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Thursday, 7 June 2012

Land of Home Advantage

In Semaphore, this roughly translates as "Enjoy sitting on the bench. Twat'"

Makers of tiny British flags rejoiced into their Pimms this weekend as it became abundantly clear that patriotism was alive and well, and living vicariously through the blind acceptance of fictional entitlement. And as England arrived in Krakow, there they were again, the tiny flags, only this time adorned with the cross of St. George as some local schoolchildren, presumably in detention, formed a ‘welcome party’ for the squad at the airport.

There will be precious few bets placed on seeing any more diminutive crosses of St George upon the return of Roy Hodgson’s side to this country. Indeed, the last time – in football – that any mass waving or singing on a national scale was going on in England was 16 years ago, when ‘football’ came ‘home’ in 1996. On that occasion, as footballing luminaries seemingly never tire of reminding everyone, England reached the semi-final backed by Baddiel, Skinner and Broudie. Whereas expectations are so low this year, there isn’t even a song. Nice one.

That particular performance, as with England’s World Cup win 30 years previous, was achieved on home soil, as solid an endorsement as exists of the peculiar ‘host nation’ phenomenon. And, as Poland gear up to kick off Euro 2012 against Greece, it appears the propensity for home advantage to play a big role in a side’s progress to the later stages of a major tournament – and particularly the Euros – has been going on for quite some time now. Every four years, domestic manufacturers of tiny flags are making a bloody fortune.

Since the first tournament in 1960, no host nation has finished outside the nominal top four – with the exception of the last tournament in Austria and Switzerland – which is actually a wholly unremarkable (in fact a bloody useless) statistic until 1980, as before then, only four teams contested the finals. Yugoslavia, home nation in 1976, did their bit for underachieving by losing the third play off, but had been the last ever host required to qualify for the four-team finals and so had achieved some degree of success regardless.

With qualification automatically guaranteed for any host nation from 1980 onwards, the chances of achieving success jumped up a notch or two. However, Italy’s second go at hosting the tournament also saw the finals extended to eight teams and the Azzuri could only match Yugoslavia’s performance four years earlier – a far cry from their previous triumphant home competition in 1968 (in 1980, England came third and the Germans won their second title in three attempts, if you’re interested).

The introduction of semi-finals for France 1984 saw the home nation reap the benefits even if Michel Platini’s frankly preposterous nine goals in five matches actually smacked more of black magic than home advantage. The French remain the only host nation to win both a World Cup and a European Championship on home soil – a feat that could have been matched by England if it hadn’t been for YOU, GARETH SOUTHGATE. And you, David Baddiel.

You could have been forgiven for thinking that 1988’s tournament would go the same way, with tournament specialists and all-round European conquerors (well, apart from THOSE) Germany being the host nation, as well as being tournament specialists (three finals, two wins) and all-round European conquerors (APART FROM THOSE, ALRIGHT?). However, the Germans could only manage fourth, finishing behind Italy and the Soviet Union (ironic, given those lazy war references) and overall winners and purveyors of total football and later, total spitting, the Dutch.

The Germans were back to their usual tournament ways in 1992, though, and were only prevented from lifting the Delaunay trophy in Sweden by the most unwelcome guests at a party since Bushby and MacDonald arrived at the Miss Rotherham finals 2010 without so much as a litre bottle of gin and a pair of pants between them. Denmark entered the tournament at the expense of Yugoslavia and their great team of the early 90s and as we know, won it, beating Germany in the final. The host nation still managed a semi-final appearance though, going down 3-2 to the Germans as the Danes despatched the Dutch.

Semi-final appearances followed for England in 1996 and the Netherlands (as joint hosts) in 2000 respectively, both tournaments notable for also being the only finals ever to be decided by golden goals, or as the match reports affectionately records it, ‘asdet’, which either stands for ‘after sudden death extra time’ or, more likely, ‘arrogant scumbags deny England trophy’.

The host nation went one better in 2004, but Portugal were denied by a Greece team that had snatched a semi-final victory with a silver goal against the Czech Republic and seemed destined to grind their way to 1-0 victories regardless of the length of match, quality of opposition or ludicrous extra time rulings intended to encourage more attacking play but actually resulting in a paralysing fear of defeat that seems to have pervaded in Europe ever since (YOU, CHELSEA).

UEFA, clearly mindful of such a peculiar trend, has since decided in its wisdom to award tournament hosting duties to countries with plenty of footballing resources but unfortunately crap football teams, as evidenced by Austria & Switzerland’s involvement in 2008 and, presumably, the cooing noises and coy waves coming from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s proposed bid for the Championships in 2020 as they desperately try to drown out Georgia and the Isle of Wight.

So what of Poland and Ukraine in 2012? It looks most likely that neither will avoid becoming the second consecutive pair of host nations not to progress beyond the group stages and that for a number of reasons, the era in which home advantage played a significant role in the success or otherwise of the teams in question is pretty much over. It seems that, as with the disparity between the top and bottom of Europe’s leading leagues, any advantage gleaned from being a tournament host (and thousands of tiny flags) and ‘at home’ no longer flies in the face of the technicians among the top seeds – what’s more, top seeds that are ever better protected by the seeding systems and will be more so once the tournament expands to 24 teams in its next iteration in 2016.

Is there such thing as home advantage against Spain, for example? Any groundswell of national pride or tribal feeling seems largely unable, given recent history, to shake a footballing identity already deeply ingrained in players over a much longer term than four weeks of a summer tournament and occasional tribal fervour of those in the stands. Plus, of course, the host nations of the last two Euros have been relatively weak and with the development of the game around the world, an increasing number of countries not traditionally considered footballing superpowers now have the capacity to bid – and an increased chance of winning – given football’s ongoing quest for world domination through ‘emerging markets’.

There has been plenty of talk of a surprise package in the forthcoming finals, given Spain’s absentees, the mental state of Germany’s Munich-based players, the flakiness of the French and Dutch defences and Portugal’s lack of strength in depth. However, it seems unlikely that all will be sufficiently crap at the same time for one of the hosts to continue the age-old trend, despite a significant historical precedent. What is probable is that the old ‘home advantage’ adage will be eroded just a little more.

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