There’s no place like home, as the old saying goes, and the evidence suggests that playing at your own ground in football brings with it plenty of advantages. But do the stats bear out the notion that playing on home soil gives the hosts the edge? Or, does the best team win more often than not anyway, regardless of where the game is being played?
What Are the Advantages of Playing at Home?
How often do you hear a manager say, ‘they won’t like playing here’? Okay, maybe not so much these days with coaches tending to err on the side of erudite caution and platitudes, but in years gone by – when managers were somewhat more forthright with their opinions – home advantage was often considered to be vital.
No Arduous Travel
Of course, playing at home means no hotel stays the night before the game or no long bus trips – sleeping in your own bed has to be considered an edge. The players feel comfortable with their surroundings too, whereas away teams can find themselves in an alien environment. There are classic tales of lower league managers turning the heating off or up full blast in the away dressing room in a bid to unsettle the opposition.
If you think that cheap trick was something, how about Norwich City painting their away dressing room pink in a bid to reduce testosterone levels? The lowered ceiling and door height of Burnley’s away changing rooms? Russian club, Anzhi Makhachkala, even installed leather chairs in their away facilities – in a bid to make rival players too comfortable ahead of the game.
No Intimidating Tunnels
Oh, and how could we forget German side St Pauli’s Hellish tunnel leading to the pitch….
St. Pauli’s player tunnel is absolutely terrifying ☠️ pic.twitter.com/UiRc5FbHUv
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 19, 2022
A Stadium Filled with Supporters
If the facilities behind the scenes are designed to unsettle the travelling player, wait until they step out onto the pitch. They can expect to be abused – be it good natured or otherwise – by the home team’s supporters, who also have a part to play in sub-consciously influencing the match officials to favour their team; anecdotally and confirmed by research, there is a feeling that raucous fans can help to change the outcome of a game in this way.
So, there is an advantage, in some senses, to playing at home rather than away – if we agree that being comfortable is a pro rather than a con. Some players have said in the past that they actually prefer playing away; it breeds an ‘us against them’ style attitude, while inducing less pressure than when on home soil and tens of thousands of fans in the stands are expectant of a win and a good performance. Of course, the only way to prove or disprove these theories of home advantage is to take a deep dive into the stats.
Home Advantage in Football: Fact or Fiction?
When talk turns to home advantage in football, some who believe in it will remind you that six countries have won the World Cup on home soil – Uruguay (1930), Italy (1934), England (1966), Germany (1974), Argentina (1978) and France (1998).
But who is to say they wouldn’t have won that year’s edition wherever it was played? And, what about all those World Cups where the host nation didn’t lift the trophy? With the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia now on FIFA’s friends list, this trend is likely to end anyway. The best way to measure home advantage is with a classic round robin league, where each team plays one another home and away. That way, the statistics hold some relevance.
Let’s take a look at the English Premier League. Discounting draws, we would expect there to be more home wins per season than away wins if home advantage is a real thing. If it isn’t, the percentages would be the same (or there’d be more away wins than home victories). Here’s the numbers for the past five completed seasons:
English Premier League Home & Away Wins
At first glance, the data might not be overwhelming, but on closer inspection the percentages confirm that home advantage DOES exist. You probably won’t need reminding of the dark days of the pandemic, but in 2020/21 a large chunk of Premier League games were played behind closed doors – i.e. with no spectators. And, look what happened: home advantage was completely eradicated.
In 2021/22, supporters were allowed back into stadiums albeit with a capped capacity – home advantage returned, to some extent, and when normal life resumed for the 2022/23 season, so too did the home edge in all its glory. Even from a fairly small sample, we can conclude that when Premier League games are played in front of full crowds, the home advantage is evident.
Interestingly, England is a pretty small country by all accounts, so is home advantage greater or less in larger nations, where teams will have to do more travelling to away games? We looked at the splits from three mammoth countries – Russia, United States and Brazil – for their 2022 seasons:
Russia, USA & Brazil 2022 Home & Away Wins
Although home teams in Russia, the USA and Brazil win with the same regularity as they do in the English Premier League, it’s noticeable that away teams prevail much less in these huge nations than they do in the EPL. The final word should go to arguably one of the hardest countries in the world for away teams, and perhaps an unlikely one too – Nigeria.
Nigeria: King of Home Advantage
The home/away split in 2022/23 was 55%-14%, which is high anyway, but in 2012/13, a whopping ten of the 20 teams in Nigeria’s top division went unbeaten at home. So, why is home advantage so strong here? Take your pick. From ultra-violent crowds, arduous travel, awful pitches and even, shall we say, some partisan decision-making from referees, Nigeria is officially the king of home advantage in football.