22 April ~ Fulham and Liverpool are up against it tonight. Not because they face the might of Hamburg and Atlético Madrid, but because some ash has erupted out of a volcano in Iceland. The English teams have travelled across Europe by plane, train and automobile this week, and, scientifically speaking, they face an uphill journey to the Europa League final.
Statistically speaking, a home team is more likely than an away team to win a game of football. Anyone familiar with the game could tell you this, but thankfully Richard Pollard has proven the trend in his insightful paper Home Advantage in Soccer: a Retrospective Analysis. Pollard found that home advantage is particularly pronounced in football. Home teams win about 64 per cent of the points gained in the English Football League. This percentage has changed little since the formation of the league in 1888 – despite the introduction of the three points for a win incentive. Pollard also noted that home advantage increases in European games and becomes increasingly important as the competition progresses. The semi-final of the Europa League is not a place to face a tricky away journey.
The reasons for home advantage have been picked over for as long as the league has existed. There seem to be a few factors – familiarity with surroundings, the effect of travel on the body and the crowd's influence – that contribute to the home team's advantage. If these three factors are telling, the volcano in Iceland has exacerbated the disadvantage Liverpool and Fulham face tonight.
The change in familiarity of surrounding might not be immediately obvious. The volcano has not changed the details of the match itself – the stadium, pitch and kick-off time will all be known to the players. But, crucially, the travelling players will have experienced very unfamiliar preparations for the game. Liverpool players would ordinarily fly straight to Madrid but over the past few days they have taken trains to London and then Paris, as well as a flight to the Spanish capital. Fulham's players spent three hours on the hard shoulder yesterday after an accident on the autobahn held up traffic. These trips have been anything but familiar. And for sportsmen, who typically revel in patterns, that is an issue.
More importantly, however, is the wearying effect of travelling long distances. Sporting performance is directly related to the distance travelled. This makes fairly basic sense – you become tired and disorientated as you travel and your performance suffers. A Pace and AV Carron, two academics from the University of Western Ontario, found that distance and direction travelled, time of year, time zones crossed and the stage of the sporting season all affect athletes' performances. Fulham have played more than fifty games already this season. If weariness is going to affect any bunch of players it is surely Roy Hodgson's small squad.
The volcanic ash has not only affected the players, but also the fans. The away teams in tonight's games will play with a reduced support – which will accentuate the home teams' advantage. Academics at John Moores University in Liverpool found that the dynamic of the crowd affects key refereeing decisions. They argue that larger crowds are either "able to provoke the away player into more reckless behaviour, or influence the referee into believing that the away player had committed more fouls". The reduced away support in tonight's games, statistically speaking, should tend to make referees favour the home team when making vital decisions.
For Liverpool and Fulham there could yet be cause for hope. Home advantage could have absolutely nothing to do with familiar surroundings, distance travelled or the crowd's influence. It could be a fairly simple, if intractable, result of evolution. N Neave and S Wolfson, in their study Testosterone, Territoriality and the Home Advantage, argue that home teams win more matches as they have higher levels of testosterone in their bodies prior to games at their home ground. Players are no more than highly evolved dogs who get riled at the thought of someone else pissing over their turf.
Perhaps tonight's game will come down to nothing more than the home team's primal urge to defend their patch of grass. But if the away teams can overcome their supposed disadvantages and take decent first-leg results back to England they have a great chance of making the final. That is, according to the Second Leg Home Advantage theory. But that's another story.