Football Behind Closed Doors May Tell US Much About How Home Advantage Works
The Mestalla in Valencia has to be one of the most intimidating stadiums in the world for visiting football teams. Its stands, which have the pitch of a ski jump, allow home fans to create a claustrophobic wall of noise. The rabid screams of 55,000 Valencians, bouncing off the concrete foundations, have made it something of a fortress for the local team and a popular venue for Spain’s home fixtures. A while back, I watched Valencia play Barcelona at the Mestalla, and there was a febrile menace in the air that night unlike any other I have experienced in a football ground.
The vibe at the Mestalla was rather different last week, when Valencia hosted Atalanta in the second leg of the sides’ Champions League last-16 tie. If ever a team needed a boost from their 12th man, their fans, it was now: Valencia had to make up a 4-1 deficit from the first leg. But, because of the coronavirus outbreak, the fixture was played behind closed doors. Watching the match on TV was eerie: you could hear the players shouting for the ball or celebrating or appealing for a foul. At times you had to remind yourself that it wasn’t a training exercise.
The match became even more listless after just 90 seconds, when Atalanta were awarded a penalty. The Slovenian striker Josip Ilicic buried it and added three more in a 4-3 victory. “Fabulous game missed by fans at Mestalla,” Gary Lineker tweeted. “Imagine scoring all 4 goals like Ilicic has done with barely a soul in the stadium.”
On Friday, it was announced that all elite football in England and Scotland will be postponed until at least April. The Champions League and Europa League have also been suspended. What happens next is decidedly murky. There may be play‑offs to decide titles and relegation. Euro 2020 could be delayed. And there might well be more surreal spectacles like the one that played out between Valencia and Atalanta.
If more matches do have to be played in empty stadiums without fans, can we expect it to affect the results? Will Liverpool suddenly be less formidable without the Kop behind them? Home advantage is one of the immutable facts of sport, especially football – what happens when you remove the crowd from the equation?
Playing sport behind closed doors has traditionally been used as a punishment for the home team. In football, it dates back to the early 1980s, when English clubs were feared across Europe for their tenacity on the field and their brutality off it. West Ham were the first team on the receiving end. In September 1980, the Hammers played Castilla, essentially Real Madrid’s feeder team, at the Bernabéu in the European Cup Winners Cup. When they lost 3-1 in the first leg – perhaps because they were humiliated by losing to a second‑string outfit, or maybe because they just fancied a punch-up – the West Ham supporters went on the rampage. Dozens were ejected from the stadium; outside, one was run over by a bus and died.
Uefa determined that the second leg should be played in an empty Upton Park. In fact, the official attendance was 262, when you took players, staff, ball kids and media into account. But the atmosphere was unquestionably odd: the West Ham goalkeeper Phil Parkes recalled afterwards that he had to tune out commentary on the game from a radio behind the goal. It became known as “the ghost match”.
In one sense, West Ham were punished for the riot in Madrid: the club would have expected a full house of 36,000 for the second leg, so it made a hefty dent in their income. But what about on the pitch? Did West Ham suffer from not having the Upton Park faithful roaring them on?
Not especially. Back in London, West Ham tied the match 3-1 in 90 minutes; in extra time they scored two more. It was a similar story in September 1982, when Aston Villa were made to start their European campaign on a Wednesday afternoon at 2.30pm in front of 187 spectators, as a censure for rioting by their supporters the previous season in Belgium. Again, it wasn’t much of a punishment: Villa beat Besiktas 3-1. Internazionale had to play three Champions League home games behind closed doors in 2005, and they won all three.
So we’re clear: it’s not that home clubs usually perform better when forced to play behind closed doors. That’s probably not the case, and there’s not enough statistical evidence to confirm or deny it. But these matches played without supporters do make you wonder how influential fans in the stadium are to the performance of their beloved team.
Research shows home advantage is clearly and definitely a major factor in football. Taken aAcross all teams and all leagues in England, the home team invariably wins around 45% of matches, and draws 25%. Fans might believe this is down to their support but actually the size of the crowd and the intensity of their screaming does not appear to have a significant impact on the result.
Where the home crowd can sometimes have a game-changing influence, however, is on the decisions of the referee. A couple of studies have indicated that football officials – unwittingly, of course – were wary of making controversial calls against the home team because they suspected, perhaps subliminally, that the crowd would turn on them. In practice, this means fewer yellow cards, more penalties given – and the louder and more partisan the crowd, the greater the unconscious bias.
If some of the key fixtures this season do end up being decided behind closed doors, they will be intriguing to watch (obviously on a screen, not in the stands). Will referees make better decisions? Will the intensity of home players dip without the crowd to gee them up?
Or, counter-intuitively, will these players suddenly display a new sense of freedom? Joey Barton once complained that abusive Newcastle fans at St James’ Park had destroyed the confidence of the players. Likewise, there must have been times when Gary Neville was manager at Valencia in 2016 when he wished the Mestalla was empty. As thrilling as it must be when 55,000 fans are chanting your name, imagine how soul-destroying it is when they are screaming as one: “Gary, vete ya!” or “Gary, go now!”
The Guardian Sport