Home Advantage And ‘Ghost Matches’ – Impact Of COVID-19 On Competition Psychology

Home Advantage And ‘Ghost Matches’ – Impact Of COVID-19 On Competition Psychology

The coronavirus pandemic has led to the cancellation of several seasons of top flight football leagues. The Eredivisie and Ligue 1 have written off the end of the 19/20 season to start fresh in Autumn, while the English Premier League and German Bundesliga are determined to press on. Health precautions demand that these games be played behind closed doors in empty stadiums. This raises questions about how the absence of the audience might affect the outcome of these ‘ghost matches,’ particularly with respect to home advantage.

Home advantage can be considered to be the amalgamation of several contributing factors. The would include familiarity with the home conditions, travel fatigue, less than partial referees, or off-field strategy. Of all these factors none are close to the perceived importance of public support. Although the calculable existence of home advantage remains debated, it is difficult to believe that the presence and cheers (or boos) of tens of thousands of spectators would not have a significant impact on how players performed under pressure.

All else being equal, the corona ghost matches will be in themselves an experiment to prove or disprove the impact of supporters on home advantage. For fans, as well as bookmakers and sports bettors, these novel playing conditions introduce new variables which make match outcomes more difficult to determine. To anticipate their influence, there is a precedent of ghost matches in recent Serie A history to analyze.

Due to a failure to meet stadium safety requirements, twenty matches were played without audiences between the Serie A and Serie B in the 2006/07 season. Club performances were measured against the previous season’s data, comparing the performances of similarly ranked clubs across the two seasons. For example, in 2005/06 Livorno played its home game against Ascoli with supporters present. In 2006/07, Livorno played its home ghost game against Messina. Because Ascoli and Messina were both similarly ranked in their respective seasons, the impact of supporters on Livorno’s performance can be more reliably measured. The advantage Livorno enjoyed was significant enough to be attributable to home advantage.

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Skeptics will argue that the other factors of home advantage contaminate this precedent. A further test case comes in the form of derby competitions between teams that share stadiums. The home team will still draw a bigger supporter crowd, and because the stadium is shared, there is no travel fatigue, referee favouritism or unfamiliarity with the playing conditions.

Italian football again offers a precedent. Consider the Derby della Capitale between AC Milan and Lazio Roma. Researchers compared the league performance of both clubs between 1988 and 2004 with specific attention to home advantage. Their analysis suggested that in standard play Milan and Lazio benefitted from home advantage. However, their performance in this derby showed no signs of home advantage, neither having the edge that could be expected from other competitions. So, all else being equal, this suggests supporters are not decisive in determining the upper hand of the home team.

Looking ahead to the corona ghost matches, research suggests that we should not worry ourselves too much over the empty stands. If home advantage plays a role, it is due to the other factors above mentioned. We may do well to consider corona related variables, like mental health and physical fitness of players who like us have been locked away at home for the better part of two months. Clubs may be internally factioned over protests against restarting football at all, or transfer negotiations may make their way onto the field. Like so much in the corona period, how these ghost matches will play out remains shrouded in mystery.

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