Brazil will begin the World Cup as the tournament favourites, with many seasoned observers believing a combination of a talented squad, a wily manager with a distinguished record at international level and the perceived big advantage of hosting the event will make their quest for a record sixth title an unstoppable one.
However, while Felipe Scolari’s squad contains a set of accomplished footballers, providing top quality in every position except perhaps at centre-forward, and with a sprinkling of world-class talent in Thiago Silva, Dani Alves, Oscar and Neymar – although perhaps still just potentially in the latter two – it is not an intimidating set of players to strike fear into all opponents and Spain, Germany and, arguably, Argentina could be said to have noticeably superior squads.
It is rather the fact Brazil will host the tournament that has catapulted them from possible contenders to firm favourites. But to what extent does a host team benefit from staging a tournament or could it, as with the ‘national tragedy of 1950′, to quote Brazil’s sports minister, ultimately hinder them?
One of the hosts’ obvious main advantages – not having to travel – is less of an advantage in recent years with the hardships of travelling for other participating teams much less than in previous times. Months of effort and small fortunes are invested in military-levels of planning to ensure competing teams take the path of least resistance in travelling to, and within, the host country, spend a period acclimatising at a top-class training facility in a country with a similar climate, will reside in the most salubrious accommodation with the correct numbers of goose feathers in each duvet and are accompanied by a squadron of experts to ensure any problem, no matter how trivial, is solved before it arises.
Of course, as with England in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa this can still go spectacularly wrong as despite all the money and effort invested in their tournament preparations, then-manager Fabio Capello’s decision to house his players in a remote base backfired. The Italian’s mistake however, was in misreading the psyche of the average England player (although some would say the problem was from having too many average English players in his squad) and not anticipating the restlessness and boredom they would experience having been deprived of sufficient opportunities for midnight roasts and shooting innocent bystanders with air guns. After all, there’s a surprisingly limited amount of entertainment that can be generated from cutting each other’s clothes up and defecating under a room-mate’s pillow.
But as the Brazil squad will be cooped up together for most of the duration of the tournament, Scolari and his legion of planners must find the right balance between indulgence and deprivation too.
The globalisation of the game means host countries will hold fewer surprises for visiting squads, with many players used to playing their entire careers abroad and so are unafraid of, and less likely to, step into the unknown. In addition, the usual pre-tournament scaremongering about crime rates, hornet’s nests and potentially corrupting local customs ceases as the first whistle is blown because newspapers then have something substantial to fill their pages with.
Still, the statistics do support the belief that a host nation advances further in the competition than they would if the tournament was played elsewhere. Using the slightly crude analysis of measuring how the host country performed in the World Cups directly before and after their hosting of the tournament, since 1950 the host country averages a fraction shy of an extra two rounds of progression.
The reason for choosing the two tournaments sandwiching the year in which a country hosts it as opposed to comparing it to their overall record in the World Cup is because for example, the USA’s squad in 1990 & 1998, would be quite similar to when they hosted it in 1994, whereas their pool of players in 1950, 1954 etc would, obviously, be entirely different. The World Cups prior to 1950 were disallowed from this calculation due to the inconsistency in countries participating. For instance, the 1934 winners, Italy, didn’t take part in 1930; the winners from that year, Uruguay, didn’t defend the trophy in 1934. The outbreak of World War Two meant comparing 1938 host country France’s performance with their record in 1950, with a different set of players, would be uninstructive.
Only Germany in 2006 saw a slight dip in performance, with their semi-final appearance equalling their 2010 showing but slightly lower than their runners-up display, with a less talented set of players, in 2002. The most noticeable improvement was with France’s victory on home soil in 1998, which was preceded by non-qualification in 1994 and followed by a limp exit at the group stage in 2002. However, while France were undoubtedly aided in their winning year by hosting the tournament, their subsequent victory in a high-quality Euro 2000 indicated that the same set of players would probably have been capable of winning if the 1998 tournament had been held elsewhere, even with Stephane Guivarc’h, the Djimi Traore of World Cup winners, leading the line.
In recent times however, generally the boost given by hosting the tournament has lessened when compared with earlier stagings of the tournament. For example, Sweden reached the final on home soil in 1958, sandwiched between two failures to qualify for the tournament while Chile finished third in 1962 despite only managing a group stage exit and non-qualification either side. Although both countries have fine footballing traditions, Chile has never come close to repeating that feat while the Swedes only once threatened to match their performance when losing to a late goal in their 1994 semi-final against Brazil.
Of recent hosts who had never made serious inroads in a World Cup, only South Korea have reached the latter stages (and even their progress was aided by a traditional host advantage which most assumed had vanished in this supposed age of improved transparency, a series of questionable refereeing decisions) while the USA, Japan and South Africa advanced only slightly further than their tournament records suggest they would otherwise have.
Indeed, with only two of the last seven hosts as far back as Italy in 1990 having obtained a noticeable boost from hosting the tournament – France and South Korea – both benefiting from at least the average two-round kick, is it the case that those improvements in travel etc. are evening things up for the visiting nations?
The evidence from the European Championships and the Copa America would appear to support this. Since the former expanded to eight teams and took on the form of an international football tournament as we know it, only France has won while hosting. Despite other traditional football powerhouses such as Italy, Netherlands, West Germany (as it was in 1988) and Portugal hosting the competition since then, the hosts have only produced one other finalist as well as providing four other semi-finalists.
Indeed, five of the seven previous hosts have failed to make it out of the group stages with only Netherlands (semi-final) and Portugal (final) bucking the trend. While the other five hosts in that period – Poland, Ukraine, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium – are relatively weaker footballing nations, the fact that none of them made it past the group stages is surprising if the big advantage of hosting a tournament still exists.
South America’s continental tournament follows this trend. From 1987 when the modern competition reverted to having a fixed host, the next six editions of the Copa America saw two host nation wins (Brazil and Uruguay), a final appearance by Bolivia (even allowing for the clear advantage of playing up in the clouds at altitude, this was still an excellent achievement) and three beaten semi-finalists (Argentina, Ecuador and Chile).
Since 1999 however, only one of the five host countries – Colombia when winning in 2011 after being handed the hosting of the tournament at the last-minute amid withdrawals and acrimony – has progressed past the quarter-final stage.
In summation, over the course of the history of football tournaments there has been a big advantage accrued to a nation from being the host. However, over time this has lessened for the reasons outlined above – easier travel, improved planning and accommodation and increased global movement of players – all reducing the discomfort felt by visiting squads and so negating some of the previous benefits of home advantage.
Having the passionate backing of tens of thousands of fans at each of their games and being at ease with the hot climate will, of course, still boost Brazil next month but the suffocating pressure the team may feel in the later rounds could have an adverse effect on their ability to lift a record sixth World Cup. After exiting at the quarter-final stage in South Africa, using our crude formula the Selecao are set for a losing final appearance and if this is to be the case one can only hope that it does not plunge the country into another bout of tormented soul-searching sparked by the forever-damned defeated finalists of 1950.