The supporters: the 12th player of a football team.

Picture taken from: http://s3.amazonaws.com/lightstalkers/images/44542/05_large.jpgFootball is the most popular sport in the world and has millions of fans around the globe. If someone watches this sport for the first time, they will most likely enjoy the plethora of colors, sounds and celebratory images that are displayed when two great teams are playing against each other. The stadiums become sacred places for supporters where they will hopefully see a victory for their teams and turn the venue into a carnival.

Nevertheless this festive and colorful scene is not enjoyable to all players, especially if you are playing for the opposing team, and most especially if you are playing for the archenemy of the home team. Because of this, in South America and especially in the football-country of Argentina some stadiums have nicknames like “The Elephant Graveyard: Where the big ones fall” (El Cementerio de los Elefantes: Donde caen los grandes, Santa Fe: Team: Colón de Santa Fe), “The Monumental” (El Monumental, Buenos Aires; Team: River Plate) and “The Candy Box” (La Bombonera, Buenos Aires; Team: Boca Juniors). The latter is probably is one of the most hostile football environments not only in South America but anywhere in the world. Despite the gentle nickname of the stadium, this soccer pitch is known worldwide for its loyal supporters who, throughout the entire game, never  stop chanting and encouraging their team; Boca Juniors of Argentina.

In South America the myth of La Bombonera is known in the football tradition and feared by other teams who must go and face the Argentinian football club with its base in La Boca neighborhood. The slogan that “it doesn’t shakes, it pulses” suggests the idea that this stadium is a living organism with his own heart beat, that its purpose is to drive Boca Juniors to a victory. But is this just a myth within the South American football folklore or it is a proven fact that playing in such “hostile environments” gives a competitive edge to the home teams?

Research on sport psychology brought from the early finding of social psychology has shown a well-established phenomenon in different professional sports, this effect has been called the “home-field advantage”. This has been defined as ‘‘the consistent finding that home teams in sports competitions win over 50% of the games played under a balanced home and away schedule’’ (Courneya & Carron, 1992). Home advantage is usually attributed to four factors (Nevill, Balmer, & Wolfson, 2005). The first factor is the extent to which the sport gives home teams an explicit strategic or tactical advantage. However this could not be the case in football since both teams compete on equal conditions and there is no explicit advantage for the home team.

A second possible explanation for the home-field advantage relates to the comfort of the football player while playing in his own physical environment (Nevill, et al., 2005). This could be a possible explanation of the home-field advantage for Boca because of the physical characteristics and the architecture of the venue (this is where the nickname of the stadium comes from), with highly sloped stands that make the supporters very close to the football pitch and it also generates the feeling that the supporters are “on top” of the players. Undoubtedly, playing on a regular basis under these conditions helps the home team players feel comfortable, while their opponents might feel threatened under such hostile and unfamiliar playing conditions.

A third contributor for the home field advantage is the psychological advantage that performing at home gives to athletes. Audience factors may influence the performance of athletes in several ways (Wallace, Baumeister & Bohs, 2005). First, a home supportive audience may motivate the performer to invest an extra effort to reward the audience for their support.  A second element is the impact that the audience has over the opposing players. Roberto Ayala (River Platre and the Argentinean National Team) once described his experiences in La Bombonera: “We were in the locker rooms and it shocked me that we were just beneath the “hardest” supporters of Boca… They started screaming and the walls trembled, it looks like it moves. After going out to the football pitch and seeing the entire stadium I haven’t seen it anywhere else, honestly. Living like that is a rush of adrenaline.”

Last but not least, the effects of the home field advantage may impact the outcome of games by the influence of the decisions made by judges and referees (Nevill et al., 2005). It is well known in research and by watching highly emotional games that the emotional intensity of the home crowd seems to influence the decisions, where they tend to favor home competitors.

The fame that surrounds the mythical stadiums like La Bombonera, seems to have  actual supporting evidence from research in social and sport psychology. The effects may come from different sources, but definitely stadiums with a big crowd support have an effect on the home and away teams respectively. Not only generating direct and indirect effects, and impacting psychologically on the footballers, but it also creating a beautiful, dramatic scene that makes football; the biggest and most popular sport in the world.

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