factor is crowd support, although how this works is poorly understand and in some circumstances may even work against a home team.

Having a massive, roaring crowd can inspire tired home players, intimidate opposition goalies - and cow the match officials, too.

Sports psychologist Alan Nevill at Britain's University of Wolverhampton showed video footage of 47 tackles to a group of qualified referees and asked them to judge whether each one was a foul or not.

The refs were split into two groups. One group could hear the crowd's reaction, while the other watched the same footage but without any crowd noise. None of the volunteers saw the decision by the original referee.

Refs who saw the tackle with the sound turned up were much more reluctant to punish the home team. They judged 15 percent fewer of the tackles as illegal - a decision that, intriguingly, also mirrored that made by the original match official.

Nevill believes that crowd pressure can con even experienced refs.

"To get the crowd off their back, they wave 'play on'," he suggests.

One theory is that a rousing crowd boosts levels of the male hormone testosterone among home players.

Nick Neave and Sandy Wolfson of the University of Northumbria, northeastern England, took saliva samples from players in an Under-19 squad in a British premiership team.

The footballers were tested before three training sessions as well as two away games and two home games. The four matches were played against two sets of opponents. One opponent was considered a moderate rival, while the other was a bitter rival.

Testosterone levels from the saliva were at the male average before the training and away matches.

But they were 40 percent higher before the home match against the moderate rival and a mighty 67 percent higher before the home match against the bitter rival.

"We know testosterone is linked to dominance and aggression in animals," Neave said.

"We're trying to tie the results in with territoriality. The idea is that if you're playing at home, you're defending your own territory. The testosterone surges in the goalkeepers was unbelievable, and obviously they're the ones who are most involved in defence."

Other researchers are probing whether playing at home may also have its disadvantages.

Crowd pressure may encourage pumped-up home players to take risks, commit fouls and get them injured, or conversely to become so self-conscious and about fan scrutiny that they are not bold enough.

Even so, the home-side advantage is clearly substantial.

The great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly even used it in psy war, installing a plaque reading 'This is anfield' in the tunnel that led players out onto the pitch and to the mighty roar of the Kop.

"This is to remind our lads who they're playing for - and to remind the opposition who they're playing against," Shankly said with quiet understatement.

First Published: May 16, 2006 19:30 IST