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Psychologists Uncover It's the Referees, Not the Players, Who Might Secure Soccer World Cup Victory

16/06/2014 17:02 BST | Updated 16/08/2014 10:59 BST

The referee's award, in the opening match, of a controversial penalty to host nation Brazil, can be explained by psychology. The same psychological processes could also determine the outcome of the tournament, new research reveals.

With just 20 minutes left, and the match apparently drawn, Japan's Yuichi Nishimura made a pivotal refereeing decision that seems to have delivered victory to Brazil.

Conspiracy theories speculate referees are burdened with wider political and social repercussions if Brazil doesn't do well. Widespread rioting has been forecast given tensions seething beneath the surface of this split society. If the host nation does progress in the tournament, this could provide a unifying influence Brazilian authorities desperately want.

Psychological research demonstrates crowd influence, or noise, could contribute to the famous 'home advantage' in sports, by influencing referees' decision making.

It was always believed that Brazil would benefit from a 'Home Advantage' in the tournament, but now psychology suggests that one key way this could play out, might be via referee decisions.

One of the most recent scientific investigations of referees being influenced by crowds is a study entitled, Improved training of football referees and the decline in home advantage post-World War 2, uncovering evidence that referee training appears crucial in resisting crowd influence.

The study, recently published in the journal, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, found a new decline in 'Home Advantage' in a number of professional soccer leagues in the UK, since World War 2. The authors of the study, Alan Nevill, Tom Webb and Adam Watts, uncovered the sharpest decline in Home Advantage was observed in matches attended by smaller crowds.

The steepest rate of lessening in soccer 'Home Advantage' over the last few decades was observed in Division 2, followed by Division 1, with similar but less dramatic rates of decline in the Championship and Scottish Premier League. The English Premier League revealed the shallowest pace of change.

Given that average crowd sizes in Division 2 would be smaller than in Division 1, followed by the Championship and the Scottish Premier League, with more spectators for the English Premier League, smaller crowds attending matches in the lower divisions, appear to have less influence on the referees' decision to favour the home side. Moreover the impact of this audience pressure has gone down further over recent years.

There are contrasting rates of decline of 'home advantage' in different soccer leagues. Referees' training improves decision-making, leading to more objective decisions and being less influenced by smaller home crowds.

This finding has particularly ominous implications for all the other teams facing Brazil in the World Cup. Croatia contended with the host nation in a stadium boasting approaching 70,000 spectator capacity, and the final is due to be staged in one of the largest football arenas in the world.

Of the factors thought to influence 'Home Advantage', the authors, from the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Portsmouth, argue larger crowds have greater impact on referees' decisions to favour the home side.

However, the authors also argue that improved training of referees since World War 2 has contributed to an improved ability to make objective decisions, and a greater resilience to crowd influence, which explains the decline in 'Home Advantage' over recent decades, but also accounts for the steeper decline observed with smaller crowds.

But the authors conclude that the continued existence of 'Home Advantage', and the less steep decline observed in top leagues, suggests that referees' judgements are still not immune to the influence of larger crowds.

Sports Scientist Professor Alan Nevill from the University of Wolverhampton, commented that his recent research suggests: "...referees in the UK appear to have benefited from an improved level of training (as described in my article) that has resulted in a reduced level of home advantage, but referees for other nationalities may not have benefited from this same intense level of training, which might result in decisions like the penalty decision given against Croatia.'

Aggrieved Croatian fans will agree.

So opponents of Brazil should be aware that psychological research has uncovered a crucial mechanism by which 'Home Advantage' is going to play itself out, and the opening match against Croatia could be an ominous indicator of how the rest of the tournament is going to be decided.

It is tempting to ask what Sir Alex Ferguson would have done. Perhaps that master of football psychology would have announced his suspicions of referees being unduly influenced by home crowds, to put a kind of 'balancing', or opposite pressure on officials. That might have been a way of helping his side.

Another recent study might just have scientifically confirmed this possible 'Ferguson Factor', entitled, 'Bayesian networks for unbiased assessment of referee bias in Association Football'.

The term 'Bayesian networks', refers to a particular statistical technique deployed in this research, which mathematically analysed referee bias with respect to fouls and penalty kicks awarded during the 2011-12 English Premier League season.

The authors of the study, Anthony Constantinou, Norman Fenton and Liam Pollock found fairly strong referee bias, based on penalty kicks awarded, in favour of certain teams when playing at home.

Specifically, the two teams (Manchester City and Manchester United) who finished first and second in the league, appear to have benefited from bias that cannot be explained by other factors. For example a team may be awarded more penalties simply because it's more attacking, not just because referees are biased in its favour.

The authors from Queen Mary College, University of London, argue that if the home team is more in control of the ball, then, compared to opponents, it's bound to be awarded more penalties, with less yellow and red cards, compared to opponents. Greater possession leads any team being on the receiving end of more tackles. A higher proportion of these tackles are bound to be committed nearer to the opponent's goal, as greater possession also usually results in territorial advantage.

However, this study, published in the academic journal 'Psychology of Sport and Exercise', found, even allowing for these other possible factors, Manchester United with 9 penalties awarded during that season, was ranked 1st in positive referee bias, while Manchester City with 8 penalties awarded is ranked 2nd. In other words it looks like certain teams (most specifically Manchester United) benefited from referee bias in their favour during Home games, which cannot be explained by any other possible element of 'Home Advantage'.

What makes this result particularly interesting, the authors argue, is that for most of the season, these were the only two teams fighting for the English Premiere League title. Were referees influenced by this, and it impacted on their decision-making?

Conversely the study found Arsenal, a team of similar popularity and wealth, and who finished third, benefited least of all 20 teams from referee bias at home, with respect to penalty kicks awarded. With the second largest average attendance as well as the second largest average crowd density, Arsenal were still ranked last in terms of referee bias favouring them for penalties awarded.

In other words, Arsenal didn't seem to benefit much at all from the kind of referee bias that other teams were gaining from 'Home Advantage'. Psychologists might argue that temperament-wise, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger appear at opposite poles of the spectrum.

Could England, the home of football, be the home of the 'Ferguson Effect', and use it to their advantage? Could the English management team deploy the same kind of psychological manipulation? Might publicised critiques of refereeing, from their manager, assist in helping a team going up against the home nation?

It may be that, after England's recent tournament performance, mind games are all we have left.