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Football and coronavirus: ‘Geisterspiele’ and the disappearance of home advantage

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

If you strip sport down to the bare bones, what's left?

Sport is an entertainment industry, and football is one of the biggest sources of entertainment across the world. Germany is no different, boasting some of the most passionate fans in Europe who consistently devote their time, effort, and money to the clubs they love and the beautiful game. In fact, the Bundesliga boasts the highest average attendances in world football – over 43,000 in the 2018/2019 season.

A typical pre-pandemic Bundesliga crowd at Berlin's Olympic Stadium, home of Hertha Berlin. Photo: zim-bb via Pixabay

In order to adhere to social distancing measures, put in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, football matches are now Geisterspiele (‘ghost games’). Without the constant soundtrack of chants and songs, football is an eerie shadow of itself, and, however grateful we are for the return of live sport, it’s just not quite the same.

The lack of atmospheres

I have played in front of crowds of all different sizes in a variety of sports, both home and away. An effective home crowd can make a travelling player feel intimidated and unwelcome, whilst simultaneously giving their own side a confidence boost that cannot be replicated through any other means.

This Wednesday, left-back Marcel Halstenberg was shown a second yellow card and duly given his marching orders, leaving RB Leipzig with 10 men as they attempted to hold on to a 2-1 lead at home against Hertha Berlin. But without the mocking and jeers of the away supporters as their team was thrown a lifeline, the dismissal felt like a complete non-event.

The RB Leipzig logo on a flag. Photo: jorono via Pixabay

Hertha Berlin would eventually rescue a draw, as Krzystof Piatek calmly slotted away a late penalty, before doing his well-known ‘Gunman’ celebration in front of an empty Red Bull Arena stand. This high-intensity match between two in-form sides boasting great players was clearly missing something.

RB Leipzig are the Bundesliga’s pantomime side – their recent cash fuelled rise has made them the club that everyone loves to hate. Hertha Berlin are the biggest team in Germany’s capital, enjoying a strong start under new manager Bruno Labbadia. This match had a bit of everything, but was ultimately lacking in one priceless thing that could have made it a true classic: the booming sound of thousands of fans that can make a stadium truly erupt.

A significant impact on results

If there was any doubt about the importance of fans in aiding home advantage, that scepticism should now have subsided. Although the sample size is small, the results so far seem convincing, with unprecedented levels of success for away teams since the return of the Bundesliga.

In the first nine matches after the two-month hiatus, there were five away victories, with only Borussia Dortmund winning at home against a struggling Schalke 04 outfit. By the end of gameweek 27, a pattern seemed to have emerged, with five teams once again picking up wins on the road.

Although yesterday’s midweek games appeared to buck the trend, there were still notable away wins for Bayern Munich in ‘Der Klassiker’, and Wolfsburg against a strong Bayer Leverkusen outfit. By beating Borussia Dortmund, who suffered against their top-of-the-table rivals without their famous Yellow Wall backing them, Bayern Munich now have a seven-point lead at the top of the standings and are set to retain their title once again.

Despite the difficulties that David Wagner’s Schalke are currently facing, a 3-0 loss at home to Augsburg seems almost beyond belief. Freiburg were resolute in a 1-1 away at Leipzig one week but lost at home the next week to relegation battlers Werder Bremen, who finished the game with 10 men. Bayer Leverkusen looked imperious in their 4-1 victory away at Werder Bremen but seemed a completely different side in their own 4-1 defeat at home to Wolfsburg.

In total, there have been 12 away wins in 27 games, which equates to a staggering 44%. Meanwhile, the percentage of home victories is a measly 18.5%. To put this into context, the general percentage for home wins by teams across the world is closer to 50%, while the away team tends to triumph about a quarter of the time.

Although there are many factors that need to be considered, including the nature of the wins and the teams involved in them, such a large swing from the norm should not go unnoticed. On the news, we hear constant talk about getting used to ‘the new normal’ – of matches being played behind closed doors. It seems a new normal is coming to the fore in an era of football without fans: the loss of home advantage.

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