Home conditions: Source of confidence as well as pressure

Generally, the term ‘home’, when used in sports literature, subsumes two things — the home conditions and the home fans. In a game like cricket the home conditions might be of higher value because the pitch is the prerogative of the host. While in football, with not as many variables at play, the fans might assume a greater role.

New Zealand All Blacks captain Richie McCaw (centre) holds the Webb Ellis Cup after the Kiwis beat France to win the Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park in Auckland, in 2011.   -  REUTERS

Members of the Chinese Olympic team in 2008. The Chinese dominated the 2008 Beijing Olympics and topped the medals table in front of the home crowd.   -  REUTERS

How much of an advantage is home advantage? Ask most Manchester United fans this season, they will surely shrug. For, the side has looked as toothless at home as it has, away. Put the same question to a Chelsea fan, he or she will swear it’s huge because the team, under Jose Mourinho across two hugely successful spells, went 77 matches without being defeated.

Generally, the term ‘home’, when used in sports literature, subsumes two things — the home conditions and the home fans. In a game like cricket the home conditions might be of higher value because the pitch is the prerogative of the host. While in football, with not as many variables at play, the fans might assume a greater role.

Either ways, this familiarity can at once be a source of confidence as well as pressure. And sport is replete with examples from both sides of the story. Here we take a look at a few of the successes.

Manchester United’s 40-year unbeaten home run in Europe (1956-1996): This undefeated European home record was forged in the times of the legendary Duncan Edwards. The likes of Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law painted gold on it. In all 56 teams visited Old Trafford in those 40 years. Real Madrid came, with Alfredo Di Stefano in tow; Barcelona came with Diego Maradona in tow. None succeeded. In fact, in the 39th year of the record it took a strike from goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel to keep the run alive against Rotor Volgograd in the UEFA Cup.

But it ended against an unheralded and unfancied Fenerbahce side with a goal by Elvir Bolic, a Bosnian. Cheekily Schmeichel was introduced into the attack again but he couldn’t save them either.

All-Blacks and Eden Park, Auckland: New Zealand has not lost at the iconic Eden Park in Auckland since 1994. Its last defeat was to France and in perhaps the most important of matches it beat the French in the Rugby World Cup final in 2011.

Theories abound about the reason for the team’s success. Some say it’s the park’s odd shape — it doubles up as a cricket ground — which confuses opposition. They seem to struggle to run the right lines. Some say the weather has a role to play. Often raining and covered in dew, fair-weathered opponents like Australia struggle here. For the record, the Wallabies haven’t won in Auckland since 1986.

“It's an amazing ground,” said Ian Jones, who played 79 Tests for the All Blacks between 1990 and 1999. “It’s an awesome venue. You drive through the city to the ground so you go past your fans walking to the game, you eyeball your supporters. We used to park outside and walk through the crowd as you made your way to the changing room, which added something.

“New Zealand doesn’t really have a home ground but, if you ask any overseas players, they would say Eden Park. People think it’s our home, which makes it more intimidating. It’s a bit like Ellis Park in Johannesburg.”

Interestingly Jones lost only once as an All Black at Eden Park and that was in 1994 to France.

Olympics: Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008: The cradle in which the Olympic movement was born was Athens in 1896. However, except for that not much of the Olympic history had Greek stories in it.

But when Fani Halkia won the 400m hurdles gold for his country’s sixth at the 2004 Games, it had recorded its best tally since the previous time the competition was held in Athens, in 1896.

Even if some seek to dismiss this as a mere coincidence, what China did in 2008 is the best example of how globalisation and market-driven economic development — curiously embraced by a communist state — can build a sporting power. Kids were picked up — literally — from the length and breadth of the country, years in advance, to be trained.

Many called it soulless and said the joy of sport was missing. But for China it was about its place in the world and about making a mark in the quintessential symbol of western civilisation.

In fact many saw it coming. China’s gold haul was the fourth-largest in Atlanta (1996), third in Sydney (2000), and second in Athens (2004). In Beijing 2008, it topped with 51 gold medals.

FIFA World Cup: Since the first football World Cup was played in 1934, there have been six nations that have triumphed on home soil — Uruguay (1930), Italy (1934), England (1966), West Germany (1974), Argentina (1978) and France (1998).

There is, indeed, no doubt that the task of winning at home has progressively got difficult. The first two World Cups were more political than any. There were fewer teams and boycotts galore. In particular, the 1934 World Cup was a tool in Benito Mussolini’s hand to promote fascism. He even nationalised a bunch of Argentines so that Italy could win the trophy.

Fast forward to 1998 and France’s victory seems to be the best of the lot. The pressure to do well, after not having qualified for the previous edition was immense. The current 32-team tournament also first took shape then. And it remains France’s only win till date.

In the new millennia however, as the event moves to countries with not so much of footballing history, the chances of a host nation winning looks remote.