The advantage of playing at home is a major aspect of football. The familiar changing rooms, the size of the pitch and, of course, the atmosphere created by the home fans make home and away games completely different. Moreover, the fact that in two-legged knockout competitions, such as the Champions League, away goals count for more than home goals reinforces the difference between home and away matches.
One would think, therefore, that being the host nation of the World Cup would be the ultimate home advantage. The host nation are the only team that have the opportunity to play in their regular stadium, and are the most likely to have players in their squad who have played club football in the stadiums chosen for the tournament.
So how does being the host nation affect performance at the World Cup?
There have been twenty World Cups in total, and the host nation has won the tournament on six occasions. This includes Uruguay’s triumph in the first ever World Cup in 1930, as well as Italy’s victory in the second ever World Cup in 1934, and of course England’s solitary 1966 triumph. 52 years of hurt…
There have also been two tournaments in which the host nation has finished runner-up, and four occasions in which the hosts have reached the semi-finals. Meanwhile, South Africa are the only host nation to be knocked out in the first round of the competition, as they finished 3rd in the group stage in the 2010 World Cup.
Historically, the hosts have therefore often performed well at the World Cup, suggesting that the home advantage has made an impact, as more than half of the host nations have reached at least the semi-finals. However, it does appear that the impact of the home advantage has declined over time, as four of the first six World Cups saw the hosts reach the final, whilst in the most recent six tournaments, France’s 1998 triumph was the only time that a host has reached the final. Of course, the fact that three of the last six tournaments were held in the USA, Japan and South Africa is significant and should be factored in, as these countries are not considered heavy-weights of international football, and so a successful tournament would not necessarily mean reaching the final. Meanwhile, the other two most recent nations to host the World Cup, Germany and Brazil, whose teams are both considered international heavy-weights, both reached the semi-finals and lost to the eventual champions of the tournament.
So what can we expect from Russia in 2018?
The Russian national team has had little success in recent years. The side failed to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 tournaments, and were knocked out in the group stage in 2014, failing to win a match. In the Euros, Russia impressively reached the semi-finals in 2008—however, they then failed to progress from the group stage in 2012 and 2016. The national side is also going through a period of transition, with experienced players such as Roman Shirokov now retired, whilst the Berezutski twins have retired from international football. The likes of Yuri Zhirkov and Sergei Ignashevich remain, but they are two of only nine players that are part of Russia’s preliminary 28-man World Cup squad who were also part of the Euro 2016 squad. Furthermore, Russia also sit at only 65th in the current FIFA rankings. Russia’s prospects for the 2018 World Cup are therefore unimpressive.
There is an unpredictability factor to the Russian squad which boasts many new players. As such, the home advantage may well make a difference and bolster Russia’s chances, given the success that it has spelt for former host nations, and propel them to a more prosperous performance.