Even though the pandemic has become quite annoying, it can also be used to examine certain phenomena in sports more closely – such as, for example, the influence of stands filled with fans in one’s own football stadium and whether the ominous home field advantage is based on this. This study was now possible because during the pandemic (2019-2020 season) European soccer teams held so-called ghost matches – i.e. played in front of empty stands.
Two sports psychologists from the University of Salzburg took advantage of this and compared the results of 641 such ghost games in the 2019-2020 season with the results of 645 games in the 2018-2019 season, in which games were still played in front of full stands. Games in the top leagues of Spain, England, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Austria and the Czech Republic were analyzed.
They found that in the so-called ghost games, the home advantage effect was no longer present. That is, the number of games won at home decreased significantly – it fell by 8.3%. The authors see the reason for this in the unconscious behavior of the referees. In a more in-depth analysis of the yellow-carding process, they found that in the “home ghost games” the referees issued a yellow card for significantly more fouls against the home team than in the previous season. Significantly more means in this case 26% more. On the other hand, only 3% more fouls were penalized against the visiting teams. The increase in yellow cards for home teams was interestingly independent of the course of the game: whether the team was winning or losing did not matter. Moreover, it only concerned “real” fouls, i.e. not yellow cards for “whining” or “unsportsmanlike conduct”. Serious fouls, which were punished with a red card, were deliberately left out of the analysis, as the video assistant is now available for this purpose.
The hypothesis of the researchers is now that the long known home advantage in soccer matches is based on the social pressure from the stands on the referees. Unconsciously, referees evaluate the play of home teams more objectively without fans, which leads to the increased fouls called on the home team. At the same time, however, they do not favor the visiting teams in ghost games.
The authors now hope that their findings will lead to the development of new training methods for referees to minimize the influence of the crowd on their decision-making in the future.
As expected, there have already been dissenting voices, especially from
the referees. “The work for the referees in empty stadiums has changed because of the altered acoustics. Suddenly, collisions can be heard better, which can influence the foul decision. In addition, referees suddenly hear statements from players that were previously lost in the noise. That the audience has an influence on the referees’ performance, however, can be ruled out.”
But this is not and was not the only study on ghost games. Salzburg sports psychologists have already shown in a paper published earlier this year that emotional outbursts and arguments among players and coaches decreased significantly in ghost games. And an English study found that when the home team leads by a narrow margin, the referee blows the whistle more than 40 seconds earlier in front of a full house than in front of empty stands. No wonder that the clubs want to fill their stands again. Even though I personally believe that this – as well as sponsorship contracts with various sponsors – is due exclusively to the disdainful mamon.
- Leitner M.C. & Richlan F. (2021). No fans – No pressure: Referees in professional football during the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontiers in Active Living – Movement Science and Sport Psychology 3: 720488. doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2021.720488
- Leitner, M. C., Daumann, F., Follert, F., and Richlan, F. (2021). The cauldron has cooled down: a systematic literature review on covid-19, ghost games, and home advantage in football from a behavioral science perspective. PsyArXiv [preprint]. doi: 10.31234/osf.io/qjp27