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Home advantage bolsters hosts

At 150/1 to lift the trophy, South Africa goes into this summer's World Cup as the least fancied host nation in the tournament's history. But studies in the last few decades have consistently shown that home advantage isn't just a figment of our imagination; teams in a number of sports win more often at home.

The studies have looked back to the late 1800s, but for more recent evidence, look at this year's Premier League, Primera Liga and Serie A, and last year's MLS: an average of 63.3 percent of points was won at home. Nine of the 15 nations to have hosted or co-hosted the World Cup went furthest on home soil. Having previously failed to qualify five times, and gone out in the first round another five, South Korea amazed everyone when, as co-hosts, they reached the semi-finals in 2002.

Six World Cups have been won by the host nation -- Uruguay 1930, Italy 1934, England 1966, West Germany 1974, Argentina 1978 and France 1998. Typically anomalous, Brazil has won the trophy a record five times elsewhere but finished runners-up in Brazil in 1950.

No one has figured out precisely (scientifically) why teams get better results at home, but several factors apparently work in some capacity: the effects of travel, crowd support, referee bias, and territoriality (a desire to protect your patch from interlopers). All these factors seem more or less plausible in the context of the World Cup.

Studies have actually found testosterone fluctuations between home and away matches, especially in parts of the world where regional conflict has left scars. World Cups organized by dictators -- Benito Mussolini in Italy, 1934; General Jorge Videla in Argentina, 1978 -- were seen as a means of asserting national glory, and nothing less than victory would be tolerated. Mussolini even made a special, additional trophy, the Coppa Del Duce, made up, which he would only present to the winners if they were wearing Italian shirts (they were, and he did).

The 60s were virtually the first point at which the English gave a damn about other nations' football teams, and they certainly wouldn't have wanted Johnny Foreigner going over there and beating them, least of all the Germans, in the 1966 final. Johan Cruyff and his Dutch chums prompted horror eight years later, when stories of their pool parties with naked German girls emerged in the host nation's tabloids. A teary all-night phone call from his wife put Cruyff off his stride in the final, which the Germans were doubly determined to win and restore national pride.

First-class seats and luxury hotels have diminished the impact of travel on away performances, but at the first World Cup in 1930, only four teams from outside the Americas bothered to make the trip to Uruguay. Belgium, Romania and France (who barely rustled up a squad thanks to the time off work necessary) -- went out at the group stage, while Yugoslavia, got hammered by the hosts in the next game.

Things were just as problematic for the non-Europeans when Italy hosted four years later. Argentina, USA, Egypt and Brazil were all back at the docks quick sharp after being soundly beaten in their first games. Small wonder when you consider that Brazil's black players had been forced to sit out training on the boat because they weren't allowed to mix with other passengers.

Nothing so heinous will afflict teams this summer, but fingers crossed that Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano stops coughing -- Barcelona, Lyon, Fulham and Liverpool were all forced to make long overland trips in Europe this season, and all but Fulham, who worked hard for a goalless draw at Hamburg, came home having been defeated. Flight disruption will make the trip to South Africa, which is an average of 6055 miles long for those outside of the African continent, arduous if not impossible. The Mexicans have the longest trip, at just under 9,300 miles. Good news for the hosts, who welcome them to Johannesburg's Soccer City for the tournament opener on June 11.

Reports leading up to the tournament suggested that many tickets remained unsold, with only five games sold out. Fortunately for South Africa, who exited at the group stage in 1998 and 2002, that opening fixture is one of them, which means that 94,700 fans will be packed in to cheer them on.

Despite doubts about the influence of home crowds, according to a 2005 paper, "Fans [feel] responsible for inspiring their team to victory, [take] credit for distracting opponents, and [believe] that they could influence officials into making decisions in their team's favor." Crowds are typically biggest at the World Cup final, and numbers always favor the host nation -- even if it takes them a while to realize it.

West Germany was among the favorites in 1974, but endured a tough time from its own supporters in the early stages -- the crowd jeered the side's negative tactics even as it beat Australia 3-0. Defeat to East Germany seemed an indignity too far, but it gave the West Germans an easier path to the final, by which time the fickle 77,833 inside the ground had become fierce nationalists, roaring their team to a 2-1 victory.

Fans seemed to give Uruguay a boost throughout the 1930 tournament -- the host played all its matches at the new Centenary Stadium in front of up to 93,000 supporters, while others kicked about in front of crowds as small as 300. In Uruguay's 6-1 semi-final win over Yugoslavia, a watching policeman kicked a wayward ball back onto the pitch for Carlos Peucelle to put away the fourth. After Uruguay beat Argentina 4-2 in the final, rumors abounded that death threats had prompted a quiet game from Argentina's main man, Luis Monti.

The crowds weren't quite so vicious in Italy in 1934 but, watching the packed stands, even Mussolini apparently mused that it would be impossible for Italy to lose with such support. Mind you, word is that Mussolini himself chose each of the officials, so he probably knew more than he was letting on.

It might explain Louis Baert disallowing and then un-disallowing Italy's equalizer against Spain in the second round. He surpassed himself in the second half, however, chalking off Ramon de Lafuente's goal for offside despite watching the Spaniard take the ball past four Italian defenders before shooting.

His replacement in the replay, Rene Mercet, disallowed two more Spanish goals, seeing Italy through to a semifinal with Austria and earning him a suspension from his own federation. Overseeing Italy versus Austria was Swede Ivan Eklind, who is reported to have intercepted an Austrian pass and headed it to an Italian. Guess who was picked to officiate in the final?

Videla's approach to Argentina's tournament in '78 was apparently pretty similar, if his side's influential first round win over France is anything to go by: the French had a goal harshly ruled out, while Argentina won a dubious penalty. Later, Argentina's crunch game against Peru was scheduled to start after Brazil -- with whom it was battling for a final playoff spot -- had played Poland, meaning the hosts knew they needed to win by four to progress. Peru rolled over to lose 6-0 having been given a lecture on "Latin American brotherhood" by Videla just before kickoff. Fifa even changed the referee for the final when Argentina expressed its dislike.

Though it looks like a girl scouts' tiff in comparison, debate continues as to whether or not England's third goal against Germany in the 1966 final actually crossed the line. The celebrations of the crowd and the players appeared to sway referee Gottfried Dienst and his assistant, though Geoff Hurst's third put the result beyond doubt in any case. In the quarterfinals, Argentina captain Antonio Rattin had also complained so much that referee Rudolf Kreitlein favored England that he was sent off.

This year Fifa has selected Sweden's Martin Hansson, the man who failed to spot Thierry Henry's handball as France put Ireland out of the finals, so who knows what stories might be circulating come the fall.