In the end Portugal did to France at Euro 2016 what Greece had done to Portugal at Euro 2004: they scraped a 1-0 win against the home favourites in the final. France played like a team who believed the hard work had already been done in getting there. That’s what made them vulnerable to an upset, especially against a side like Portugal, who had a recent folk memory of getting stung in their own backyard. It means that no host nation has won the European championships since France in 1984, just as no host nation has won the World Cup since France in 1998. Home advantage isn’t what it used to be.
It was an odd day for home favouritism. Murray won Wimbledon and Hamilton won at Silverstone, yet these are sports for which there is little evidence that being at home gives any advantage. Grand slam tennis tournaments are rarely won by local players, and anyway Murray is a Scot performing in London, which must be a curious experience these days. Likewise, Formula One doesn’t confer any advantages to drivers racing in their home nation’s grand prix. Though some records stand out – Senna’s success in Brazil, Schumacher’s in Germany, Mansell’s in the UK – the overall stats shows that since 2003, drivers have finished on average 0.44 places lower in their home grand prix than elsewhere. Home advantage does not really apply in individual sports, where having the support of the crowd can be a handicap. It is a team phenomenon. Yet on Sunday night it was the home team that suffered.
The semi-final was a different story. There France got all the advantages of being at home. Against a team that dominated possession and created more chances, France took theirs, while the Germans seemed strangely hesitant in front of goal. Martin Keown said in his commentary that the sheer volume of a passionate crowd meant France were playing with an extra man, which is what is often taken to explain home advantage. But studies have shown that it is not the size or sound of the crowd that makes a difference: small crowds and empty stadiums give just as big an advantage over away teams.
Where the atmosphere can have an influence is on the officials, who may instinctively favour the home team, for fear of having fifty thousand people on their backs. The penalty given for handball against the German captain Bastian Schweinsteiger, which swung the game France’s way, was exactly the sort of marginal decision that might not have been taken at the other end. Once they fell behind, the Germans seemed to lose confidence, whereas France began to believe in their destiny. That’s what being at home can do: it doesn’t make you play better, but it makes you believe that things will eventually break your way. Which really helps, until they don’t.
Overall, it hasn’t been an especially memorable tournament, though it had its moments. I suspect for many people the enduring memory will be of Cristiano Ronaldo, stretchered off in tears and then weeping again at the end for joy. Rarely can a player have done so little on the pitch and so much on the sidelines.
My lasting memory, however, will be of England’s game against Iceland, and the growing look of bafflement and terror that stole across the faces of the England team. Here I think the crowd did make a difference. Other fans have tried to copy Iceland’s ‘Viking thunderclap’ – the crescendo of claps and chants culminating in a booming ‘Huh!’ – but no one could match the original. It was genuinely scary. Certainly it seemed to scare the England players, who looked like they were playing a long way from home. Harry Kane in particular wore the stricken look of an extra in the TV series Vikings, who finds himself in a battle he knows is going to end very badly. Something about the occasion seemed to stir a deep Anglo-Saxon blood fear inside him. Folk memories can go back a long way.