Die-hard football fans are convinced their singing, screaming, and cheers can lift their team to victory – and they may be right, at least in South America, where home clubs are winning less with stadiums emptied by the pandemic.
AFP analysed clubs' results across three first-division seasons in three of the most football-mad countries on Earth – Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay – and found their home performance declined when fans were barred from stadiums because of Covid-19.
In Brazil, a country that lives and breathes football, clubs won 202 times at home in 2018, with 110 draws and 68 losses. In 2019, they won 184 matches, with 98 draws and 98 losses.
In 2020, playing to empty stands in a season unlike any other, they won notably less: 171 times, with 108 draws and 101 losses.
Take Flamengo, who just won their second straight league title -- but not by dominating at home.
The "Rubro-Negro" play in the high temple of Brazilian football, Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium, where they won 32 points out of a possible 57 last season -- a ratio of 56 percent.
That was down from 77 percent in 2018 and 93 percent in 2019.
Coincidence? Edwin Herazo, the head of the Human Behavior Research Institute in Colombia, suspects not.
"It's likely that the absence of the psychological support or emotional reward of playing before an audience affects the motivational component of performance," he said.
In Argentina, where stands are often packed to crushing point with fans exuding raw, deafening passion, iconic stadiums such as Boca Juniors' Bombonera also seem to have lost some of their galvanizing power without fans.
In 2018, Superliga clubs won 44.4 percent of their home matches. In 2019, the figure was 43.4 percent.
In 2020, it was 42.4 percent.
In Uruguay, where entire families often flock to the stadium together to cheer at the top of their lungs for Penarol or Nacional, clubs won 44.8 percent of their home matches during the regular season in 2019. In 2018, they won 39.9 percent of them.
This season, the figure has fallen to 36.2 percent.
- Crowd pleasers -
Ex-Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Colombian national team forward Adolfo Valencia said he used to get a visceral charge of energy every time he took the pitch in a stadium throbbing with cheers.
"I was one of those players who loved that. The bigger the crowd, the better I played," he said.
"But there are some players who get scared when they see a packed stadium. The pressure, the roar of the crowd. All that has an impact. A big one."
Gustavo Andrada Bandeira, author of a book on Brazil's "torcedores" (fans), agrees.
"The home team is immediately motivated, and their adversaries are immediately attacked (when they take the pitch)," he said.
"All football fans are absolutely certain they influence the result of the match.... Now, they can say they are right. They are the only ones capable of transforming a random architectural space into a given team's home. The statistics confirm it."
Various leagues have tried to fill the void of empty stands with recordings of fans' chants and cheers, large flags draped across the empty seats, and even cardboard cutouts of supporters.
The efforts have largely fallen flat.
Everton and Brazilian national team forward Richarlison said that while playing to empty stands had no effect "in tactical and technical terms", it may "make the visitors feel more at ease, because they won't face that pressure from the fans".
In England, where he plays, the trend looks similar to the South American one.
At this point in the season, 26 matches in, clubs had won 89 matches away from home in 2018 and 83 in 2019.
For the 2020-21 season, the figure is 101.
Leeds coach Marcelo Bielsa of Argentina summed up the difference.
"It would be an injustice to the fans not to appreciate what they represent to every single club," he said.
by Rodrigo Almonacid, AFP