He’s almost back, all eyes on him again, even if no one will be there.
The resumption of La Liga tomorrow night means Lionel Messi’s return can’t be too far behind, and it’s not. On Saturday night he’ll be where a good few Irish people planned to be at this time of year but can’t: Mallorca, playing against the home side.
More big names and leagues are starting to crank back up. The Premier League recommences this day next week. Three weeks later NBA teams will resume collective training and start competing at the end of July in the all-neutral and somewhat surreal setting of Disney World, Orlando.
There’ll be an extra fascination at work, watching them play, even if there’ll be that bit less joy. Next time Messi invariably curls one into the top corner in the Camp Nou, it won’t be met by that stunned, explosive roar that has greeted such efforts as his glorious free-kick against Liverpool 13 months ago.
No crowd means no home crowd, and as the Bundesliga this past month suggests, no home advantage either.
Before the shutdown that the COVID-19 triggered, 43 percent of the 224 Bundesliga games played this season had been won by the home side. Since play resumed behind closed doors, the home side has a winning percentage of just 22 percent, virtually half of what it had been – and less than half the number the away team has won. To date the away team has won 22 of those 45 games and drawn 13. Away almost seems the new home.
While it’s still a small sample size – just the five rounds of games – it does confirm what so much research literature has suggested. Home crowds influence match outcomes, primarily because of how much they influence officials.
The Bundesliga has been the subject of some of that prior research. Ten years ago a couple of researchers called Unkelbach and Memmert reviewed 56 Bundesliga matches and found the crowd noise generated by the home support had a significant effect on decisions made by referees. Six years earlier a Stutter and Koch concluded that Bundesliga referees were much more likely to award penalties to the home team than the visiting side and added significantly more extra time in cases where the home team was behind by a goal than when it was ahead by a goal.
It’s been a different story this past month with no crowd to get on the refs. One analysis of the first two rounds of Bundesliga games found that of the four penalties awarded thus far, three had been to the away side. The home side had also picked up more yellow cards, 33 to 29.
What we’ve had so far is an elimination of what’s known in psychology as ‘influence conformity’. The term was coined following an experiment 65 years ago by a social psychologist called Solomon Asch in which he asked participants to look at two cards.
On Card One was a solitary line. On Card Two were three lines of varying length, but one of which was the same length as the one on Card One. Asch planted actors into the group and their insistence that a line considerably shorter than the one common to both cards swayed the naive minority. When interviewed afterwards, the participants admitted they went along with the majority for fear of being ridiculed or thought ‘peculiar’, underlining the tendency of humans to intuitively conform because they want to fit in and because they believe the majority is better informed than they are.
The same tends to apply that to match officials. “When humans are faced with enormous pressure, like making a crucial call with a rabid crowd yelling a few feet away, it is natural to want to alleviate that pressure,” Tobias Moskowitz and John Wortheim wrote in Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won. “By making snap-judgement calls in favour of the home team, referees, whether they consciously appreciate it or not, are relieving some of that stress. They may also be taking a cue from the crowd when trying to make the right call, especially in an uncertain situation. Even if it’s subconsciously, the crowd’s reaction may provide a useful signal that changes their perception.”
Interestingly, Moskowitz and Wertheim also found that the larger the home crowd, the more ‘influence conformity’ tends to be at play. Two of the biggest five stadia in Europe reside in La Liga – the Camp Nou and the Bernabeu. And multiple studies of that league has found that the residents of those coliseums have greatly enjoyed the benefits of influence conformity.
In the classic study of the genre, a London school of Economics professor called Natxo Palacois-Huerta came across notes his remarkably diligent grandmother in Spain kept from religiously watching and recording for decades Sunday evening La Liga matches. Along with a couple of colleagues, his study verified what her notes had shown. In close games with the home team ahead by a goal, the average injury time was barely two minutes, whereas if the home team trailed by a goal, the injury time awarded was four minutes. In the cases when the sides were level and it was uncertain if playing more or less added time was an advantage to the home team, the average injury time was three minutes.
It was particularly pronounced in the case of Barca and Real, huge clubs with huge home crowds. And they also found that visiting teams picked up significantly more red cards – which instantly reduced their odds of winning by seven percent – and yellow cards – which instantly reduced their chances by two percent.
Moskowtiz and Wertheim came to a similar conclusion in Scorecasting after a comprehensive study of NBA games from 1990 to 2010. Games swung on two or three key calls favouring the home team because referees unconsciously were affected by influence conformity.
So now, with no crowds, where does that leave influence conformity now?
It could be particularly interesting in another one of those five biggest stadia in Europe – Croke Park.
Ahead of a recent re-run of several Kerry-Dublin games on eir Sport, Kieran Donaghy floated the theory that playing so many key games in Croker and in front of the Hill was an underestimated factor in Dublin’s decade of dominance. And there’s certainly anecdotal evidence to suggest GAA officials haven’t been immune from influence conformity when the Hill has been in full song. Johnny Cooper was shown a second yellow card in last year’s drawn final but that was down by the more neutral Davin End. When Cooper raised his boot and caught Diarmuid O’Connor with a very late challenge in a 2015 semi-final against Mayo, it was in front of the Hill – and he only received a yellow card, whereas Lee Keegan was shown a black one a year later in the same spot while only minutes earlier Cooper escaped with only a yellow at the other end after hand-tripping Andy Moran. Whatever way you look at it, Dublin have got on the right side of a lot of tight calls in a lot of tight games. With Croker’s and the Hill’s size likely be seriously reduced, could influence conformity and possibly an indirect Dublin ‘marginal gain’ be significantly diluted too?
However many people are in Croker or anywhere else, we will still have noise – not least from players and mentors. The data on the influence of star players is mixed and inconclusive. A 1987 study of NBA games found that while non-star players received the same number of fouls at home and away, the star players picked up less – at home; now that there is no home, will the star player factor be in effect? A 2014 study seemed to indicate that referees do indeed protect the league’s superstars, finding that NBA All Stars were awarded an additional 0.32 free throw attempts per minute during the fourth quarter of playoff games, in other words, an extra four free throws in those final twelve minutes when the game and the season is on the line.
With no crowd and no home court, will the star players use their sway with refs? Will we see Messi and LeBron demonstrating and hectoring them more? Will even Brian Fenton? Will it work? Or will the refs be trained to withstand them?
The sports arena has always been the most fascinating of laboratories. But its upcoming experiments under these new lab conditions will be especially intriguing.